Tajja Isen wasn’t working on just another assignment for an undergrad writing workshop. This short story, which she was calling “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” after the 1967 movie of the same name, would be the first time she would attempt tackling politics in the world of fiction.
The story, as she details in her new book Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service, begins in a usual way: with a white couple. Laura and Greg are on their way to meet Laura’s long-lost cousin, David, who they just learned about after the death of her father. At dinner, they learn David’s wife Delilah and their kids are Black — “which can be very traumatic for tiny white people if they aren’t ready for it,” Isen writes.
At the dinner, Laura “mistak[es] the wife for the help; go[es] gaga over how beautiful the kids are; compar[es] their skin to various foodstuffs.”
Meanwhile, Delilah continues to be the literary punching bag off which the plot and punchlines thrive.
“Delilah was a lightning rod for everything I thought a white reader expected to see in my work — racism, Blackness, a sly knowingness about it all. Airing these things on the page, I figured… I could collect and control my readers’ responses to racial dynamics, freeing up their minds, to appreciate my fancy turns of phrase,” Isen writes.
“I’d only seen race talked about in a handful of ways, if at all,” she continues. “Race was a bit player, a walk-on, a punchline.
“Delilah deserved better, and the version of me that wrote her as an object was clearly working through a lot.”
Writing isn’t the only area into which Isen has unique insight. In Some of My Best Friends, the Catapult magazine editor-in-chief zeroes in on the lip service paid to messages of diversity in many industries — even as on-the-ground inequality stubbornly persists in the workplace and public. Together, the book’s nine essays add up to a sardonic, hilarious and indicting call-in of how words mean nothing without action, and lacklustre attempts at addressing racism are sometimes more harmful than helpful.
Take the entertainment industry. When Isen — a voice actor who played iconic characters like Sister of The Berenstain Bears and Jane of Jane and the Dragon — went to on-camera auditions, casting directors expected her to be “fluent in white fantasies of Black people,” she writes. On top of that, they expected she be “game to act out those fantasies for money.” As if on cue, casters asked her to do that again, but “a little more street.”
“They never modelled or explained what they meant by it because, while that would have been helpful, it also would have been a human rights violation,” she writes.
After a slew of white actors playing racialized characters quit their roles or expressed remorse for them — including in hit shows like Big Mouth’s Jenny Slate, BoJack Horseman’s Alison Brie and Family Guy’s Mike Henry — it’s worth visiting Isen’s analysis of race and animation before settling on the idea that replacing a white actor with a Black one will fix the problem.
Isen’s forte in Some of My Best Friends is taking these first-hand experiences and following them with sharp, clear-eyed, often funny analysis. Her writing makes you take stock — almost with a breath of relief — of not just the harm of racism, but its awkwardness, its absurdity, its ludicrousness.
Some of My Best Friends will also shake off any residual neoliberal fantasies readers have about how woke Hollywood treats its actors; how publishing edits its post-summer 2020 slew of Black writers; and how the law in 2022 views and shapes society, to name just a few examples.
The Tyee spoke with Isen about Some of My Best Friends. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Tyee: I was reading “Hearing Voices,” one of my favourite essays in the book, and I was asking myself, “Am I laughing at the Big Mouth references? Am I laughing at how badly race is represented in media? Or am I laughing at the absurdity of the positions we as people of colour in media find ourselves in?” Do you find using humour in the way that you use it for writing is also helpful for navigating your experience as a racialized person in media?
Tajja Isen: Humour is such an incredible tool of critique. It’s the way that I move through the world. A tool that I use to cope. But I think, on the page, I really did want it to operate on those various levels — on the line of joy, of the pop culture references, in the inherent absurdity of situations. I think that in both the book and in my life, it is one of my primary tools for accessing the truth. Either what is weird about it, or what is authentic about it, or what is essential about it. As Sheila Heti puts it in How Should a Person Be?, “finding the funny.”
The way you write about the short story you wrote, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” sits heavily with me. What do you make of the fact that you wrote Delilah flatly, and how can writers notice when they're writing a character in the way that they think that they should be in order to suit the white gaze?
I was working through a lot of questions about who I wanted to be as an artist, and the kind of work that I felt was expected from me. I do think most of that expectation at that time was in my head. Of course people didn't look at me and think, “Okay, this is exactly the kind of story that I expect from you.” I think I was preemptively trying to correct a belief that was bigger in my head than it was in the real world. And that's an impulse I'm always trying to work against as a writer.
I think very self-reflectively about the way a given piece will be received based on who I am and how I present and the subjects that I write about. Is that something I counsel for other writers? Not really. Ideally, where you want to get to is a place where everyone else's voice is out of your head. The “Tiny White Man’s” voice included. [Where] you are creating work that feels authentic to you. That's something I struggle against all the time.
In the essay “This Time It’s Personal,” you discuss the cultural shift around the personal essay. Can you explain the shift from the era when white women owned the personal essay to now?
When the form peaked in 2015 to 2017, before the [Jia] Tolentino piece, white women were disproportionately represented in the form. That was very much built into the conversation, like the Soraya Roberts piece, “The Personal Essay Isn’t Dead. It’s Just No Longer White.” Writers were mapping the sea change where all of a sudden you could see more diversity in the form.
But what that led to was the split between the white female-dominated confessional essay where they could write about whatever they want — which often involves shocking, fun, bad behaviour — and what racialized writers were often expected to write. We come back to the question of expectation: disproportionately stories of trauma and suffering.
In the wake of the Tolentino piece, the people claiming that essay as sexist dog whistling were white women. Because the critique was not, “we don't read personal essays anymore.” It was, you know, “Trump has been elected, maybe your personal was no longer personal enough.” This personal is no longer political enough to cut it in the current moment. They took it very personally. But all of that to me is peripheral to a certain moment.
Do you think that Black, Indigenous and racialized writers who have a particular talent or love for the personal essay would approach the personal essay differently if we didn’t feel like we were trying to convince our audience of something around the political moment?
I think writers know that they can and should write about whatever they want. Where the breakdown can happen is how those essays get thought out, assigned and edited. That's where we see toxic patterns coming into play: when there are horrible incidents, like racist violence, and then an all-white newsroom looks across their desks at each other, like, “Oh, my God, where are the Black writers? We better find one.” And then we get them to write about the thing that just happened. That's where the sort of exhausting cycle happens.
I still have a J-school brain and feel the pressures of an environment where peers of mine are desperate for bylines, kind of trying to grab for whatever bylines they can get. It’s the influence and a consequence of exactly what you're saying: the implicit expectation from newsrooms and what we know will be desired.
I totally agree with you. It is sort of baked in. Writers have a canny enough sense of how that mechanic works. Sometimes I do get pitches in my inbox where I wonder, is this the story that you want to tell here? Or is this the story you think people want to hear? The former is always more interesting to me than the latter. It took me a while of doing that myself before I was like, hold up, this is not the kind of writer I want to be. This is not the story I want to be telling.
In “What We Want and When We Want It,” you make an enticing critique of open letter and demands culture, in that it’s highly visible and disruptive, but also finite in what it can achieve: “To demand better means better is something an institution is capable of, or deserves our help in becoming.” What do you make of working within the system?
It’s a really big priority of mine when I enter a new space to get somebody else in there with me. I'm creating opportunities for other people who have been systematically shut out. It's a very different project for me from improving the system or the workplace that I happen to be in at the time, because I feel like that is not a fair burden to put on an individual — it leads so easily to tokenization and burnout. We saw this with a lot of the last-minute ad-hoc Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committees that were formed in so many workplaces in the wake of the summer 2020’s uprising. That's not infrastructure, that's lip service.
I'm very fortunate right now to be working at a place where that's actively part of their mission, to demystify the publishing industry and create and offer resources for writers at every stage of their careers. I wouldn't have a career if people hadn't done that for me, if people hadn't been thinking in that way and extended me those opportunities. So I think it's really important to pay that work forward.
But do I think it's my job to fix the corporation? Absolutely not.
In the essay “Barely Legal,” you detail why you chose to study law. “I wanted order, in my life as in the court. Most of all, though, I wanted to know how to turn word into action.” Does your craving for order contradict your chosen career path, given your work in voice acting, fiction and journalism? How do you feel about that contradiction?
I was really scared to admit to myself how much I wanted to try and pursue a creative life. I tried to keep it as a side thing for as long as I could. I was like, I'm going to do the practical thing. I'm going to go to law school. That work is sufficiently [similar to] writing and is narrative-oriented. And I will do my creative writing on the side and that will be enough. That position was not tenable for me. By the time I got to the end of law school and felt broken down, the thought finally came to me: maybe now is the time to contemplate what an alternative would look like. I deferred the question for as long as I could. Then I graduated and I tried the thing, and then I got incredibly fucking lucky.
What’s your favorite essay in the book? Which was the hardest one to write?
I am extremely partial to “Dead or Canadian.” I think it was the most fun to write and allowed me to explore ideas that I have been marinating on for literally my whole life. I enjoyed writing at that scale: the most wide-angle take on lip service — nationalism as a service. I just got to be funny and silly. It felt freeing to be able to articulate them.
“Some of My Best Friends” was the hardest. Because of the precise problem that I diagnosed in the essay, which is that white femininity [was] invisible and inarticulable for so long. Trying to write 1,000 words about it sometimes feels like trying to grasp a smoke. It felt like I was building my examples to articulate a theory that I had never seen articulated in quite the way that was satisfactory to me before.