Jia Tolentino is an American essayist, editor and staff writer at the New Yorker. She was born in Toronto and studied for an MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. Her book of essays, entitled Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, was published last year to critical acclaim, won the Whiting award for nonfiction and is published by 4th Estate in paperback this month.
1. TV series
It’s this sweet and melancholy dramedy about an Egyptian Muslim family. It’s about faith, loyalty, failure and self-deception. It feels so intimate and questions what happens when things are forbidden and whether they should be forbidden in the first place. I was a big fan of the first season, but what I really like about the second season is how each episode focuses on a member of Ramy’s family or someone in his orbit. This season has Mahershala Ali as his sheikh. He’s so charismatic. There’s almost this weird love story between him and Ramy – a sort of father-son thing.
This is my cultural place of the summer. I’ve been going there every day for several years, but it’s become a real centrepiece of my life in lockdown. I went to a rally and a march on Fourth of July, honouring black and indigenous activists. It’s been full of protests. It’s a gathering place. It’s a very musical neighbourhood. There’s been music throughout the streets since the protests began. This summer in New York has been kind of anarchic but normally Fort Greene is full of public events. My favourite is the Soul Summit, which is a huge techno dance party.
To me, this is the album of the revolution. I’m a longtime fan of these two rappers, El-P and Killer Mike. They have great chemistry. They’re funny and smart. Their social consciousness is always right there in the music, but there’s something about this album! Usually, they’re quite playful and hyperbolic, but this is no nonsense. No fucking around. Everything is very tight. It feels like two veterans who hit their stride. It feels almost surgical. Technically, I think they’ve never been more on point. They’re still witty, full of wordplay, illusion and politics but there’s something about this album that just feels straight down to business.
4. Book: nonfiction
The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America by Naomi Murakawa
There’s so much debate going on about abolition v prison reform. There are a lot of books about abolition, but this one is especially helpful because it shows how American liberals have helped to build the carceral state. In the civil rights era, for example, American liberals thought about racism as this emotional existential oppression rather than straightforward injustice. There’s a certain way that racism is framed as an emotional wrong that I think is pretty dangerous. Racism isn’t about hurting black children’s feelings, it’s that it’s unjust. I’m sceptical about books about racism that are about how you should feel and act. To me, you should just read about history.
5. Book: fiction
This novel is set in contemporary India. Someone sets a train on fire and kills 100 people. A young woman is arrested and falsely charged with this terrorist attack. The book circles among three perspectives: hers, a gym teacher who gets swallowed up by a rising rightwing party, and an aspiring actress who is a hijra (a recognised third gender), who rises to viral stardom. It’s very precise, human and powerful. You can feel these big intersecting currents of history, progress and technology pulling these three characters in, crushing one of them and propelling the others to great heights. It’s a really tight read. I read it in one sitting.
It’s like Us Weekly, but the tagline is “everything you need to know about the celebrities you don’t”. I find celebrity antics inherently meaningless but this podcast’s approach is the only one I connect to as it’s interesting to think about the machine of tabloids. Their unofficial mascot is Rita Ora. They have a segment called “What’s Rita up to”. They have another segment on Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas who are a pandemic couple. They even discuss an Ana de Armas’s fan account which recently has been chastising her for not wearing a mask in public. She ended up blocking them, so the fan account changed their name from Ana de Armas Updates to Ana Defund the Police Armas Updates!