Skip to main content

Tajja Isen.Karen Isen/Handout

On June 2, 2020, companies and brands posted black squares on social media to show solidarity with Black lives and prove their commitment to anti-racism after the murder of George Floyd. Among the institutions that participated in #BlackoutTuesday – as it was known – was the Law Society of Ontario, which also issued a diversity statement addressing barriers Black lawyers and paralegals face. To Tajja Isen, this was an egregious disconnect, given that the organization’s 2016 survey indicated only 3.2 per cent of the province’s lawyers were Black.

It was at this moment when the thoughts she was mulling over for the past few years began to coalesce. Such hypocrisy, she writes, leveraged through the “discourse of equity,” has given brands and companies the appearance of progression while still retaining power.

A collection of personal essays brilliantly weaving through the author’s life while offering pointed cultural criticism, Some of My Best Friends is informed by Isen’s experience as a voice actor, writer, editor and by her background in law. Moreover, it is a perceptive analysis on how Black expression has been stifled across industries.

Isen invokes the work of Black thinkers of the past and present, using personal epiphanies as entry points to larger discussions. In Hearing Voices, she outlines animation’s racist history with Black characters and Black voices; Diversity Hire aptly critiques how companies absorb social justice language as a profitable business strategy. In the title essay, she interrogates the rise and hollowness of what personal essays and confessional writing have become, and the weaponizing of “personal is political.” Dead or Canadian is a deep dive into being a #veryonline writer.

The Globe and Mail spoke with Isen about her experience as a culture writer working in Canada, the U.S. and online, as well as removing the limitations placed on racialized writers.

When did you start writing Some Of My Best Friends and what thoughts emerged?

I wrote the earliest versions of some essays in 2017-18 and wrote the proposal at the end of 2019. I was trying to articulate something about the notion of performance, the question of how we embody our politics, especially on the page, in a meaningful way, and how we do that in a way that doesn’t feel like performance. The original version of the proposal was quite academic. I was in the process of reworking it and then summer 2020 happened. The experience of trying to metabolize that summer, what it meant to live through it, and to [have it] be addressed by all of these different entities in this very, absurd and disingenuous way was absorbed by the proposal.

It was very strange timing because all of a sudden this thing that I had been trying to articulate – the way different sectors and industries were getting too good at speaking the language of social justice – suddenly calcified and blew up in an incredibly intense way. The process of putting together and writing the book was about trying to illuminate and explain this moment and how it has come to shape contemporary life, what it means to be online, what it means to be in community and what it means to be at work.

It was important to me that the history of these patterns, questions and ideas be faithful to that and not be a book about the past two years. It would be a book that masks that moment, but connects it to a longer lineage of disingenuous speech not backed by action.

Finding the voice for the book was a really joyful part of the process. So many of these subjects, when they appear in the news of the zeitgeist, are because something bad happened. Relative to Black writers telling more capacious stories, part of that work is bringing a levity, comedy and absurdity to subjects that are often talked about straightforwardly [with] grim and dour. Humour is an incredibly powerful tool of critique. I want this book to be understood as a pleasurable experience.

In Dead or Canadian, you discuss deciding to move to the United States and what that could offer versus being in Canada and repressing your sense of possibility. What are you thinking when considering the landscape in which racialized emerging writers enter? Is moving something that you’d recommend?

It’s something that felt right for me because from the beginning of my career as a culture writer, I was in conversation with the literary texts, cultural trends and even to a certain extent the political questions in the U.S. Those writers were who I wanted to see as my peers. Those were my reference points and those are my influences. There were also more opportunities if I switched to American publications. It was a numbers game: they have more publications, pay more money, write about the things that I’m interested in.

I don’t think that’s the case for every writer here, but I encourage other writers to think about – even if moving is not something they’re interested in – how they might be able to take advantage of even just the proximity to the States. You can respond to pitch calls from American editors, develop relationships with those publications, get bylines. I’m lucky enough to be in an editorial position and try to facilitate those relationships, too.

Handout

There’s something I call the logic of white women writing liberation, when a very real individual feeling or experience is made universal through an essay that attempts to theorize or form a politic that doesn’t consider conditions outside self. I immediately thought of the title essay. But what then happens when that writing is propped up against the work of racialized writers?

There’s this weird association between white femininity and the insistence that it claims suffering. It puts the rest of us in this impossible position where there’s already an ingrained pattern of racialized writers disproportionately expected to write about their pain and trauma. If the genre is already dominated by white feminine voices claiming a primacy of pain, it eats up even more of the pie of types of stories other writers could tell.

What’s at stake is the type of storytelling sought from Black and racialized writers and the parameters of what’s considered sellable. How these trends developed and were passed to white women have set the blueprint of the personal essay industrial complex, so to speak. It was primarily white women who got to write about whatever they wanted and then the effects of that was racialized writers having to write about how painful it was to simply exist whether or not that was what we were trying to express.

I think about the limitations imposed on Black writers. There’s other possibilities and worlds that don’t even get considered, and in the context of Canada, the subtext is that they don’t need to be considered.

That they don’t need to be considered, they’re too shameful to be considered, they’re too depressing to be considered, they’re in the past, they’re not a problem any more or they’re not who we are. We need a more permissive, expansive sense of what Black writers are allowed. I felt this so much when writing this book, and I feel it often when promoting this book, too. There’s robust language for talking about narratives that are about how hard it is to be Black or how harrowing it is to inhabit a certain subject position. The publishing industry’s very comfortable selling those stories to readers, even if you’re trying to do something different.

I want this book to be taken seriously as a work of literature and as cultural criticism, but it’s all too easy to have people talking about it the first way: “Tajja Isen has written a book about how hard it is to be Black” – and I haven’t. “Tajja Isen has written a book about her painful experiences with racism” – and I haven’t.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.