CULTURE & ARTS

Getting Nostalgic With Tavi Gevinson

The teenage writer and actress reflects on high school, Rookie and staying optimistic in the face of growing up.

At the front row of a fashion week show, among the many poised faces, there once sat an ornately dressed preteen whose unabashed self-expression could’ve been described as courageous, naive, or both.

Though her wild, keen sense of fashion launched Tavi Gevinson’s career -- which the now 19-year-old writer and actress is still defining -- it was clear even then that her ability to express herself boldly and artistically would only continue to grow and change along with her.

Among her many creative endeavors -- Tavi is the editor-in-chief of Rookie.com, a site dedicated to teen-centric interviews and personal essays, and she recently starred in a Broadway play called “This Is Our Youth” opposite Michael Cera -- perhaps the most personal is her annual collage-like collection of articles and photos, Rookie Yearbook. There are four in total, meant to mimic the progression of actual high school yearbooks. The fourth is out today, and hinges on the positive aspects of growing past your teenage years -- which is fitting, considering Tavi’s frequent reflections on growing up herself.

“Rookie will still be for teenagers even as I continue to get older,” she said in an interview with The Huffington Post. “As I get older, it’s less about, ‘What am I going through and how do I write about it?’ It’s more about how to use my power to highlight other people’s voices and make a good space for them.”

We talked with Tavi about getting older -- and how to stay optimistic rather than cynical along the way. We talked, too, about conversation writing, gritty photos, and why adults shouldn’t worry about reading YA, because everyone should read whatever the hell they want.

Nostalgia is a theme that runs throughout the Rookie yearbooks -- you spend time with each reflecting on your progress. What is it about nostalgia as a theme that you enjoy?

I don’t know, I have lots of theories as to why I constantly feel like the world is coming to an end, and why I feel like I need to review everything and memorialize it. In a way, I wonder if it’s almost generational in that we’re able to so immediately reflect on things as they’re happening to us. So maybe it’s just that I’ve written about my life every day as it’s been happening, either on my blog or Rookie or in a diary. So maybe I just snap into a set of rose-tinted glasses very quickly or something. I literally talk about this in therapy, I’d love to know why I’m so fixated on it.

The fourth book, I’m excited about because I really feel like it’s not so mournful about growing up as the other ones. It’s more celebratory. It’s a lot more optimistic, and I’m really pleased about that. I think when I was younger I felt, as many of us do, like Holden Caulfield. Like, when you grow up, your heart dies. And the adult world mars you. But I don’t feel that way anymore. I think it was getting out of high school that allowed me to imbue this last book with that sense of optimism.

For sure. I think it’s important for women in particular to not value their youth more than other parts of their life.

Yeah. High school’s hard and I never wanted to romanticize or glaze over just how innately, physiologically, biologically painful it can be to be between the ages of 13 and 18 or whatever. I never wanted to brush over that. So maybe in trying to acknowledge that, a lot of my writing was a little more cynical. I feel that the fourth book acknowledges that part of being a teenager, but it looks outward a lot more, too. There’s a lot about just the world, and life.

Since you started Rookie, have you noticed the tone of conversations about teenage girls changing at all?

Now I pretty consistently see articles about young women who have something to say. It’s like me, Amandla Stenberg, Lorde, and other people. Take that for whatever it’s worth. I don’t know how much weight to give an article like that.

I don’t really care about the adult conversation about teenagers, but I hope teenagers and readers of Rookie feel, if not taken more seriously by adults, then at least a little more comfortable with themselves and connected to each other. 

The tone of Rookie articles is often more conversational than most essays or interviews. Was this intentional? And why do you think it’s important?

I knew in the beginning I wanted it to be informal, but that wasn’t, like, a stretch. I didn’t have to very consciously make that choice, I just had to let myself write the way that I write, which was very much the way that I talk. And that does change. I’ve been working on something this year -- I don’t know what it will be, but it’s probably not right for Rookie. The tone is a lot more controlled. I like having a place to try that, too. So it’s sort of conscious but it’s also organic. 

The photos and essays you promote are informal in another way, too: they’re often gritty or offhand. What it is about this aesthetic that you like?

When someone sends us her work, it’s like, whether it’s more candid or more composed, I just think you can feel when it came from a real place. Even when a teenager has conducted a photo shoot with her friends, and they chose their outfits very specifically and it’s not just a photo diary, even that is very authentic. I just have a huge place in my heart for that, because I was conducting my own versions of that every day when I did my blog.

I guess I’m just drawn to anything where I sense somehow that it’s organic. I mean I don’t know that I’m like, the realness police. I’m not trying to say that. But it’s like how every now and then fashion will be like, “Punk is in!” and there’ll be a fashion shoot that’ll be like, “Studs! But they’re, like, $2,000!” And I just think it’s cool to try and encourage people who are actually just like, 16 years old and covering everything in studs. It’s just cool to give them a space. 

Speaking of gritty girlhood: Did you see "Diary of a Teenage Girl"? 

I’ve literally been avoiding that movie because everyone keeps telling me to see it. I know it’ll give me a lot of feelings, and I am scared of that, and I don’t want to have a lot of emotions right now, so I’ve been avoiding it. I will see it when I’m a little more willing to receive that. It has nothing to do with the movie. Like, I avoided watching "Man on Wire" for years because I was like, ahhh, it’ll give me feelings.

Obviously, there’s been backlash against adults reading YA books or sites like Rookie. How do you feel about that?

I’m not aware of this. What have people been saying?

You know, if adults are reading teen stories it represents a sort of juvenilization of our culture. Like, they should be reading adult things.

Who’s saying this?

Oh, there was an article in Slate about a year ago, and it was really divisive. The New York Times did a Room for Debate on it around the same time.

Oh my god, who cares? I just don’t really care. Nothing seems more boring to me than policing what other people are reading, and waving a YA novel in the air and being like, “Intellect is going to rot!” No. Come on. That’s really narrow.

I also think a lot of writing for teenagers is really strong and not juvenile, and that’s really condescending. It shows such a misunderstanding of the creative process. You don’t choose the things that light you up or that you’re fixated by. I would love to know why I feel the need to analyze my own nostalgia, and I would love to have something new to think about, but I’m trying to process things, so this is what I have to work with.

Obviously publishing is an industry -- I’m not saying everyone is waking up in the morning and just following their heart or pure artistic desires. But that criticism, to me, is cynical, and it’s talking about something that’s really hard to quantify, and it’s a misunderstanding of who people like to write about. Or like, what kind of character might excite an author.

I know John Green said he likes writing for teenagers because they don’t shroud everything in irony. And I’ve been out of high school and in the “real world” trying to find my people for maybe a year and a half now. I feel like I know people who are adults who roll their eyes if the conversation moves somewhere kind of interesting because they think it’s stoner-y or college-like or something that they covered in philosophy class.

It’s like a knee-jerk reaction to vulnerability.

Exactly! I mean, I’m college-aged, but I feel so much more stimulated by friends who are still thinking about the world, and I hope to never resign myself to not being allowed to turn things over my head and analyze them because it seems juvenile. I’m like, freaking out right now -- what will I do when I’m not interested in the world? I hope I never get to an age where I’m like, “Ugh, that’s dumb, we already figured everything out!” That’s not how it works, I would hope. That seems really sad.

It’s not just that I’d rather hang out with other people my age. People I know who are older who are writers, and they’re writers because they love writing, not because they moved to New York because they had an idea about being a writer in New York, and they are just constantly trying to think of the most relevant thing you can say. Last week alone I hung out with four women separately -- some of them have kids -- and we were having conversations about stuff that might’ve seemed embarrassing or too earnest or faux-deep or juvenile, but I don’t think any of those people are, like, stunted.

I saw one of those women throw out a word -- it was so, like, The Secret History to me. The other woman we were having breakfast with looked up the definition and wrote it down. That’s not because there’s this sort of naive interest in the world. It’s because she’s a writer, and if you’re not trying to receive these little clues that are given to you about how to live, then what are you doing?

Have the movies and books that you’re into changed at all since high school?

I read Bluets by Maggie Nelson -- that was huge for me. It changed a lot of the ways that I think about writing, as did The Lover by Marguerite Duras. I’ve been reading all of Annie Baker’s plays.

I think in high school I was going back through a lot of stuff mentors or older friends of mine liked when they were younger, and now I think I’m mostly just keeping up with newer music, so like Carly Rae Jepsen and Drake -- the same stuff as everyone else. I don’t really watch TV because it’s like, I can either watch all of “The Sopranos” or I can, like, write a book. I don’t know how to sit still. I wish I could, it’s not a waste of time by any means. Watching “Breaking Bad” was probably one of the richest experiences of my life.  I’m just too precious with my time.

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