Animating Tension: A Conversation with Leslie Jamison

By Sarah NeilsonOctober 3, 2019

Animating Tension: A Conversation with Leslie Jamison
LESLIE JAMISON IS NO STRANGER to tough questions. In fact, she’s undyingly attracted to them. Her three previous works — the novel The Gin Closet (2010), the essay collection The Empathy Exams (2014), and the memoir The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath (2018) — all deal explicitly with addiction, relationships, and other big, messy ideas.

Her latest collection of essays, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, uses 14 seemingly disparate topics — from an anthropomorphized whale to the virtual world of Second Life to Jamison’s own eating disorder and pregnancy — to grapple with the innate tensions between seer and seen, individuality and universality, inner and outer worlds. Moving in a thematic spiral from outward gaze to inward reckoning, these essays blur the lines we draw for ourselves when we seek categorization. 

I sat down with Jamison to talk about obsession, narrative structure, art and journalism, Arlette Farge, and corporeality.


SARAH NEILSON: You write in Make It Scream, Make It Burn about the drive, even craving, to find or create a cohesive story. Below the surface of the seemingly disparate subjects of these essays is the human longing for connection or meaning. But the sheer variety of jumping-off points is stunning — from a unique whale in the Pacific, to a museum of breakup memorabilia, to a group of ostensibly reincarnated people, to the virtual world of Second Life, to tourism in Sri Lanka, to a philosophical analysis of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), to name a few. How do you approach a new (and sometimes obscure) topic and begin to craft (or search out) a narrative?

LESLIE JAMISON: Diving into a topic with an intrinsically fascinating surface texture — past life memories! the loneliest whale in the world! the museum full of break-up relics! — is like starting with training wheels. And variety keeps things dynamic and evolving; it keeps the act of returning to recurring obsessions from getting stale. There are certain obsessions — certain animating tensions — that I will always come back to: the friction between this deep longing for intimacy and all the things that are difficult to inhabit about intimacy; the way we crave community but always find ways of feeling apart from others, from the world, from home; the yearning to know other people and the impossibility of ever knowing them. I’m going to be obsessed with those tensions no matter what. They’ll follow me wherever I go. But I think there’s some relief from the claustrophobia of those obsessions to have the concrete terrain of every investigation be a little bit different, whether it’s looking at my own life or looking at the world around me through criticism or reportage.

There’s something so exciting about an essay collection — it’s a book that can hold the multiplicity of looking in many different directions. When I land inside a new investigation, it’s an exciting stage because I don’t need to have the narrative all figured out. And I think that’s one of the reasons that sometimes I’m really bad at pitching pieces to magazines. Because, honestly, what a pitch involves is some version of knowing the narrative before it’s played out, which is pretty much antithetical to the whole project for me. I can know some of the animating questions before I start out, but if I’m doing my job right, even the questions end up being something different than I thought they were going to be at the outset.

There’s something simultaneously terrifying and liberating about not knowing the story when I begin. With the first essay in the collection, “52 Blue,” about “the loneliest whale in the world,” I had a very specific vision of how I wanted my research process to play out: I wanted to establish a relationship with Mary Ann Daher, the scientist who had studied the whale, and hear about her experience of researching the whale, writing about the whale, and then hearing from all of these many and diverse strangers who had become obsessed with the whale as a symbol of their loneliness or a symbol of their triumphant solitude. I hoped that she was going to share with me the letters that she’d gotten from these countless strangers.

But the research process didn’t play out that way at all. She was sick of talking to the media and didn’t want to share her heartwarming letters from strangers. So I ended up having to find other ways of getting people to talk and building relationships with them. So there’s a way in which you have to learn the research methodology as you go along: whatever combination of research, archives, interviews, reading, thinking it’s going to take to get you into a given story, you have to be willing to constantly abandon or revise your notions of how the research is going to play out. In terms of figuring out what intellectual or conceptual story I’m crafting, it always has to be utterly responsive to the materials.

Most of these essays deal in some way with what it means to have a sense of self. You write about this in The Recovering too — that recovery asks you to understand yourself and your identity as unoriginal and interchangeable. In the essay “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again,” you draw an explicit line between recovery and reincarnation. And yet, in the same essay, you wonder, “Was it naïve or even ethically irresponsible to believe I should find common ground with everyone, or that it was even possible?” This paradox of being completely unoriginal and yet existing apart from others — sometimes in ways that might compromise ethics — is fascinating; it seems to be one of those unanswerable questions (of which there are many in this book). Can you talk about coming to terms with this kind of moral and existential ambivalence?

With almost all of the ideas I’m interested in, I find myself drawn to tensions rather than resolutions. And certainly one of those tensions is the tension between identification and recognition of difference. My heart is often drawn toward resonance and lines of connection and identification — ways into the anchoring truth that so much experience is shared, that so many things you feel have been felt before. There’s a kind of fundamental grace and consolation in that sharedness. But alongside that heart-pull toward identification, I have a strong intellectual skepticism, a belief that totalizing identification is a fallacy.

I’m constantly calling myself back to say, “Is it naïve to identify too fully with other people? Does it elide differences in irresponsible ways? Does it become a kind of moral relativism to identify too strongly or too quickly?” But in the end I’m less interested in settling either on identification or on some kind of absolutist notion of difference and more interested in shuttling back and forth between those two ideas.

One of the little through-lines across various essays in the collection is the way my tattoo keeps showing up in my own mind or in conversations; the tattoo says, “Nothing human is alien to me.” Having that literally written in ink on my arm forces me to keep testing out that idea in various contexts. When I’m talking to a guy in Louisiana with a lot of guns in “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again,” for example, or when I’m in Sri Lanka in “Up in Jaffna,” what does it mean for me to want to believe that nothing is alien to me? How can that verge into the dangerous territory of wanting to apologize for everything or excuse everything, or the hubris of thinking I “get” everything? I come up against the fact that there are lots of things in the world that are alien to me, and there’s an arrogance in presuming otherwise. It’s less that I want to completely affirm or completely invalidate the tattoo on my arm and more that I’m interested in the electricity of it being constantly challenged.

In the section entitled “Looking,” you write about how there can be beauty in violence and that representation — through reporting, photography, or documentation of some kind — can be inherently exploitative. You also explore whether self-aware moral handwringing within documentaries (such as Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or, to an extent, Annie Appel’s photography in Maximum Exposure) is “melodramatic” and perhaps even self-aggrandizing. What are your thoughts on the role the writer does/should play in reported work?

Self-aware moral handwringing is only one of many ways that a reporter can become present as an “I” figure in the narrative. There are many different ways to feel the presence of an “I,” and that kind of guilty confession is only one of them. Some of the other ones that are interesting to me have to do with ways in which the emotional backstory of a reporter gets activated or charged or becomes relevant inside a piece.

In my own writing, one example of that would be “Museum of Broken Hearts,” where I go to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb. I’m occupying a reportorial self to some extent in that piece because I’m doing interviews with the founder of the museum, and I came to the museum as a critic, examining all the installations in the museum, all these relics from strangers’ relationships. But a straight reportorial version of that piece was not at all the version I was interested in writing because, to me, the real heat and heart of it comes from allowing myself to also be a deeply subjective, deeply emotional voice — thinking about the objects that rise to memory from past relationships of my own and how those objects deliver me to these more fundamental questions: How do relationships keep living inside us even when they’re done? Why do we have some teleological sense that intimacy is only worthwhile if it lasts forever, or that it has to occupy some kind of progressive marriage plot line or else the relationship has failed?

The play between introspection and the outward gaze of journalism is more interesting than either one on its own. But I’m constantly adjudicating how much of myself to put in a piece. For me, it’s always about the presence of a certain kind of self-consciousness that delivers you to some idea that you couldn’t have gotten to otherwise. I think moral handwringing in and of itself seems gratuitous and unnecessary and obtrusive when it simply seems to be there as a kind of preemptive inoculation; it feels sort of static, or just self-protective. But if there’s a way that the moral handwringing can deliver you to some new idea, then I think it’s doing something more dynamic.

So, for example, with Agee, he has this fantasy of having an orgy with one of his subjects (and his photographer, Walker Evans), and there is clearly something very offensive about it. But at the same time, I think it acknowledges what’s often already there: an implicitly or even explicitly erotic relationship between a journalist and a subject. And by bringing that kind of self-consciousness into his text, Agee gives himself the opportunity to analyze that erotic exchange and what it holds: for him, the desire to feel somehow horizontal with his subject rather than just vertically regarding her as an object of analysis. It’s a way for him to think about the intimacy he craves with his subjects, but also the impossibility of ever consummating that intimacy. All of those are new ideas that are brought into the fray by virtue of that moral self-consciousness; it’s not just there for its own sake.

Make It Scream is structured into three sections: “Longing,” “Looking,” and “Dwelling.” I love this because these verbs can describe or explain most human behavior in some way, and this collection is very much about human behavior. Can you talk about how these section titles emerged, and what the process of structuring the book was like?

You can think about the structure of the book in terms of method: “Longing” is largely reported pieces, “Looking” is largely critical pieces, and “Dwelling” is largely personal pieces. I was interested in the arc across those three sections, starting from a reportorial outward gaze and then getting closer and closer to the self that’s doing the gazing. So you start following this reporter through the world, and then you land inside her mind where she’s regarding photographs and texts, and then you get deeper into her emotional life. There’s a turning from outward to inward across the course of the book in that transition from reportage to criticism to personal essay.

But there’s also a kind of conceptual arc that has to do with thinking about the transition from longing to having. The early essays are looking at what it means to long for something you can’t ever fully reach or touch — whether that’s the anthropomorphized text of “The Loneliest Whale in the World” or the possibility of a prior life that you’ll never fully understand or the creation of a second life online. There are all of these ways of launching yourself out of your proximate existence. But, by the end of the collection, I’m thinking less about ways of launching out of our proximate lives and more trying to reckon with how we live in our proximate lives. How do we live in marriages, how do we live as parents? I use my own personal experience to engage those questions, which is how I always think about personal experience when it comes to writing — it’s less disclosure for its own sake and more invocation of personal experience as a way to reckon with larger questions.

Ultimately the collection is interrogating or rendering porous any hard and fast distinction between what it means to inhabit your life and escape your life.

That segues really well into my next question. In this final section, “Dwelling,” you write about coming home into the self, but this is not really a peaceful process; these final essays reckon with the autonomous body. A body bears scars — for example, you write about the scars of an eating disorder. And yet the body regenerates in many ways, as it does the work of being married and loving a family and growing a baby and giving birth (which also leaves literal scars). Can you talk about the more corporeal writing of this section versus the more intellectual/philosophical writing of the first two sections?

Such a beautiful way of framing the question! Writing about bodily experience is another one of those obsessions I can’t leave behind — no matter what I’m doing or what I’m writing about. So even when I’m working in a more reportorial mode, I’m constantly obsessed with doing a certain kind of sensory world-building, trying to grant the prose a certain sensory texture — or rather, honoring the inescapably sensory texture of experience, the ways our bodies are always part of it.

I think the fact that I like to write in a very sensory, very detailed, very embodied way, it makes me a better reporter than I would otherwise be. It keeps me from getting lazy! I come to reporting as a fiction writer, which is to say that I come to reporting untrained and flailing and trying to survive. But I know that, if I want to write the way that I love to write, I’m going to need to take a lot of notes along the way. That’s part of what motivates me to be constantly scribbling details and making sure that I have all the arrows in my quiver for when I’m back at my computer. I don’t want a piece to feel hopelessly ungrounded and abstract. I want to make sure I have the carnivorous plants and the whale-shaped cookies and the deflated reindeer lawn animals. That’s where truth lives, for me, in those physical particulars and where they take us.

Of course, when I’m writing from my own life, I’m able to get that much deeper into the texture of experience. It’s impossible for me to consider consciousness without thinking about how bodily experience is constantly inflecting that consciousness. So, as you were mentioning, the final essay in the collection is motivated structurally, intellectually, emotionally by thinking about two extreme bodily experiences in juxtaposition, the experience of making the body small through an eating disorder and the experience of feeling the body expand through pregnancy.

A lot of what we’ve been talking about so far has to do with intellectual tensions. I think a lot of the time I’m animated as a writer by not looking at something singly but instead seeing it in relation to or in juxtaposition with something else. So the whole premise of that final essay is that I could say things about experience by looking at my eating disorder and pregnancy alongside each other that I couldn’t say if I was just looking at one or the other exclusively.

Finally, I like to end interviews by giving people the chance to talk about other writers. Who or what are you currently reading, what are you excited to read, and/or who do you draw literary inspiration from?

Perfect! An excuse to bring us back to my obsession with archives. I just finished reading a book called The Allure of the Archives by a French historian named Arlette Farge. She works with Parisian judicial records from the 18th century, but this book isn’t straight history; it’s an experiential account of what happens when you’re engaging with the archives. She writes so beautifully about reading around or past or against archives, how you can see these flashes of human life and consciousness and voice and intelligence moving through these official records. She talks about it as a “breeze” moving through the archives. (Or the strange thrill of coming across a very clinical, humdrum account of the Marquis de Sade stabbing a horse!)

We were talking about animating tensions. I’m always talking about animating tensions! Farge is interested in the ways you have to be constantly seeking the truth in the archives while also constantly recognizing that you’re not going to find the Truth with a capital T. I was really drawn to her intelligence, and her refusal to rest on one of those extremes or the other. She’s also really smart and funny about the practical experience of being in the archives: listening to the rustling of papers and the tapping feet of the people around you, the struggle to get the best seat by the window, giving dagger eyes to the person who gets it instead. I love her attention to the ways that research — archival research, reportage, critical thinking — is always connected to an ordinary person in an ordinary body. I love when people get those human nuances into the frame.


Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer. She can be found on Instagram @readrunsea, on Twitter @sarahmariewrote, and on her website at

LARB Contributor

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Rewire News, Buzzfeed, and Kirkus.


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