Jia Tolentino: The Wish to Die in Space

Jia Tolentino

Writer Jia Tolentino contemplates whether animals can feel embarrassed for other animals and explores her desire to die in space.

Jia Tolentino is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of the essay collection Trick Mirror. Formerly, she was the deputy editor at Jezebel and a contributing editor at the Hairpin. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine and Pitchfork, among other places. She lives in Brooklyn. Find out more at her website here.

Neil Goldberg is an artist in NYC who makes work that The New York Times has described as “tender, moving and sad but also deeply funny.” His work is in the permanent collection of MoMA and other museums, he’s a Guggenheim Fellow, and teaches at the Yale School of Art. More information at neilgoldberg.com.

SHE’S A TALKER was the name of Neil’s first video project. “One night in the early 90s I was combing my roommate’s cat and found myself saying the words ‘She’s a talker.’ I wondered how many other other gay men in NYC might be doing the exact same thing at that very moment. With that, I set out on a project in which I videotaped over 80 gay men in their living room all over NYC, combing their cats and saying ‘She’s a talker.’” A similar spirit of NYC-centric curiosity and absurdity animates the podcast.

This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund.
Producer: Devon Guinn
Creative Consultants: Stella Binion, Aaron Dalton, Molly Donahue
Assistant Producers: Itai Almor, Charlie Theobald
Editor: Andrew Litton
Visuals and Sounds: Joshua Graver
Theme Song: Jeff Hiller
Media: Justine Lee with help from Angela Liao and Alex Qiao
Thanks: Jennifer Callahan, Roger Kingsepp, Tod Lippy, Nick Rymer, Maddy Sinnock, Sue Simon, Shirin Mazdeyasna


JIA TOLENTINO: A question that I’ve been asked a lot is, “So how do you construct your persona?” That question makes me want to die, you know?

NEIL: Oh, of course. How do you construct your persona?

NEIL: Hello, I’m Neil Goldberg and this is my new podcast, SHE’S A TALKER. On today’s episode I’ll be talking to writer and one-of-a-kind thinker, Jia Tolentino. But first I want to tell you a little bit about the podcast itself. I’m a visual artist, but for the last million or so years I’ve been writing passing thoughts down on index cards. I’ve got thousands of them. I originally wrote the cards just for me or maybe to use in future art projects, but now I’m using them as prompts for conversations with some of my favorite artists, writers, performers and beyond.

NEIL: Usually I start off each episode with some cards I’ve written recently, but this time I’m going to do something a little bit different. In our conversation, Jia and I found ourselves talking both about religion and pets. And it reminded me of a card I had written a while back that feels relevant. That card is: “Solution to the problem of religion: everyone should just worship their own pets.”

NEIL: So this would be an alternative to the different options already out there. And we’re already more or less doing this. I’m talking about formalizing it, doubling down, going from adoration to straight up actual worship. Some advantages: pets don’t care if we worship them, and I think that’s a great thing. It’s when a God needs the worship that you start getting into your Old Testament-style wrathful God or jealous God issues. Also, everyone worshiping their own pets gets us over proselytizing. My cat, Beverly, is amazing, as anyone who follows her on Instagram @daily_Beverly knows. I worship her, but I don’t need you to.

NEIL: Finally, worshiping our pets could eliminate most religious-based shame. Your pet doesn’t care who you fuck, which bathroom you use, whether you eat pork, unless of course your pet is a pig. There are no commandments, except I suppose to take care of your pet, to be kind to it. And in this respect, pets are well suited to engender in us one thing that I think is really useful about religion, the various formulations of, “Do unto others,” or, “Love thy neighbor,” et cetera, because pets are creatures we gratuitously love. We freely let them into our homes, feed them, clean up their shit, they pull kindness from us.

NEIL: I realize there are some basic issues here. Principally, not everyone has a pet, some people are allergic, et cetera. I don’t know. This isn’t a religion that claims to have all the answers. Bottom line is, if you do have a pet, you’re already basically worshiping it, lean in, embrace it. Don’t be embarrassed, but also don’t preach. And maybe consider treating everyone you meet as nicely as you do your dog, or cat, or bunny, or what have you.

NEIL: As I write this, I’m remembering the lame cliche that God is dog spelled backwards. And I’m a little embarrassed, but I’m not going to let that stop me. Because Beverly doesn’t care if my thoughts are unoriginal. Okay, and with that I am so excited to have as my guest, New Yorker staff writer, Jia Tolentino. Jia made some time to talk with me in the middle of the tour for her book, ‘Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion’. We spoke on October 11th in a studio at the New School near Union Square in New York City, conveniently close to a costume shop where Jia was going to buy some fake blood after our talk.

NEIL: Jia, I want to start with some questions I ask everybody. So, first one would be, what is your elevator pitch?

JIA: For?

NEIL: Yourself.

JIA: Myself? I mean I usually just say I’m a writer.

NEIL: What kind of writer? I’m in the elevator with you now.

JIA: I write for the New Yorker. Then people are like, “Oh, you look a lot stupider than that.” It’s funny, I used to work for Jezebel, if people had heard of it, they’d be like, “Mm-hmm, okay. All right. Oh, okay, angry feminist. I get it.” Or I would say I worked for Gawker and people would often be like, “Oh, gross.” And I would love that, honestly. I got so annoyed when I started, because I always just say I’m a writer and then if they ask where, everyone in New York is like, “Well how is successful are you?”

NEIL: Right. Exactly.

JIA: I was like, “I write for the New Yorker.” And almost always people are surprised. Because I mean I guess you expect someone that’s a little more august, a vibe, you know? But, yeah, I find it really funny.

NEIL: August is a kind of generous way to put it. Fusty-

JIA: Respectable.

NEIL: Yes, respectable.

JIA: What’s your elevator pitch?

NEIL: I’m a visual artist.

JIA: Then people are like, “Well, what kind of art do you do?”

NEIL: Right, and that’s where it all [crosstalk 00:05:01]. Yeah, that’s tricky after that.

JIA: Whenever people are like, “What do you write about?” I’m like, “Oh, you know.”

NEIL: That is a hard one for you. Because-

JIA: It’s hard for everyone. What do you say?

NEIL: Yeah. I haven’t worked out the elevator pitch yet. It’s an impressive situation. What do your grandparents say you do?

JIA: Both of my grandmothers are still alive. I think that they both would just say that I’m a writer. I bet that they would both say for the New Yorker. My paternal grandmother might think it was New York Magazine or the New York Times. I’m not sure she follows too closely.

NEIL: Right.

JIA: My maternal grandmother, who I’m very close to, she’s in the Philippines and I’m going to go visit her in November. I think she’s the one that I really got my constant reading from. My parents read, but not like I do.

NEIL: Yeah.

JIA: She says that she reads what I write. I don’t know. I think I’m going to bring her a copy of my book.

NEIL: That’s powerful. That’s profound.

JIA: Yeah, it’s really nice. Because she’s the really the one in the family that reads this much. And it’s nice to feel that.

NEIL: Do you have any concerns about any of the subject matter in the book?

JIA: No. My grandma, it’s weird. She’s so sweet and polite. Her etiquette is flaw-

NEIL: Oh yeah.

JIA: She’s amazing.

NEIL: I love flawless etiquette.

JIA: But she’s so weirdly progressive. She definitely would object to … there’s an essay in the book about marriage and how I don’t want to marry my lovely partner and my grandma hates that because she loves Andrew and wants me to lock him down before he leaves me. But yeah, my cousins, especially my LA cousins are kind of like me. Everyone lived with their partners for a long time before they got married and, you know, got drunk all the time and whatever. And Lola was always, “Have fun,” you know? Yeah. That’s really great.

NEIL: Lola is her name?

JIA: Lola is what you call … so the Filipino term for grandma, it’s sort of like abuela and paella, but it’s like the … You call them Lolo and Lola.

NEIL: I love it.

JIA: Yeah. And her name is Aida Adia. A. I. D. A., A. D. I. A.

NEIL: Wow, like an anagram.

JIA: So everyone is always like, “Old lady, you wrote your name twice!”

NEIL: Right!

JIA: She was like, “I didn’t!”

NEIL: What’s something you’re thinking about today?

JIA: I have been thinking about … so I’m going on vacation next week and I’m extremely excited about it and I ordered a bunch of books about the Anthropocene. I’ve been thinking about trying to be more hopeful vis-a-vis climate change. I mean but isn’t everyone always only thinking about the planet these days?

NEIL: Pretty much.

JIA: You know what I mean?

NEIL: But, why do you want to be more hopeful? I’m not saying you shouldn’t, but that’s a specific angle.

JIA: Yeah, it’s a specific angle because I think that … well for a long time I was leaning towards wanting to fully steep in the true magnitude of the state of emergency that we’re in, right? On every scale and every institution, like at a natural world level. And I think I have fully lived in that zone for a long time and I need to look into more of other people’s ideas of what comes next. And I’m getting sick of my own doomsday assumption that my generation’s children will never experience good weather and that … you know, when you … I’m just at the point where I need other people’s thoughts. Like my thoughts are boring to me now.

NEIL: All right. Let us go to the cards. I’ve curated a selection of cards just for you. The card is: “The infinitely recursive nature of acknowledging one’s own narcissism as a way to disavow it”.

JIA: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That feels like my entire book!

NEIL: The content of the book or your relationship with the book?

JIA: Can you say it again?

NEIL: Yes. The infinitely recursive nature of acknowledging one’s own narcissism as a way to disavow it.

JIA: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It feels like that’s something that I’ve been trying to do in writing since I was in middle school or something. I guess I’ve also been thinking about how helpful is self-awareness if it doesn’t change anything about a thing?

NEIL: Right, exactly.

JIA: And you could say that one purpose of writing is to become as aware … to see as clearly as possible. But I think the basic underlying anxiety in my book is does it matter if you figure something out, does it matter figuring anything out anymore?

NEIL: I mean obviously it’s all in how you use it but it allows one to, for instance, behave in at least a marginally better way. You know, by understanding someone else’s experience which your book is so good at doing.

JIA: I must believe that understanding things is worthwhile, right? I must believe it because I keep acting like I believe it and the things that I care about are all wrapped up in that premise. At the same time that I’m realizing that maybe the premise looks a little different right now, but I think also … is it disavowing, I’m forgetting?

NEIL: Yeah, disavowing.

JIA: I was talking with a friend last night and there was something that she was really self-conscious about in her own writing. She was really on guard against maybe being too singularly focused on her experience at the expense of whatever the world. And it’s funny because obviously to me her writing isn’t like that at all, right? When she writes about herself, it’s with that anxiety, so kind of effulgent around her that it is about the world, you know?

JIA: And I was telling her, “The fear of the quality that you want to avoid is useful.” You know?

NEIL: Absolutely.

JIA: Sometimes it feels not useful, but I’m really afraid of being insufficiently kind and insufficiently generous. And I think that that’s been a very productive fear in my life. It’s not quite disavowing it, but it’s like being really, really watchful for it. It often feels pointless, but that’s the only way that we can ever stop ourselves from being monsters is a healthy dose of self-loathing.

NEIL: For me, your book … I don’t know, it took me to … it made me think a lot about Buddhism. Not to be that, you know, Western whatever person-

JIA: Oh, I’m so glad.

NEIL: … but just made me think about the construction of the self.

JIA: Right. I guess what I crave and what I want and what my understanding of myself and being alive right now, what I want is diminishment and what I want is the self as this empty container that is there to witness the things that are actually good. But in trying to express these ideas, the better I do it, the more my own self becomes magnified and monetized to a degree that I find unhealthy. I guess, I don’t know, maybe it’s just like also the feeling of growing up and the things you used to do unconsciously, you have to just be a little more thoughtful about or something? I don’t know.

NEIL: What would that be?

JIA: Just like living, you know? I prefer to live really thoughtlessly, you know, and just hope that if I have good instincts, everything will be good but I guess … Yeah, I feel like I wish I had the discipline to become a Buddhist, because that is certainly the frame of existence that I … the only one that I find … or a Quaker even. I wish I had that patience to sit in silence, you know? I have always wanted to be a Quaker.

NEIL: Why did you want to be a Quaker?

JIA: Because it’s … well, I think for awhile it was here is a continuation, some kind of continuity with the religion that I grew up with, like a Christian framework but a practice of it where it’s just … it’s pretty … it is like a bridge between Christianity and Buddhism for me. Right. Like it’s a lot of silence and self diminishment and, you know, and I find that really attractive. There’s a really cool Quaker meeting house in downtown Brooklyn but I’m too lazy to go to meetings because they’re all on Sunday mornings.

NEIL: Yeah. That’s the thing that religion needs to figure out.

JIA: Yeah, exactly.

NEIL: All right, Jia next question. It just says: “Outdoor wedding/public execution”. I was at a wedding a couple of weeks ago and there’s something about the setup.

JIA: There’s a nice little wooden structure right here? We’re all waiting.

NEIL: Do you ever … and there’s something about the pause and, I don’t know-

JIA: And the held breath and then the great … the moment.

NEIL: Yeah, exactly.

JIA: Like you know, like the glass breaks and everyone’s cheering. Wow, that’s really good.

NEIL: The glasses, the neck or whatever.

JIA: Yeah, yeah, totally.

JIA: Yeah. I can’t believe with all of my complicated feelings towards weddings I never thought about that. But it’s like, yeah, even you think about … this is actually so dark but … well, I’m thinking about lynching postcards, which is, you know, but it’s like people used to celebrate executions, right? And in the middle ages, everyone would go out to the square and it would be celebratory and there’d be that … you’re right, there’s that kind of excitement. There’s that kind of ambient electricity.

JIA: And also I do think with weddings there’s this real undercurrent of … well, there’s blood behind it somehow. Like it’s sort of like any sort of super stringent, hyper controlled, hyper aspirational female-centered paradigm in this world. There’s like a real blood lust in it. Do you know what I mean? Like there’s a real … a wedding is a thing that you’re supposed to only speak about in a certain way and it has created this kind of parallel side to it, this negative image of all of the resentment and anger and bitterness and distaste that … Yeah, there’s a real murderess instinct underneath it.

NEIL: Jia, next card. It’s a long one. “How we’ve become used to music/videos abruptly stopping because we get a text or it’s buffering, how there is always the expectation of interruption or not even the expectation. It’s understood. There’s not the expectation of continuity”.

JIA: I have a thing about that more recently because I never had a record player but I recently got one and I’ve been listening to music with records more often and this is one of the reasons that I got a record player. Actually, the primary reason I got a record player, because I was upstate doing acid with some of my friends and we wanted to listen to music obviously, but we had to use our phones. And so I was, “I’ve got to find a way to listen to music without the possibility of someone fucking texting me in the middle of it and me having to look at that!” Or it being, you know, in having the sound come on. I have all of my text messages on mute so that I never have to hear that tech sound. I hate the sound of alerts for this reason.

JIA: My phone is always on silent because I already have the cognitive tick to be like, “Interrupt myself, interrupt myself!” You know, so I don’t need the sound to do it, but I have recently realized how much more … what that continuity feels like even within the space of an album where I can’t … don’t even have it to be like, “Oh, skip to the next song. I don’t like this interlude on this album.” You know, as I was listening to like the Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Good Kid Maad City’. I sometimes skip the skits or even on like Lauren Hill’s album, I would skip the skits, but on the record I am obviously not going to … I’m just going to let it play out. And it was, yeah, it’s been really nice.

NEIL: Next card. “Millennials’ relationships to their pets. Like what with all their technology and pets being so resolutely non-virtual.”

JIA: Pets and plants, you know, because it’s like … well, everyone’s obsessed with their pets because pets are fucking tight as hell, as we know. As we know, they’re the best, better than people.

NEIL: Oh my God. So much better.

JIA: Yeah. But I do think that I actually find it really poignant and sad and intimate that people my age really have an intense desire to take care of things, I think in part because paradigmatically no-one’s taking care of anything, it feels like.

NEIL: Uh-huh (affirmative)?

JIA: You know, I think there’s just this overwhelming feeling of we will be floundering adolescents forever, trying to get health insurance, wondering if we’ll ever be able to put down roots anywhere and be adults. I think for a lot of us there’s this sense people still want to take care of things because it feels good. It feels good the way that cooking a good meal feels good. You know, you feel a sense of everyday solidity and accomplishment. Right? And pets, I think a lot of people, a lot of my friends even in New York, they think about getting a pet as a mark of, “Now I am settled enough in my life to take care of something”. And it feels like this really important milestone.

NEIL: Oh for sure.

JIA: Yeah, and I think it feels like the idea of being able to take care of a child, being able to afford one, you know? It feels almost impossible for so many people. And so here come pets, which are probably better in the breech.

NEIL: Okay, Jia, next card. “The language of Amazon’s ‘ordered today, arriving tomorrow’. Also the space between ordered and shipped, all the actions collapsed within that ellipsis.”

JIA: All of the human cost that’s hidden between ordered and shipped, right? It’s between that is a person making $12 an hour, who has to probably pack 950 packages every day at a minimum and that’s going to have to pop seven Advil at the end of the day, you know? Yeah, I always think about that. It’s just like order it and then you get the little thing, it’s shipped.

NEIL: Yeah, but you know also I was thinking specifically about ‘ordered today’. There’s something about the language, ‘arriving tomorrow’. There are different ways to put that. It’s like, you know, when you get a notice, it could be like ‘date of order’ or ‘date of arrival’. It lives in the world of action in a really kind of a seductive … I’m sure there was a lot of-

JIA: Yeah, it feels natural. It feels like something that a body does out of its own instincts. You know, like it ordered. Like it sneezed, you know!

NEIL: Okay, next card. “Negotiation in business as a sublimation of/displacement/substitution for intimacy”.

JIA: Do you watch Succession?

NEIL: I just watched the first episode last night.

JIA: It’s really good, I think. It gets better and oh my God it’s so good. Succession to me is a show about that, right? It’s a family that has been inculcated through wealth and, you know, dominance ideas to conceive of intimacy and interpersonal transaction exclusively through the language of business of very … it’s a tragedy that’s shot like a comedy and it’s really-

NEIL: Like my life.

JIA: Is that right?

JIA: Right and I mean that’s why people are reacting to it so much because it’s so sad and it’s also … it’s so funny. And I think that that exact kind of pathos in the … how kind of easily that can substitute for, you know, the actual stuff of interpersonal intimacy and also the systems that suggest it, which is masculinity and capitalism, right?

JIA: On the way here I was behind a couple of bros that were really, you know, they were just really bro-ing out, talking about some shit at work. And it was so cute. I found it cute how they were using it as … this was them saying how they felt and how they were, you know?

NEIL: Right. In other words that was their puppet language or something like that?

JIA: Yeah, totally. And it’s kind of sad, but sometimes I can find it endearing, like passing it on the street.

NEIL: Next card. “For me, it’s a bridge too far when someone lists where their work was reviewed in their short bio”.

JIA: Oh my God. Do people do that?

NEIL: In the art world sometimes they do.

JIA: Oh yeah, that’s right. That’s where I’ve seen it. I mean, you know, God knows I wouldn’t begrudge anyone anything that they do to try to get a foothold in whatever … in an unstable world that I’m sure I’d be trying to be an artist. Like maybe if there is actually material gain from it, but it doesn’t seem like there could be, it seems like it’s more embarrassing than that, yeah. But it’s the kind of thing where people are really proud of where they went to college and they’re adults, you know? If you’ve graduated from college, shut up! You know, no one cares! To me I’m just like, “Oh, it’s so embarrassing for you!”

NEIL: Right. Oh yeah. The whole idea of being embarrassed for someone is a whole other thing.

JIA: I know, yeah.

NEIL: Do you think the animals feel embarrassed for other animals?

JIA: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think animals definitely feel embarrassed, which is advanced enough in itself, right?

NEIL: Dogs do. Not cats, ever.

JIA: Oh, cats don’t feel embarrassed?

NEIL: I don’t think so.

JIA: I guess I’ve never seen a cat … yeah, dogs feel really embarrassed and I find that really cute. What would dogs perceive as being embarrassing from another dog? You know, it’s maybe getting rejected at the dog park or something?

NEIL: Right, yeah. That’s a great thought experiment.

JIA: My dogs are embarrassed if they did something wrong and they know they shouldn’t have. My dog got embarrassed the first time we gave her a short haircut. She hid in the back of her crate. Because we were laughing at her!

NEIL: And you’re surprised?

JIA: But I bet that if I was laughing at another dog, my dog wouldn’t feel embarrassed for that dog. But my dog felt so embarrassed when I was laughing at her.

NEIL: That’s deep.

JIA: Yeah.

NEIL: Just even that step, because I feel my cat would feel like, “What’s your problem?”

NEIL: I’m curious about something. A bad X or an okay X, you would take over a great Y? So for instance-

JIA: Literally talking about eggs?

NEIL: Eggs? Oh no, no, I’m don’t mean eggs. Where X and Y are values. So what’s a bad X you would take over a great Y?

JIA: Okay, great question. Shit. There aren’t terms for this, but I often think that though I love many people that have never worked a shitty job, I don’t trust them. You know?

NEIL: Totally [inaudible 00:24:31].

JIA: I have many close friends maybe that have never worked a true, you know, $5 an hour … but I would say that I would take a bad person who has worked, you know, slogged it out in minimum wage retail over a good person who hasn’t.

NEIL: Totally get that.

JIA: I also, you know, bad dog over good cat.

NEIL: That’s where we have to part ways.

JIA: Yeah, I know!

NEIL: But that’s okay. That’s okay.

JIA: I prefer bad dogs anyway-

NEIL: Over good dogs?

JIA: Yeah, they’re the best.

NEIL: So you’d take a bad dog over a good cat and a bad dog over a good dog?

JIA: Probably. Honestly. I love bad dogs.

JIA: What’s one for you?

NEIL: Well, the one I always go to is I would take a bad episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race over pretty much any French movie.

JIA: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. For me it’s any movie about sharks or space. Even though I guess most space movies are good-

NEIL: Space movies could be better.

JIA: Oh, I love them though. I have a real cathexis towards space. I really want to die in space. I have this almost sexual attraction to the emptiness of space.

NEIL: Oh really? That’s so deep because in early childhood, I can’t remember, maybe it was 2001? I saw it when I was a little kid. And the Asteron is doing a spacewalk and he becomes untethered and he starts spinning away. Is that in 2001? That has haunted me with great regularity since then as a terrible fear. And you want it?

JIA: Yeah, I kind of want it. I kind of crave it. If I could die any way, that’s how I would want to die.

NEIL: That is such a specific way of dying.

JIA: I know, but I would really love to die that way. Yeah, like a blaze of sensation. I also kind of imagine … there’s this episode of the Magic School Bus where they go to Neptune and the kid takes off his helmet and his head just turns to this beautiful blue ice and I was, “That looks great!”

NEIL: Wow. Does he die? People don’t die in the Magic School Bus.

JIA: They unfreeze his head somehow, but I was clearly, “He’s dead!”

NEIL: All right. Jia, on that note, thank you so much for being on this podcast-

JIA: Thank you, it’s been so nice.


JIA: After this, I have to go pick up some fake blood before I go to a meeting.

NEIL: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of SHE’S A TALKER. We are four episodes in and if you are connecting to what we’re doing, I would love it if you would help spread the word. One big way to do that is to rate and review us on Apple podcasts. If you could take a minute right now, that would be amazing. This series is made possible with incredibly generous support from Stillpoint Fund and with help from Devin Guinn, Aaron Dalton, Stella Binion, Charlie Theobald, Itai Almar, Alex Qiao, Molly Donahue, Justine Lee, Angela Liao, Josh Graver, and my husband Jeff Hiller who sings the theme song you’re about to hear. Thank you to them and to my guest, Jia Tolentino, and to you for listening.

JEFF HILLER: SHE’S A TALKER with Neil Goldberg. SHE’S A TALKER with fabulous guests. SHE’S A TALKER. It’s better than it sounds.