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Mouthing the Words

Collage of Tajja Isen inside a yellow circle on a black background with a diagram in the background.
Photo: Courtesy Black Mountain Institute
Illustration: Ryan Vellinga

In her first book, Tajja Isen looks for racial equity in all the right places

“You saw that too, right?” is how Tajja Isen summed up the spirit of her 2022 book, Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service (Atria/One Signal Publishers), talking with Desert Companion for the third episode of the Black Mountain Institute Conversations Podcast. Like two friends who observe a self-proclaimed germophobe double-dipping at a party, Isen invites the reader to share in her observations of the hypocritical, human, and sometimes hilarious things well-meaning people do in the name of social justice. Each of the nine essays focuses on an aspect of contemporary culture, analyzing it through Tajja’s own lived experience and extensive research. An excerpt from her conversation with Desert Companion editor Heidi Kyser, edited for length and clarity, follows.

So, I understand you’re a hiker. And from New York (Toronto originally)! This must be a very different landscape for you. How are you finding it?
I love it so much. I have a preexisting love for Vegas but had only gotten to spend short stretches of time in the desert. So, to be here for an extended period of time and be able to incorporate hiking into my routine and just have access to these landscapes is really incredible.

In addition to being a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, Gawker, Literary Hub, Buzzfeed, and many other publications, you are also the former editor in chief of Catapult, and a former editor and current contributor to the Walrus. It makes me wonder: How did you go from being a child voice actor, to a law school student, to now this distinguished literary career? It's such an unusual trajectory.
I feel like, despite the fact that those things sound very different, they feel very consistent to me. Having spent years reading scripts with the intention of delivering those lines aloud, (it’s) absolutely shaped my voice on the page, the way I try to coax voices out of other writers on the page, (and) in my work as an editor. But, I fell into voice work when I was very young, I loved the work, I'm really lucky to have built a career out of it. And for a long time, even though I felt sort of attracted to the literary world and was sort of a voracious reader and very keen to make writing a part of my life however I could, I did sort of shy away from trying to make a go of a sort of proper creative career — a full time creative career — for a long time.

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I did genuinely think that I wanted a career in the law. (But) by the time I got to the end of that degree, I was very burnt out. So, I thought, “Okay, this is kind of a natural inflection point. I've come to the end of the degree, I'm not going to write the bar. Let's see what happens if I finally give writing a real shot.” And I did get extremely lucky, but it still feels sometimes like the embrace of something that I was too scared to try for a really long time.

Your first essay uses that voice acting career to introduce the concept of lip service, which you develop throughout the book, and which really becomes its own critical theory. Can you give an example to sort of explain to listeners what lip service is?
So, in the case of voice work, what we saw was a sudden spotlight on what had been a very common practice of cross-racial casting. And there's this sort of weird loophole in animation, where the body of the actor just kind of necessarily does not always correspond with the body of the character. There are various reasons for that. So, there's not a baseline expectation that the actor and the character are going to be in perfect alignment. But the thing that caught the attention of the public in 2020, was white actors who had been cast to play Black characters in shows like "The Simpsons” and "Big Mouth," and there was a very sudden, very public call to reverse that practice, and to recast those roles with Black actors.

And in the book, I take that at face value and say, “Okay, that's a great first step. But what doesn't that solve?” There are a whole host of other dynamics in the industry that restrict the number of roles that Black actors can already play.

If the new rule is that characters of color can only be played by actors of color who correspond to those characters, (then) shouldn't the question we are asking be something like, “Well, how many of those roles are there? What proportion of roles do they make up?” Because that sort of unnecessarily restricts the roles that a large contingent of actors are able to go out for. We should also ask who's writing those shows. Who were the showrunners? Whose stories are we telling? Who are they coming from? Who determines how they get cast? But none of that really made it into the public conversation. It was just the very quick, very visual fix.

I thought some of the book’s funniest passages appear in the title essay. Particularly the scene where you're describing two characters in a Nancy Meyers film, Something's Got to Give — they’re commiserating about being oppressed while they're washing dishes in one of the women's Hamptons mansion. Much of the book, though, is pretty scathing cultural criticism. So, I wondered how you made humor work for you in that way?
It was very intentional. I was interested in using humor both as a tool of small "i" inclusion, of making my reader feel like a participant in the critique. But also, once we were on the same side, wielding humor as a tool of critique with some of the cultural objects that I'm talking about.

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Another thread that runs throughout the book, and in some of your other work as well, is the relationship between work and words, and how words can or can't organize the world. In “Barely Legal,” your essay on leaving law, you write that you “vibrated with the anxiety of wasted time.” And that really contrasts to what you wrote recently, about six months ago, in your list of reading recommendations for The Atlantic: “The classic American story of ambition — work hard and you will be rewarded — has never seemed more outdated.” There's such a contrast between these two places. Describe that evolution in your own life and your own thinking.
My instinct is that that seems like a good evolution. I think part of what attracted me to the law was the idea that every spare moment would count: it would be accounted for, it would be deployed in the service of something meaningful, and there would never be that worry of, “Am I being productive enough? Am I wasting my time?” I learned pretty quickly that that's no way to live your life — that's just not personally sustainable. And I think what we have seen over the past few years is that's also not structurally how things work. It's not a guarantee. There was already, given that classic American story of ambition, so much pressure on the individual to succeed. And now that pressure has just sort of multiplied. But acknowledging that lack of correlation between how good you are to capitalism, versus how good capitalism is to you, has been a really important journey for me and in my professional life. And it's opened up the space for me to dedicate more time and effort to the things that I genuinely find fulfilling, like my creative work, my relationships, my community. So, I feel fortunate to have made that progression.

Your essays are so complex and there's such a mix of personal experience and reporting and humor — I wondered how that writing experience felt for you? Is it a relief to get everything on the page after turning these thoughts over for so long?
Just the idea of putting this book together, I felt such an itch, such an obsession, a very strong desire to get to the bottom of this pattern that I had seen and lived in so many different facets of my life. And there was a lot of catharsis and satisfaction in getting it down on the page and shaping it into book form. I felt, and I continue to feel now, that I freed up space in my brain. I spent an ample amount of time with these questions, I worked through them to my satisfaction and I was ready to think about something else. And when I say that, I don't mean to make it sound like, “Oh, I'm so tired of this, I don't want to think about this anymore.” It was kind of a gift that I gave to myself. I opened up the space for the next thing to appear. And it's incredibly satisfying and fortunate to be able to have this kind of physical manifestation of the years that I spent thinking about and wrestling with these questions.

In your book, you mentioned that community is the antidote for lip service. And for Black Mountain Institute's shearing fellows, community is a big part of their work. What are you going to be doing while you're here in Las Vegas?
I proposed a couple of different initiatives. One of them is a seminar on pitching your work to publications. I felt like in my work as an editor that's such a central part of the process. But there was not nearly as much transparency as there ought to be in order to have a thriving literary ecosystem. So, I will be running a small workshop seminar on that subject. And I also proposed a panel, which will be a virtual event, on putting together a book proposal, which is another part of the publishing process that is shrouded in mystery, and you just have to sort of stumble your way through it until you figure out how to do it. So, the idea of making the mysterious publishing process more transparent is really important to me and has been a really important part of my work as an editor and literary citizen.

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and KNPR's State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022. In 2024, Interim CEO Favian Perez promoted Heidi to managing editor, charged with integrating the Desert Companion and State of Nevada newsroom operations.