Author Tajja Isen says humor is part of her everyday life. So it’s not surprising that she weaves in a little comedy while also addressing the weighty issue of discrimination in various aspects of society in her book “Some of My Best Friends,” published earlier this month.
Isen, who is also the editor of Catapult Magazine and an occasional voice actor, will be featured as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival.
Q: You have been published before, but this is your first book. What led you to writing the collection of essays “Some of My Best Friends”?
THE: A lot of these are subjects that I’ve been publishing pieces about in short form for about five years. I’ve been writing about culture and the literary industry … (but) it was really over the last two years that I started to notice much more of a pattern in the language of cultural inclusion. Corporations are using the language of social justice more and more. The uncannity of that and the absurd comedy of that felt very indicative of contemporary life to me.
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Q: How do you describe your book?
THE: It’s a collection of essays that combine personal narrative with cultural criticism and research to … living in a world so fluent in the language of social justice, but as we’ve seen … it doesn’t always follow through. It’s easy to profess a commitment to equity, but it’s much harder to put those things into action. I think over the past few years we’ve really seen that dissonance grow. In the book I look at various industries. I look at the literary industry, the cartoon and entertainment industry, the publishing industry and the law, and track these patterns and uncannity of the gap between speech and action.
Q: You’ve had several different careers in your life so far. Talk to me about your background.
THE: I am editor in chief of Catapult Magazine, a daily digital magazine that publishes essays and short fiction. I am also a writer and I’m occasionally a voice actor. (Voice acting) is a world that I’ve worked in for more than 20 years, and I’m still working on a couple shows, but that work is much less frequent.
Q: Do you have a favorite form? Do you find one most challenging or effective?
THE: Throughout my various pursuits, the constant has been writing and being a writer. It took me a while to have the confidence to see (writing) as a viable pursuit. I longed for an artistic and literary life but did not want to take that leap and went to law school. The arts were always a presence in my life, which is how I fell into voice acting, but it’s been a real pleasure to get to explore … different fields. Being a voice actor has informed my writing and how I try to capture action on the page.
Q: Your book talks about the term “lip service,” meaning the idea of believing in something that’s not backed by actions. Why use that term?
THE: “Lip service” means different things in different contexts. I get playful with it, depending on the essay in which it appears. (The term) hasn’t been over-burdened by meaning or politics in any direction or morality in any way. I felt there was a lot of freedom to go in and use the term to my own ends.
Q: How have you personally been affected by “lip service”
THE: The first essay in the book, “Hearing Voices,” (is related to how) the cartoon industry has acknowledged that it needs to do a better job of making space for minority voices, but are striving for the fastest fix by asserting that the body of the actor must match the body of the character (as a way) to ensure more equitable representation. (However) the problem is so much vaster than that. It’s not just who’s doing the voice, it’s who’s doing the casting? Who’s writing the script? Who’s getting retained? Who’s getting hired? That’s how I use the term (lip service) in the book: Quick fixes to systemic problems that might look good on the surface, but once you delve a bit deeper, they may splinter off into more difficult issues.
Q: What are you working on next?
THE: I’m very eager to dive into another long project, and I have very early ideas for both a novel and memoir project. But I’m also really enjoying writing short-form right now and being able to just work with a different skill set. Writing a book was transformative in a sense. I know what it feels like to think at the scale of a book. It will change the way I think about my writing career. I’m excited to have that knowledge.
Q: Is there anything else you would like people to know about “Some of My Best Friends?”
THE: It’s really my hope that the book articulates a pattern that feels familiar to the reader and puts words to something that feels true, but that they might not have thought of in that way before. The comedy and the pleasure of it was also very much at the forefront of my mind. My goal was for this book to be fun and funny. (Hopefully readers will think) “I’ve been waiting for someone to put words to this thing that I’ve experienced.”
Q: Why is it so important to include humor in your essays?
THE: I think humor is a very powerful tool of critique. It’s always been a part of the way I see the world and the way I approach the page. Certainly I think there’s something inclusive and something accessible about using humor to contribute to this conversation. When these subjects do appear in the zeitgeist it’s primarily because something has gone wrong. It’s a situation that people are going to feel bad and ashamed and angry and frustrated about. I was very aware that that was the context I was writing into. It was important that the book didn’t feel like that. I wanted to use humor to open up the conversation, but it’s also just the way I am.