Isen raises her voice in a collection of essays – Winnipeg Free Press
The young author of this volume of essays is, if I may use the Eurocentric expression, a Renaissance woman. She identifies as a teenage polymath, but whatever label you attach to this writer – who moves between American and Canadian culture – she drove this old white horse to the water and certainly got her thinking. (to slaughter Mrs. Dorothy Parker).
Some of My Best Friends: Lip Essays
By Tajja Isen
Double day, 240 pages, $32
As the byline indicates, these are essays spanning what is ubiquitously referred to as performative work against racism and misogyny. The title is a riff on “some of my best friends are black”. Isen, a black woman, lets us know, ironically, that some of her best friends are white.
While scores of similar books might suggest that publishers’ desires to “center” or “amplify” various voices might also be performative, we owe Doubleday a mitzvah for publishing this useful and entertaining tome.
The eye of the essays’ cultural storms always belongs to the author. She observes the general attitudes of our time disseminated from personal experiences. It’s a very common style that’s close enough to the trope to attract parody, but in this case the conceit is limited in its ego conceit.
Too personal to be academic, too dense to be popular, Some of my best friends is very much in its genre but singular in its erudition, its spirit, its humanity and its power. Perhaps the talent most identified with Isen is his voiceover work, much of it in cartoons. Now, in prose, she channels her inner voice to magical effect.
A remonstrance of performative social justice is more than necessary. Each essay is a refractive little gem, but the richest ruby is a nice deep dive into voiceover culture in cartoons and racing, dealing with headline-grabbing issues like Apu in The simpsons and the Ladybug in Big Mouth, then swimming against the tide in the days of the animated salad.
I won’t spoil the invigorating shock of how she makes us see things the first time by tampering with spoilers, but here’s a little – just try looking at Mickey Mouse the same way again after one of Some of my best friends. After describing Mickey Mouse “with his jet black body and white mouth”, Isen quotes film studies professor Nicholas Sammond: “Mickey Mouse is not like a minstrel, he is a minstrel. Minstrel’s songs were often used in early Disney cartoons and sadly the racism continues to this day.
This opening attempt hear voices could be a book in itself, the ideas are so rich and deep. The journey to the end of the book stops at white feminism and marvelously at “diversity hiring” and its internal contradictions. We also learn about the tiny white people who live in the minds of many black artists, who judge and condemn their work, and those like Toni Morrison, who didn’t own them. (Morrison once said she asked Ralph Ellison for his book Invisible Man “Invisible to whom? Why do you care so much about what they [white people] think?”)
After a masterclass without controversy, the book ends with a treat — Dead or Canadian, a riff on the board game and our conscious canuck artistic sensibility. In that case, we all have that little American voice inside of us that says no one cares about our provincial opinions.
But many do. And it’s a great book.
Lara Rae is a critic, comic and writer who struggles to write if she still has to mention that she is a trans woman seven years after her journey.