Tajja Isen’s debut essay collection reveals her as a multihyphenate talent—voice actor, singer, editor, writer, law school graduate—with a delicious knack for wordplay and language. In Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service, Isen writes about the disparity between the “token apologies and promises” made by white people and what Black people actually want and take for themselves.
The strongest essay, which lends its name to the book’s title, examines the relationship white women have to power and pain, which Isen dubs the “aesthetics of vulnerability.” Continuing a thread from the previous essay about the popularity of Black trauma writing, Isen looks at how self-indulgence has been romanticized by white female artists. “If you’re always in pain you’ll never want for material,” she writes of these white artists’ impulse to glamorize their sadness.
Another standout essay is “Hearing Voices,” Isen’s personal exploration of voice acting as a transformative and potentially empowering art form. In addition to outlining her own experiences as a Black voice actor, she discusses “Big Mouth,” “Central Park” and “The Simpsons,” three animated shows that cast white actors to voice nonwhite characters and then apologized for this choice in 2020.
This essay also underlines a central weakness of the book: It already feels dated. Scanning the table of contents feels like reading a list of Twitter’s most popular trending topics from 2020. In the churn of the modern news cycle, it seems inevitable that not every moment referenced would have cultural staying power, but it’s especially frustrating when Isen chooses intentionally ephemeral data points, like viral trailers for made-for-TV movies or deleted Instagram posts.
In the book’s most compelling moments, Isen makes the churn the point: Whatever Starbucks or Lena Dunham did and subsequently apologized for in 2020 is something they’ll do again in 2030. Rather than revealing a new issue, the “Big Mouth” casting controversy confirmed something Isen had already learned early in her voice acting career: “The problem is the ivory grip on what Black sounds like.”
Throughout the collection, Isen engages the greatest hits of leftist Twitter discourse but with the type of nuance that’s impossible in 280 characters. She admits to “keeping an eye on the writers at the vanguard, seeing what kind of behavior gets rewarded,” and that’s reflected in the originality of Some of My Best Friends’ content—but it’s Isen’s original perspective and clever language that will win over readers.