Deez Interviews: Safy-Hallan Farah on the “divinity and cosmology” of our millennial internet brains 

This week’s interview is with Safy-Hallan Farah, the writer behind the internet must-read essay from earlier this month, All Alone in Their White Girl Pain, as well as this Vanity Fair piece sharing her Minneapolis native’s perspective on the murder of George Floyd. We talked about growing up on the internet, the power of self publishing, and Twitter, of course.

How did you get started in writing and cultural criticism? I’ve been struck by how “All Alone in Their White Girl Pain” doubles as a critique of the millennial internet, and I'm curious if being like, a Tumblr kid influenced your path into writing. 

I started writing online at age 12 via the blogging site Xanga, my Neopets guild, a Holes and a Harry Potter forum, respectively, and on the Geocities and Freewebs websites I maintained. Tumblr came into my life when I was 19. It facilitated many connections with writers and editors, leading me to publish professionally for the first time in 2012. 

To that end, “All Alone in Their White Girl Pain,” is absolutely a critique of the millennial internet I grew up on. Which is to say, I’m not unique in deciding that I wanted to write down my observations about culture, but I am probably more unique in pursuing it doggedly as a career, after years of it being a hobby. Had I not been given a lot of time, as a kid, to play around and develop writing skills, I probably wouldn’t have been able to to cultivate a freelance career out of that playtime.

My essay is a lot of millennial internet brain stuff from 2012-2013, which feels dated in some ways, but in other ways, there’s a divinity and cosmology to it. It’s connected me to so many people who’ve been thinking the same things for years, waiting for someone to say something substantive and close that chapter. I like that, the way notions swirl around, widely circulating in the collective consciousness. To my mind, it’s experiential parallel thinking, so we all lay claim to these ideas. But, like the first to file a patent, only the person who writes their ideas is the one who gets to be interviewed by Delia Cai for Deez Links. 

Moreover, in pursuit of self-actualization, I’ve had many discussions with similarly internet-fluent black women like writer and podcast producer Fatuma Khaireh, Canadian DJ Effy Adar, poet Alia Abdullahi, and cultural critic Cassie da Costa. They are all women with similarly indie leanings who’ve taught me phrases like “raw material” and “invisibilization,” terms that give voice to class, race, and gender preoccupations that the cultural production of white girls like Audrey Wollen minimizes.

As you revealed on Twitter, you ended up choosing to self-publish this essay on your newsletter, Hip to Waste, instead of letting a dream publication cut it in half. Tell me more about that decision. Was it scary to make?

I sat on the essay for a month, unsure of whether I should pitch it elsewhere. I even considered reformatting it (read: making it more conversational) to be the basis of a podcast script. 

I had every intention of utilizing my newsletter eventually, but I didn’t believe in the power of self-publishing yet, so couldn’t yet conceive of myself taking a chance on what I consider writing that isn’t throwaway writing. I no longer view self-publishing via Substack as a potential waste of valuable writing. The fact that I believed that about self-publishing is shallow. 

These days, I am trying to align myself less with what I think success looks like, and more with how I think it should make me feel: liberated, energetic, accessing more parts of myself, connection with authentic people, sharing ideas with like-minded people and increasing my capacity for all of these feelings by way of writing and publishing what I want.

In your 2017 essay for Real Life mag, you write about how alt accounts offer a form of expression "isolated from the din of the rest of the internet," and that it isn't about being like, secretive per se, but to be able to "represent the breadth of one's identity," so I could see the Substack publishing falling in line with that. 

There is a common trope amongst writers online who joke about being "too online" or "too available" or talking about themselves as ever-present brands, and I'm curious if that has been your experience and how you’ve navigated public vs. private expression on the internet. 

Yeah, that’s totally me. I tweet from a locked account for the most part. It’s cool to get attention for a piece of writing or a joke, but when I don’t actually know the source of the attention, I get kind of skittish. I retreat inward. I’m way more reticent to share myself these days because my newfound visibility isn’t very comfortable for me. I would like to eventually divest from 

This question of public vs. private expression also leads into the one I have about your Vanity Fair essay about growing up blocks from where George Floyd was murdered: how did it feel to be able to add such a deeply personal perspective to this international story? Was any of it in reaction to poorly done coverage you'd seen elsewhere?

No, none of it was in reaction to other writers/reporters. I think the news coverage of George Floyd’s murder, at the local level at least, has been mostly good. I was mostly reacting to the smugness of anonymous commentators who live in Minneapolis who seemed hellbent on delegitimizing rioting and looting as acts of protest.

Finally, what can you tell us about what you're working on next? 

I’m working on a lot of profiles, essays, music criticism and fiction, among other things! I have a really long piece on Taylor Swift I’ll be dropping very soon. Follow my newsletter Hip to Waste, as well as my Twitter for updates!

Deez Links is a dailyish newsletter written by delia cai.