Living Writers Series: Jia Tolentino

the renowned writer explains the crossroads between social media and english arts

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Alex Caban-Echevarria meets Tolentino as she signs her copy of Trick Mirror || Photo by Isabella Caban-Echevarria ‘23

Jia Tolentino was the last Living Writer to visit campus as part of the English department’s Living Writers Series of 2022. This opportunity is only available once every few years, so this is the first and last time current graduating seniors can take it. Dawn Lonsinger, associate professor of English, Linda Miller, associate professor of English and the director of creative writing, and Gabriel Dean, visiting assistant professor of theatre team-taught this course to various sections of students in the fall of 2022.

Tolentino spoke to students at an informal lunch, answered their questions in class, and read from her book of essays, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusions, on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. Jia Tolentino is a staff writer at the New Yorker, writing about technology and social media as a millennial. Her book, Trick Mirror, was published in 2019 and debuted on The New York Times Bestseller List at number two in the Combined Print & E-Book Non-Fiction. Tolentino grew up in Texas and reflects on her religious upbringing in her work. 

“To respect and love a person or place is to question them.”

-Jia Tolentino

The essay “Reality TV Me” examines Tolentino’s time on a reality television show at sixteen years old. She spent four weeks in Puerto Rico filming and writes about her experience rewatching the show for the first time a decade later. While investigating the sexual assault history at her alma mater, the University of Virginia, optimization culture today, and the institution of marriage, Tolentino crafts Trick Mirror into a collection of voices, stories and research. The specific techniques Tolentino employs are a first-person voice as well as carefully constructed juxtapositions, techniques taught to students in a talk by Linda Miller in class the week before her visit.

At the lunch with some of the students on Dec. 5, Tolentino spoke about her experience being an expert on social media. She said she does not like to be a “talking head” on television and only agreed to be in the documentary mentioned in her essay “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams” because of her particular interest in FyreFest and its connection to influencer culture today. She does not enjoy being an authority on social media but will come to talks at schools like Muhlenberg to engage with students who are curious about her work and having a writing career.

Tolentino said, “To respect and love a person or place is to question them,” which left a lasting impact on Ava Duskic ‘23. Tolentino investigates the University of Virginia and its history of sexual assault in the essay “We Come from Old Virginia.” This statement was made regarding how she came to do research, about a place she lived and studied in, for this essay. Duskic says that “Tolentino said that the research was her favorite part because it gave her a reason to learn and how it was a pleasure and gift to learn and interact with other people’s work. As a student who has to write so many essays for various classes a couple of times a month, it is easy to forget that essays start with learning and can be an interesting and passionate way to dispense that knowledge earned to the public.” When thinking about herself as an English and neuroscience major, “I feel like her talk gave me a renewed sense of vigor for the art form that is essay writing and reminded me why I loved doing it in the first place.”

At the reading, Tolentino shared the essay “Ecstasy” with the audience because it was the most personal piece and thus the one that has aged the best. Duskic sees this personal side of Trick Mirror: “I don’t think Tolentino would agree with me, but the way she weaved her own experiences with her informed opinions and her researched scholarly work read like an interesting crafted memoir.” 

Today, Tolentino shared that she is working on pieces about social justice and the legalization of marijuana. As a recent mom and wife, she is focusing on this part of adulthood, while her time spent thinking and writing about the Internet is behind her. She says that “no one wants to listen to a 35-year-old talk about the Internet,” so she will let us (the new generation of writers) take the baton from her.

Alex Caban-Echevarria ’23 is double majoring in media & communication and English. She is the Assistant Editor of the Allentown Voice, a non-profit student journalism lab and a Pro Publica Emerging Reporter for the 2022-2023 academic year.

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