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Fake cousins, lazy exorcists, punching down

Shima Oliaee (Dolly Parton's America)

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Dolly Parton's America co-creator Shima Oliaee
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Radio journalist Shima Oliaee, known for her many contributions to podcasts like Radiolab and for co-creating the award-winning series Dolly Parton's America, is also an avowed fan of poetry and taking time offline to sit and read ... but like the rest of us, she's online, and today on Follow Friday, Shima shares four of her favorite people to follow:

And on our Patreon page, you can pledge any amount of money to get access to Follow Friday XL — our members-only podcast feed with exclusive bonus follows. That feed has an extended-length version of this interview in which Shima talks about someone she's jealous of, the writer and professor Imani Perry.


Theme song written by Eric Johnson, and performed by Yona Marie. Show art by Dodi Hermawan.

Thank you to our amazing patrons: Jon, Justin, Amy, Yoichi, Elizabeth, Sylnai, and Matthias

Full transcript of this episode
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ERIC JOHNSON: What time is it? That's not a rhetorical question. I'm back from vacation and I'm very, very jetlagged. This was my first time on an airplane since 2019 and it's weirdly comforting how little has changed: Airport security is still a pain, in-flight WiFi is still terrible, and there is still not enough legroom in economy. I gotta make this podcast blow up so that I can afford business class.

Anyway, we're back with new episodes every week for the foreseeable future, and today's guest is one of my favorite podcasters, Shima Oliaee, formerly of Radiolab and Dolly Parton's America. She's working on some new shows and I think she's going to be announcing at least one of them soon. Keep an eye on her. Or an ear. Whatever.

As always, thank you to our amazing patrons on Patreon, with a special shout-out this week to our newest patron Matthias.

You are listening to the public feed of Follow Friday, which means Shima is going to tell you about four of her favorite people to follow online. And you can get a bonus fifth follow from Shima by supporting this podcast at Please consider becoming a supporter. You unlock the patron-exclusive feed, Follow Friday XL, no matter how much you pledge, starting at just one dollar a month.

Thank you to all our patrons, and thanks to everyone who sent me such lovely messages after the one-year anniversary special.

I also want to thank today's sponsor. Today's show is brought to you by Kelsus, which pairs startups with expertly assembled software development teams. They work with funded startups across multiple industries to help them get to market fast. Learn more and get in touch at

Every ad gets me one step closer to business class. All right, let's get to today's new episode with Shima Oliaee.

[theme song]

ERIC: I'm Eric Johnson. Welcome to Follow Friday, the podcast about who you should follow online! Every week, I talk to creative people about who they follow, and why. This is a guided tour to the best people on the internet, led by your favorite writers, podcasters, comedians, and more. If this is your first episode of the show, take a moment now and please follow or subscribe in your podcast app.

Today on the show is Shima Oliaee, the co-creator of the Peabody award-winning podcast, Dolly Parton's America. She's also reported some amazing stories for Radiolab and Kerning Culture and more, and now she's working on two new series, according to her Twitter bio. You can find Shima on Twitter @shimaoliaee. Shima, welcome to Follow Friday!

SHIMA OLIAEE: Thank you! Exciting.

ERIC: So glad to have you here. Something we were talking about before the taping is how our media consumption habits have changed in the past two years. And you said that poetry has helped you a lot. I want to hear about this, before we get into your follow, how has poetry been important to you?

SHIMA: It's interesting because some of it is from books, but a lot of it is also from online, like online accounts help remind you to read more poetry. For the first series that I'm working on, I'm actually looking at some translations of old poems, and I think poetry just slows things down.

And we live in New York, or I do, and I can go non-stop all the time. I speak naturally very quickly, and actually, it took me time to learn how to complete a sentence before starting the next one because my brain goes to the next thought so quickly. And it was actually through a lot of radio work, I could hear my mind bouncing and I could hear in my head the whole sentence, but I would have already moved on. And so I learned, other people can't hear that part that happened in my brain, so I've kind of learned how to slow down.

I think the pandemic, if nothing else, kind of forces you to savor the moment, like savor the coffee shop, savor using a cup, savor sitting down versus taking it out.

And I think poetry is almost musical. I read a lot of poems when I was much younger. I actually was a poet first. I thought I was going to be a songwriter, but then my songs were like R&B mixed with poetry, with postmodern poetry, which doesn't sound good with an R&B beat. And I tried to somehow fuse it, and it didn't work well, this is like teenage years. There's a lot of emo stuff too, I went through my emo poetry phase. I loved poems, oh my gosh. I loved poems because they were so visceral and emotional, and I'm so into that, and they're short. You get it out, you don't want to overthink it, and I'm an overthinker, so poetry freed me.

But a lot of what I wrote, I would mimic other great poems. As you're learning, as a young person, that's what you do, but I hadn't read the great poets in quite a bit because I'm always reading texts. And by text, I also mean cell texts, but non-fiction work is a huge part of my job. And then you want to read a novel if you want to escape. Poetry is not the first thing, and I've been reading ancient Middle Eastern poetry by women, but I've also been reading modern poetry. I've been going back to my poetry books.

ERIC: It's wild that for millennia, we've been writing poems that let people escape and think about their world and take a break, as you've been saying. That's so important. And maybe some of your follow recommendations will encourage us to do the same. So let's find out who Shima Oliaee follows online. You can follow along with us today — every person she recommends will be linked in the show notes and in the transcript at

So Shima, before the show, I gave you a list of categories and I asked you to tell me four people you follow who fit in those categories. Your first pick is in the category of "someone you just started following," and you said Dr. Nina Ansary, who is on Instagram and Facebook at Nina Ansary and on Twitter @drninaansary. So Nina is an author, a historian, and she's the director of the Global Women's Lecture Series at the World Affairs Council of America. Do you remember how you started following her?

SHIMA: Yes, so I was trying to get a hold of this human rights journalist for a story I was reporting and I could not reach this person for months. And finally, this past winter, I got a hold of her the same day she was going to be seeing another person I had also been trying to reach, who doesn't live in New York. They were going to meet that night, and then they were going to a secret event that was private, and that was Nina Ansary's event.

I actually did not have a spot at the event. Nina had not met me, she didn't know who I was, but I think this human rights journalist kind of explained what I was seeking. So she told the people that ran the event that I was her cousin, visiting, and I had surprised her. And like, can there be one extra seat for her cousin?

So I didn't know any of this when I got there, but then I was introduced as a cousin, but I had my audio equipment with me. I had my headphones and a microphone and you were not allowed to record anything. So I get there and then I get a lot of looks, I'm like "Oh, is it okay?" And what really helps is acting like you don't know what's going on.

So I recorded the event and she was the main speaker at this event. It was a human rights event, and afterward, I think she found me online, and then I followed her, and then I started finding out more and more. That evening, I found out a lot about her too, but she's kind of like ... Batman.

ERIC: Okay, not where I expected that sentence to end.

SHIMA: My dream was always to live in New York and I didn't move here as a kid, so it took me time; I'm from Nevada, but I realized once I got here that a lot of my images of New York are based on Gotham City. And a lot of my happiest memories about New York are either about Batman, especially Batman Returns, the Tim Burton one, or any one with Michael Keaton is great, and also Home Alone 2. So there are these very young ideas of New York that don't tell you how it smells or anything like that, they just look really pretty.

ERIC: Yeah, both Christmas movies, I think.

SHIMA: Yes exactly. I was reminded of them this past Christmas, but when I finally felt like I made it, I don't know what that means, but I felt like I made it in New York. I had my own apartment and whatever, I felt very much like Bruce Wayne. I felt like wow, and "I'm a journalist, I'm doing the justice work that no one can do because everything is so corrupt," and so I felt that way. I felt very akin to that dream, but when I met Nina who wears all black — she only wears black. I know I'm wearing black right now, but also wearing some yellow and whatever.

ERIC: She only wears black, nothing else?

SHIMA: She only wears black. It was actually pointed out at one point in the evening, but she only wears black and she secretly ... I guess, not that secretively anymore because I'm saying it, but she secretly funds many journalists doing justice work. Like, really writing about the wrongs happening, especially in places that are under-reported and in places that are being reported in a certain way that need more contextualization from those people, from those places. Not just the Western media view. So ... she is Bruce Wayne.

If we were to go to a ball, she'd be the one putting it on and everyone there who's doing good work, she's helping them. And you can tell that she's very strong and tough, even though she's very beautiful and warm, but you can tell from the work she's done, she has been attacked, and it's not easy to do what she's doing. She doesn't ask for a lot of credit. A lot of people that we know do things like this, they're very famous, but she's not. She's such a champion of other people.

She actually secretly helps run this other online handle that highlights people doing great work. She's constantly highlighting other people's great work. But she's doing great work, and she's a champion of women. She wrote this book called Jewels of Allah.

ERIC: I was going to ask about this.

SHIMA: Yeah, all of these like kick-ass women feminist fighters in Iran, and then she also wrote Anonymous as a Woman, which starts with this incredible statistic, which is that in all of recorded history, and I think this is a study that she helped fund, only 1.7% of that which is recorded involves women. So think about it, women are 50% of the population. As of 2022, 1.7% is about women, so she's just great.

ERIC: It's both a combination of who gets the opportunity to do things that are considered historically note-worthy, to begin with. But then also who's doing the writing, who's making the cuts as to what gets recorded, what gets preserved as significant for future generations?

SHIMA: She's constantly finding people, women especially, that people don't know, and putting a spotlight on them. That's what her research is about, so many women and women worldwide too. She doesn't just keep it in the middle east, she looks at the entire globe.

ERIC: I think her other book, other than Jewels of Allah, is about a global gender inequality, just the state of where things are, which I imagine that book must be 3000 pages long, but...

SHIMA: I did read it, but it's not that long, not 3000, but she had to go through and select. There was so much that hadn't been reported on. Like everyone on this list, there's a little bit of spice in the rice.

So I feel like I've given you a very clear image of this person, but then there's a chapter right before she goes into highlighting these global women, heroes. She has a chapter about yin and yang and kind of the philosophy of male and female and how that has been transmuted over time, how that has been manipulated for certain eras. And I thought that was so interesting, like who would do that? A lot of academics I like, they throw in something that I feel the academic world would be like, why would you do that? But it was just a surprise right before I got to the first name that she mentioned.

ERIC: So she's gently breaking some of the norms and the conventions as one of the many ways that she's advocating for better representation for women and for opportunities and things like that.

SHIMA: Her style embodies mission, as she's achieving her mission. And she's not using the style of the people that only wrote 1.7% of women into history, you know?

ERIC: That's exactly it. Well that was Dr. Nina Ansary, who is on Twitter @drninaansary.

Shima, let's move on to your next follow. I asked you for "someone super talented, who's still under the radar," and you said Ingrid Rojas Contreras, who is on Twitter @Ingrid_Rojas_C and Instagram @i__rojascontreras. Ingrid is the author of the bestselling novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree, and she has a memoir due out in July called the Man Who Could Move Clouds. What was her introduction to her work? Were you a fan of her first novel?

SHIMA: No. [laughs] That wasn't my intro to her, the novel is great, oh my God.

ERIC: Okay, you know her in real life?

SHIMA: Oh my gosh, yeah. So I actually met her on Pop-Up tour. So I was going around the country with her in the fall, we shared a 10 minute kind of talk.

ERIC: This is for Pop-Up Magazine, which you may want to explain for folks who haven't had the chance to see it.

SHIMA: It's kind of a multimedia show where they take artists, journalists, writers, and you present a piece and there's usually animation and music. It's like a live performance of a written essay piece, like something you'd read maybe in the New Yorker. That's kinda the idea of it, a multimedia magazine.

So I met her on tour, and there were three women on tour: Me, Ingrid and Chanel Miller, so we became very close. Ingrid and I were the only two on every date of the tour together, so I got to know her really close and we were calling each other best friends the first day. I think I started it and she went along. She's like a mythic figure herself. So she wears this like eyeliner, that's like a cat-eye and she has this bob haircut. She looks like an image in a film.

She's literally survived the revolution in Colombia, has this epic life that she has gone through. Her family's story is incredible, that's what she shared a bit about in her Pop-Up piece, which you can read in her memoir. Which I think her memoir is going to be huge this year. She's one of those writers… Her presentation happened after mine, so I would give mine, and then the first time I saw it, I saw it in the audience about halfway through, and then every night after that, I would just watch. Then I started performing it for her.

So there's this moment — oh my God, it's so funny. By the third show, we'd be hanging out and we would joke about everything. We were very sleep-deprived too, because we were having fun, but also working. There's this moment where she talks about Nona, who's her mother, who would do exorcisms as part of her work. And so she would sit with people and basically, there's this line where she says "Nona was a lazy exorcist because she would just take a cup of water, put it on a table. And she would say these lines, she would say 'Look, you don't want to be here' to the ghost. 'You don't want to be here, I don't want to be here, but I need the money, so what are we going to do?'"

So that kind of line, I started saying it to Ingrid because I loved it and I would quote her piece back to her. By the time we got to DC, which was the last show, she was doing the piece like she was me. Because she's a writer, she's a serious, very thoughtful, intelligent human. I'm a little bit more hammy, my background is in comedy and everything. And so the last show, I was like "Ingrid, you were doing me, doing you, and she goes "Yeah, it worked really..."

ERIC: That's a copy of a copy, yeah.

SHIMA: And because of the way I would quote the lines, she knew which lines to really sink into, but I was just a fan, I instantly became a fan. Her writing is such that ... I love this when I hear this in an artist. As a musician, I also have a music background. Sometimes you'd hear a musician play live and they are so good that it would actually be discouraging, and this was a common phenomenon. My musician friends and I would talk about it, like some people were so good that it would kind of be sad at the end.

And some people are so good, but you still felt hopeful, you felt like "I can do it, I'm not them, but I can do something." Ingrid's writing is like that. When you hear her writing, you start thinking "Oh, I have a story," and I love that. I feel like that's something in her soul that's being transmitted through her work. I think her generous heart is being transmitted. So when you hear it, you're like "My family is so interesting, too. Oh it's so weird how things mirror and repeat in family generations," and all of that. And her writing has a lot of magical realism in it. It's beautiful. Even as she's writing a memoir, it's just beautiful.

There's this other piece she wrote that was about self-mesmerism and she was talking about her trauma from having survived a revolution and how it was hard for her to write. She says when you write, you have to sit down for 10 minutes, but if you've been through trauma, you have to get up. You got to check the door, you got to do this, you got to do that. And it's not hypnotism, but she would mesmerize herself. And I love that she kind of pieced together this beautiful essay about how to get into that writing space, so she's also helpful as a fellow writer. And then, I don't know where she posted this, I tried to find it before I got online with you, she had this picture, I don't know where I saw it online, of a bathtub and a plank between two sides of the bathtub. Did you see this?

ERIC: No, I didn't see this.

SHIMA: And she put her typewriter on the plank in the bathtub with water, and I asked her, do you write? That's an artistic photo, right? She goes, "Oh no, no, I was writing in the tub. Oh my gosh, it's so good, do it every day. I do it every day right now." So she's just fun.

Every stop we had, everyone had friends in every city, everyone she knew was a young novelist, poet. I felt like I was meeting the who's-who of the next generation of American writers, and I love that. She was so much fun. And we danced so much, I think I danced more. I had a good time, the last DC night.

ERIC: I'm so glad.

SHIMA: Yeah, I had so much fun. We made friends with 20-year-olds that weren't supposed to be at the club we were at. It was the last night of the tour, so it was good. But yeah, I love that, I love her writing. She has something that's about to come out that I think is going to be great. Also, she feels like a friendly writer, she feels like a friend to other writers. She is a friend to other writers, but her work also transmits that.

ERIC: That's so good. I mean that's something that even just talking about one's creative process is not a given. It's not something you can always expect from someone who's at this point in their career where they're a rising star writer. And I found this quote, this is something she wrote in Catapult Magazine that I absolutely adored. Maybe this was the same essay that you saw before, I'm not sure.

But she's talking about her creative process and she says, "I began to describe myself as a free diver, afloat in the ocean, flanked on all sides by nothing but a sea horizon. The landscape was beautiful, cerulean, and deadly. Divers have to increase their lung capacity in order to free dive, packing their lungs with air so they can descend as deeply as possible for as long as possible. So every day after, as I sat down to write, I imagined myself taking in a breath, enough to last me for hours. And then I dive as deep as I could go. Every day, I aimed for somewhere deeper."

I feel like, as someone who has never attempted to write a novel or anything like that, that just unlocks so much in one paragraph, basically, of how this incredibly talented person is thinking about digging up their own experience, their own life, and finding ways to turn that into art. I love that.

SHIMA: This is probably silly, but if Nina is Batman, she's Aquawoman. She's very, you know, of the water.

ERIC: Writes in the tub.

SHIMA: Yeah, it's so great.

ERIC: That was Ingrid Rojas Contreras, who is on Twitter @Ingrid_Rojas_C. We're going to take a quick break now, but we'll be back in a minute with Shima Oliaee.

ERIC: Today's show is brought to you by Kelsus, a fully invested technical partner for your business. Kelsus works with funded startups across a variety of industries, providing them with an expert team of software developers to help them get to market fast. They have experience working with dozens of companies, helping them build products that can compete, thrive, and exit. Visit to learn more, and give them a call to meet your new technical cofounder.

ERIC: Welcome back to Follow Friday. Shima, I asked her to tell me about "someone who makes you laugh," and you said he also makes you think, and that's the writer Kiese Laymon, who is on Twitter and Instagram @KieseLaymon. I knew that I was going to like Kiese right away when I saw his pinned tweet, which is, "Every day of my adult life, I've asked myself, did these motherf**kers not watch Sesame Street?"

SHIMA: [laughs] Oh my God.

ERIC: I'm immediately sold, but why don't you talk about why you follow him?

SHIMA: Oh my gosh, Kiese is like…this is so silly, I'm using way too many metaphors for these people. This might be pandemic brain, I don't know. Just nothing is real. He's like my fairy godmother of the pandemic. I met him at the start of 2020. I was looking for my next series after Dolly Parton's America, and I thought I was going to do a deep dive of the new South, starting with Mississippi. And it's because I found all of these stories, most of which I couldn't even use in the Dolly series. I mean, I shoved as many as I could, but I still had so much other material and I had also discovered new kinds of rabbit holes to dive down.

Mississippi, especially, was one that we couldn't really take on because we were focusing on Tennessee with Dolly and the first book I read in 2020 was Kiesi Laymon's Heavy, which is such a good book. I bought it for my boss at that time, and I was like, you should read this. And I had already just started it, but by the time I got midway through the book, I thought to myself, "This is the best gift he has ever received."

ERIC: Yeah, talk about what he writes about in there. I read a blurb about it, but it sounds fascinating.

SHIMA: Yeah, so he's doing many things. He's a poet, I don't know if he would say that that's what he was doing... I actually kind of think that maybe he would, but he's very poetic in how he writes. He uses a tool where he's writing a letter to his mother, as he's writing the memoir. And I don't know if I want to ruin it for people who haven't read it yet, but the way he depicts childhood trauma, especially sexual trauma is unlike anything I'd ever read. And he is a phenomenal writer.

Also his life itself, he is someone who walks the walk. For instance, he's talking a lot about revision, revision is one of his works and he tweets a lot and I'll like a tweet, and then it's just gone. I'll retweet it, and I'll notice oh, this tweet is gone and he'll have deleted it. And I finally just asked him, I was like "Where do all your tweets go? Did you get in trouble? What is going on?" And he goes "No, I just like to revise," and then at one point he actually explained it online. He goes "Look, when I'm on Facebook, I can edit. So I'll write something and then I'll go back and edit it, but on Twitter, you can't do that, so I just delete it." And he's literally living his work as he's tweeting.

There's another kind of fun aspect of him. I worked with him on the Flag and the Fury, which was kind of a deep dive reporting international phenomenon that was supposed to just be about Mississippi at the height of the terror of the pandemic. We didn't quite know what was happening, and most people were hospitalized and he was the person I was mostly on the phone with besides some senators from Mississippi and Lawrence Dennis, who also went to Millsaps with him. So he became my kind of work community during that reporting.

And then I asked him to help me report out Harry Pace, the Vanishing of Harry Pace series. I really wanted his opinion. Before I actually brought the series or the story to anyone, I called him first and I said, "What do you think about the story?" And I walked him through the story. I still have the audio of that. It didn't make the series because we tell the story in the series, but he was like "Oh s**t, oh no!" You're going to beep me a lot. Like, "Oh f***, oh wait, what?" And then by this point, we'd become friends.

So we would be talking about life and what was going on with him, and me and whatever. Then I'd go back to the story and they were like "Oh, oh, oh," and then we'd go back to something else, and then I was like "Oh wait, there's more." The tape is so crazy. And then at the end, I said "Can we do the story?" He's like "Shima, you got to do the story, you have to. Thank you." So he gave me the confidence to push because it's very scary, it's about race in America during 2020 and 2021.

And I wanted to look at some of the gray matter, or the gray line in between black and white, which I don't think was being talked a lot about at that moment. Right now, with Passing and all of these, there's a ton of work coming out that looks kind of at the middle ground. Even within the Asian community, coming out about their own experiences with racism during the pandemic, I think a lot of people that feel lost in between these two binary worlds are sharing their stories. And a lot of people are part of both those worlds too, that feel the same way; lost in their identity in America.

ERIC: But you mentioned that Kiese also makes you laugh, it sounds like you've had a close working relationship with him. But do you also find anything in his writing, is there stuff that you'd recommend, or his social media posting, that really makes you laugh?

SHIMA: Everything. Everything he tweets about sports is just funny to me because he's part of this punk rock movement. I feel Kiese is the future. Like when I'm confused, I want to be more in line with whatever he's doing, I don't know.

He would probably totally disagree with me and say "Shima don't do that, please don't, stop, it's dangerous," but I like how he lives and he's just funny. For instance, I interviewed him for the Harry Pace series, I interviewed him so many times, but one of the conversations we had was about W.E.B Du Bois. Also, another book came out with his name and the title last year, that was a top seller. I think it was called Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois. That was the title of the book that came out last year about Du Bois, or was Du Bois adjacent.

I had actually interviewed Imani Perry about him and anyone you interview about Du Bois is totally full of respect and awe. And I asked him about the "talented tenth." Like what do you think about this talented tenth idea, and he's like "... Shima, you know what happened? He was like 'talented tenth, t-t-t-t, t-t-t-t.'"

ERIC: Fell in love with the alliteration.

SHIMA: Yeah! He's like "That s**t sounds good, that s**t sounds really good," and he's like, "I think it just sounded good." He almost recast him as a hip-hop artist, and it was just funny. I laughed so hard, my laptop shut down, like the whole thing, and then literally in the tape you hear "Oh s**t" because he sees the whole assembly I have in my kitchen at that time, had just totally broken down, but that's him.

His perspective is just so unique, and you don't see it coming when it's coming. He also got kicked out of Millsaps College for borrowing a library book without checking it out. And he'd fought a fraternity for dressing in black face and that didn't get him kicked out, but borrowing the book got him kicked out? And then Oberlin called and look, he didn't know what he was going to do. And Oberlin said "You're exactly the kind of student we're looking for."

So there's something kind of classical comedian about that, that even if you blunder, you fall, he wins. At least in my perspective, as an audience member and a fan. So I really appreciate that, and he just thinks it's funny. Nothing I tell him will ever faze him, and he always surprises me. Whenever I get on the phone with him, he always surprises me, and he's so honest.

As a journalist, if I'm calling someone, they don't want to really tell you what they think. He's really open, and I'm like that too, to a fault. I'm a little bit too open, and so is he, and I really appreciate that. I wish everyone were more like that, I think the world would change much more quickly.

ERIC: Get to the heart of it, yeah, exactly. Well that was Kiese Laymon, who is on Twitter and Instagram @KieseLaymon.

We have time for one more follow today. I asked you for "someone who makes the internet a better place," and you said Roxane Gay, who is on Twitter @rgay, and who also writes a newsletter called The Audacity at Roxanne is one of my favorite Twitter follows too. And I think I first heard her on an episode of This American Life called Tell Me I'm Fat. Do you remember how you first came across Roxane, or her work?

SHIMA: I'm sure it was through Bad Feminist, the essay. So one of my fantasies during the Dolly Parton project was for Dolly and Roxane to sit in a room and talk about feminism. I think they would actually really love each other. I love both of them, so yeah, anyway ...

ERIC: Explain for people who don't know Roxane, why would that have been such a good pairing? And I can kind of imagine it just from following Roxane's work, but ...

SHIMA: Well the first episode in the Dolly series looks at feminism, and at the fact that Dolly told us in an interview that she does not consider herself a feminist, but she is a feminist icon in America. So we were wrapping our heads around why is that, and why won't she just take on the term, and kind of looking at feminism in American history. And bad feminist is kind of what I think Dolly would call herself. She's like, "I'm a bad feminist, I got big boobs, fake hair, whatever, but I'm real inside," and that's Roxane. She just feels so real, although I've never met her.

She feels like such a benevolent force, in any aspect that you encounter her, she's always interesting. She has a wide array of tastes, her taste is excellent. When I get her newsletter, I almost pat myself on the back, when I'm like "That's what I thought, oh I love that essay too."

I felt like oh, the right things on Twitter this week, I read, I was attracted to reading because these are the things that she's bringing up. And then she also can just be so real, like "Guys, I don't even know about this," and just sends you an essay. She also highlighted a Kenyan writer this past week, and she looks global. I never would have read this blog if Roxane hadn't sent it, so I love that.

She talks back on the internet. I mean, women get attacked, especially if you are a feminist on the internet, but she's so good at responding without ever feeling like it overtakes her. That's just from my perspective. She also seems to enjoy the internet, even though it can be such a bad place for so many people.

So Roxane is one of the talking heads, or one of the interviewees, of this documentary called 15 Minutes of Shame. It came out on HBO Max this past year, but Roxane talks about the start of Twitter, like how it was so groundbreaking that you could reach out to anyone, how that had never happened before, and how revolutionary that was. You could talk to them, they might respond to you, it was just so groundbreaking.

I think I was not on Twitter at that time. I think I'm a bit younger than her, too, so I just wasn't on Twitter, and so I missed that aspect of all of this, but hearing her talk about it was so interesting. "Oh, there was a time where it wasn't like everyone was on," so you could maybe find your way through the ether, though you can still kind of do that now, but the joy of the internet was still alive in her, she could talk about that moment. But then she could also talk about the dark side at the flip end.

You know how you always want a good friend in your corner when you're fighting a battle? It feels like she's that person. It feels like in the war of our culture and everything happening right now, it's good to have her voice somewhere. It would be such a loss not to have her voice. I love her newsletter. Even with Wordle…

ERIC: She posts her Wordle results most days, yeah.

SHIMA: I'm not even talking about that, but she brought up Wordle in her newsletter last week, and it was written in the New York Times. So it wasn't like she made the story up or she necessarily reported it out, but she said "Did you know Wordle was a love story?" She just went to the thing that I actually cared about, I'm like oh, that's so nice. And then I played Wordle after I read the piece because I felt like there was a deeper connection. I just love how she sees, just like Kiese, and Ingrid, and Nina.

ERIC: She identifies some element of the story and really puts it in the spotlight. She identified something about Wordle that was not just this is a viral video game about words, but here's like an interesting human aspect of the story, of how it was made.

SHIMA: Yeah, and she has all these deep and traumatic pieces of writing in that newsletter, but she also just makes fun of things happening in pop culture, and she won't be cruel, though. I have found that she never errs on the side of cruelty, she'll just say "I don't know guys, I don't know." That is the perfect way to deal with something that's really hard or just very confusing or should not be a part of the culture. I mean, who are we to say what should be part of it or not, but things that are bizarre instead of skewering it, she'll just shrug her shoulders and make a side comment.

ERIC: Well what's something that you think the rest of us can do to make the internet a better place in the same way that Roxane does? What's something we can learn from her example?

SHIMA: Tell the truth. I don't even know, as soon as I say that, I don't even know, but yeah, tell the truth. It's very scary, I think, for a lot of people. I also want to say "don't censor," but right now, that's a big question, right? First amendment rights. Who gets to say what and how. It's tough. And if you see someone under fire, reach out.

I don't know. But who's under fire? It's like oh my God, I don't know. How do we make the internet better? I don't know. Take it away, read books!

ERIC: Yeah read books.

SHIMA: Yeah read books, it'll help you be more compassionate when you enter the internet sphere or the web. Actually, I think that's actually a great thing. Read more.

ERIC: Get off Twitter for a little bit and read something longer than 280 characters, yeah.

SHIMA: Go deeper. Yeah, I think that's a real travesty of our time. I read this book Deep Work recently about how it's really hard to sit down. There's another book coming out about this too, it's kind of in the ether right now. A lot of academics or writers are looking at the fact that we don't sit down for 2, 3, 4 hours just to look at one thing in depth. It's really important.

ERIC: Yeah, it changes how you comport yourself everywhere, including on Twitter, it has ripple effects too.

SHIMA: You can read Ingrid's thing about self-mesmerism to figure out how to do that. But Eric, what do you think?

ERIC: Your first response tell the truth, I think, is actually a big part of what I like about Roxane as well. I feel like, as you said, she's not cruel, she's not punching down on anyone, but she's also directly engaging with the heart of if there's a problem, she's acknowledging, this is a thing that we should talk about.

I think it's very easy and understandable, honestly, for folks who want to just close their eyes and say, I don't want to look at that, I don't want to think about that. I totally understand intellectually why so many people would do that, but I don't think Roxane does a lot of the time. I think she's brave, and I really admire that about her.

SHIMA: Can I ask you one more question?

ERIC: Yeah, of course.

SHIMA: Because the internet can feel so loud, especially when something is being debated, right? So for instance, Dave Chappelle's comedy special ... all of my comedy writer friends, everyone was calling each other, these are things that we talk about all the time. Especially when you're from a marginalized community and you're not part of the white, straight cis male culture, and you're not seen that way, who gets to say the joke? It's almost like an unwritten rule, but it's not for everyone. I have had comedy mentors who would kill me for saying this right now, but I do not think you should punch downward. Like if someone has less rights than you …. comedians are court gestures, and this is me going into like historical...

ERIC: You were preaching to the choir here, this is something I value and hold very dear. If you have a platform, if you have influence, power, punching down is one of the things that turns me off the most about any sort of performer.

SHIMA: People are so scared to speak up. I'm a little bit foolish like that, like I'll throw myself in front of the train. If anyone is hurting, I don't even think about it, but I think that that's where I get when someone's punching down or they don't even acknowledge that they're doing that. They think that they're still in the bottom rung, though they are a wealthy, happy person of privilege.

I'm not saying that they don't have their own suffering, everyone has suffering by the way, every human, that's why everyone can still tell a joke. Like everyone still has something that they can say, but I do think that that's so crucial. Yet, I saw what happened with Dave Chappelle, everyone got so loud online, right? And this is something that I really wrestled with on interviewing Dolly so many times over. And you can hear it in the Dollitics episode.

I talked much more at length with her. But there is a moment at the very end of the episode, where I ask, sometimes when I don't speak up, other people get hurt. I asked her about that, and she said that she had a great sense of timing. She said that she doesn't speak up, she doesn't get involved in politics. So my question to you, and this is my very long-winded way of saying things and asking you, how do you engage? As someone who observes people online and people that you think do it well and do it not so well, how do you engage in the noise without it devouring you? And without you creating more problems without hurting more people by accident, how do you do it?

ERIC: I wish I had an answer to that.

SHIMA: Can we call Roxane right now? Should we ask her?

ERIC: I wish, that'd be great. You got her number? Let's call her. I feel like since there is no simple answer to that, my philosophy on that is very imperfect, the half-baked notion is to elevate the people who need the spotlight and try not to elevate… Like the common thing on Twitter, I'm a Twitter addict, is the quote tweet where you are quoting someone else saying something stupid. And the point of that is to say hey, look at this idiot saying something offensive, saying something dumb about whatever. And all that does, of course, is it amplifies the toxic message, it amplifies the part of the conversation that should not be amplified. And so I think it's counter-programming in a way ... it's not enough, it's not everything. But this kind of programming makes sure that people who are marginalized are the ones who are being amplified, if you're a person who has that influence, or that power.

SHIMA: Yeah.

ERIC: But anyway, that was Roxane Gay, who is on Twitter @rgay.

Shima, thank you for sharing all these follows with us today. Before we go, let's make sure our listeners know how to find you online. Where do you want them to follow you?

SHIMA: I'm just my name, so it's @ShimaOliaee, a lot of vowels, on Twitter or Instagram, the same thing.

ERIC: Follow me on Twitter at @HeyHeyESJ and don't forget to follow or subscribe to Follow Friday in your podcast app. If you like this episode, then check out the past Follow Friday interviews with Avery Trufelman, Eric Molinsky, and Franklin Leonard.

Follow Friday's theme music was written by me and performed by Yona Marie. Our show art was illustrated by Dodi Hermawan. Special thanks to our Big Fri Patreon backers Jon and Justin. Visit for bonus follows, behind the scenes updates, and more.

That's all for this week. This is Eric Johnson, reminding you to talk about people behind their backs … and when you do, say something nice. See you next Friday.

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