Tajja Isen Is Wary of the ‘Personal Essay Economy’

Here’s what you need to know: Tajja Isen’s lore runs deep. As coworkers at a now defunct digital magazine (RIP Catapult), I found myself constantly awed by her editorial vision and subtle humor, but it was her Wikipedia that really began to reveal the depth of her main character-ness. But even that hardly manages to scratch the surface. In her debut essay collection, Some of My Best Friends, Tajja Isen invites us into the complexities and contradictions of that expansive personal history.

Weaving together cultural criticism with personal narrative, she examines the limitations of progressivism, shifting between registers both humorous and heartbreaking. I spoke with Isen about the evolution of the personal essay economy, the horrors of writing about a politicized body, and rejecting representation as our ultimate end goal.


Leah Johnson: You talk a lot about the evolution and expectations of the personal essay form. I think you use the phrase, “It feels like pressing on a bruise too hard.” How did you decide how much pressing on a bruise you wanted to do and how much you wanted to keep to yourself?

Tajja Isen: Interestingly, I filed my first draft to my editors, and they were like, “Great. This is sharp, this is smart. But where are you in this book?” And I think I had pitched it much more as a personal critical essay collection, and then I sent them a critical essay collection. So a lot of the work of revision was figuring out what I was comfortable with and where I saw myself sitting into this book. And I feel like I was trying to develop a new vocabulary for talking about myself and my experiences. Because I do think a lot of what I see writers push to do in the personal essay economy, especially racialized writers, as I talk about in the book, does feel too bruise-like. And I didn’t want to feel trapped by any of those familiar scripts.

I know that no matter what I do, no matter how much I withhold or how carefully I fashion the version of myself that I want to appear on a page, somebody’s going to read this book and say, “Tajja Isen writes about how hard it is to be Black.” I don’t have to do anything. I just put the book out and somebody’s going to say that. And somebody has indeed already said that.

And so, it’s almost like in crafting the version of myself that would appear on the page, who I do think of very much as a character, as a fashioned self. I was probably running against that. And not wanting to say anything that could possibly be construed as lending weight to that hypothesis. Which sounds like I was way up in my head and not having a good time, which wasn’t the case. I had a great time writing this book. I made myself laugh. Anytime I could do that, I was like, “All right, the writing is going well.”

LJ: In one of your essays, you talk about the horror of writing about a politicized body. Can you walk me through overcoming that or powering through that in your years since becoming a personal essayist?

TI: I knew that the ongoing refusal to allow any personal traces of myself in the work was unsustainable. So, to see the xoJane model of personal writing was like, “Oh, what if I try that? Then it’ll feel authentic and more like me.” And at first it was so beguiling. It felt like, “Okay, I can do this. It’s not that hard for me to do this. Editors like it if I do this.” And then I took it too far. Then I was reading back some of the published pieces, and I was like, “Well, this is just an inverted problem. This does not feel true. This does not feel authentic. This does not feel fair to me either.” Like, I just replaced one set of very expected and acceptable and conventionally agreed upon set of poses with another.

So, I walked it back. And sometimes I feel like it’s an ongoing negotiation. Like I always have to check in with myself to see what I’m comfortable sharing, regardless of the form. I feel like I often have to ask myself: How am I coming across? And is this what I want to be putting out there?

LJ: The book opens with an essay about animation’s sort of messy push in the past few years to hire actors that reflect the race of the characters they’re playing as a way of course correcting. It often feels this way in publishing too, this sort of performative attempt to “get things right” to the exclusion of everything else. How are you navigating both of these fields in terms of your creative practice? Is this handwringing about getting things right all the time changing your approach to writing or to acting?

TI: I think in both cases, my response is to just clock it, roll my eyes, and move on. I can’t let it influence the work. Certainly in voice acting it’s easier to separate myself off from it because the process is so siloed. No matter what, handwringing conversations are going on as part of the media cycle, but at the end of the day, it’s just me and the mic and the booth. So, I can roll my eyes at the character description or whatever, but it’s easier, I guess, to just treat it as a job. I don’t have the same stake in it as I do with my own work and with my own writing.

With writing, it is harder to tune out the noise. Even as I was writing the book, the conversations around a lot of these subjects are changing so rapidly. And I was like, is this even something that people are going to want nuanced longform opinions on? Or has the subject of representation of the personal essay economy just gotten to a point where people just want to hear, “Yes, diversity good.” But at the same time, I can’t let it. I keep abreast of it. It’s important because it’s part of our jobs as editors. And I also don’t want the writers I work with to embarrass themselves. That means asking them, “Do you really want to say that? Have you thought about the way this might be construed, and how that’s contrary to what I’m reading your intentions to be?”

LJ: I think sometimes it comes down to this doesn’t just exist on the page, this also has to live in the world. And so, it’s a matter of, how do I want my work to exist in the world and how do I want to exist alongside it?

TI: That’s why I was so nervous for the Time piece to come out, because I feel like it does present the book in a certain way to have the first piece of it appear under a headline like “America Doesn’t Know How to Read the Work of Black Writers.” It was like, “Okay, here we go.”

LJ: I thought that was really interesting, especially after I read it. I was like, “Well, I don’t even know how well that title characterizes what it is Tajja’s trying to accomplish here.” But it’s good for clicks—at the end of the day, we need the clicks.

Of course, an early, early, early version of that essay appeared in Electric Lit in 2017 as “Tiny White People.” And I wonder how have you seen the conversation around literary representation changed since you wrote the original version of that essay to now that you’re putting this version of it out?

TI: When I published the original version of that piece in 2017, it was in the midst of an explosion of pieces that were making a similar argument. And I think at the time, we hadn’t seen that argument in a lot of places, so it seemed very fresh. It was really thrilling to be a part of that sea change and feel like, “Oh, I’m a part of wave of writers and thinkers happening on the internet.” At its best, that’s what the personal essay economy does. But I don’t think that argument is especially original anymore.

I do think we have collectively moved past the idea that representation as an uncritical good and that it should be the political end goal. And so, one of my big worries was putting the excerpt out as the book’s first foot forward. I didn’t want it to be perceived as stopping exactly where the first one did. Because I think that argument by now is the kind of problem that makes white people very comfortable. It’s like, “Oh, yes, of course representation is important because…” Or “Of course people need to see themselves.” And that’s not enough. My thinking has changed, and I wanted the essay to reflect those shifts, both personal and cultural, and not seem like it’s in any way stuck in five years ago. It’s hard.

Also, in the original version of “Tiny White People,” I think I was very hard on my younger self, more so than I needed to be. And that did paint the issue as more binary than it actually is, which is like white male canon bad, representation good. And that’s the argument I’m referring to when I say that it has turned into something that’s very comfortable for white people. It’s easy to hit retweet on that take without reading the piece piece even, and without considering the ways in which representation can also be a form of lip service, can also point to the progress where real progress has not been made.

LJ: I’ve been thinking a lot about when The Slap happened at the Oscars, there was the initial shock, and then immediately later, the next beat was, “Oh man, we’re going to get think-pieced out this week. They’re going to think-piece us straight to hell.” And I was just like, “Wow. Oh, we are in a rut. We are really stuck somewhere.” I wonder, for you, if it seems like we’re all writing about the same things all the time then is there a such thing as too much?

TI: I think we have reached a saturation point. When I saw that move happening on Twitter, I was like, “This is the darkest timeline. There’s no way out of this.” I think originality of argument and just being able to articulate what’s distinctive about one’s own contribution is a very neglected part of pitching and writing. I think that’s because of the way publishing works. It’s like comp titles. We know what worked before and that’ll work again. And I think to a certain extent, if you’re a writer trying to make your living in that economy, no judgment from me if you want to just get your money and do the thing that worked before, because people want to pay big coins for that. But do I think that has an adverse effect for what writers feel able and free and comfortable to do and express? Absolutely.

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