Jia Tolentino has made references to the Ann Arbor area in her writing for years. There was the time in early 2016, while working at the website Jezebel, that she recalled a contemporary feminism fail that played out at a Chipotle near the University of Michigan’s campus. And, earlier this year, at her current gig as a staff writer at The New Yorker, she shouted out the Joumana billboards that frame the local freeways — you know the ones — in a piece on the unsettling dance troupe Shen Yen. Now, in her latest project — her debut book, Trick Mirror, published on Aug. 6 by Random House — the college town gets a not-safe-for-work mention in an essay on optimization culture that will make hopeful yogis bust out in laughter.
Tolentino’s humorous anecdotes and nostalgic recollections are, of course, standout moments to local fans of her work, but Ann Arbor plays an even larger role in Tolentino’s writing than that. The essays in Tolentino’s book, which cover everything from literary heroines to the spiritual sensation of tripping on ecstasy, are evidence of this. Alongside meticulous sourcing and fact-driven observations is her narrative, first-person prose, a voice that’s garnered Tolentino the title of “the millennial era’s Joan Didion” from critics. While she’s honed this characteristic style working in New York City and developed her curious worldview growing up in Houston, it’s back in Ann Arbor, specifically at U-M’s MFA fiction program, where her writing origin story began.
“Ann Arbor was the place where I started to understand that it was possible for me to write for a living,” Tolentino says in an email to Hour Detroit. “My time in Michigan’s MFA program was really formative, and coming back to Ann Arbor’s literary community will always feel like visiting an old home.”
This month, she’ll return to her old stomping ground with a visit to the indie bookstore Literati to discuss Trick Mirror. Scheduled for Aug. 26., metro Detroiters can catch Tolentino in conversation with Aisha Sabatini Sloan, the author of the 2017 essay collection Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit. A book signing will follow. The free event is open to the public and begins at 7 p.m. Guests are encouraged to get their early for a chance at a seat. If Tolentino’s last few bookstore visits are any indication — crowds stood and sat on the floor in Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, D.C. in an attempt to see her speak in person — it’s an evening you won’t want to miss.