Make It Scream, Make It Burn: Essays, Leslie Jamison 2019

Leslie Jamison is definitely on my short list for ‘Best Essayists’ writing in America today based on the Empathy Exams and this volume.  Why?  First of all, she is the epitome of the form Montaigne first used in the 16th C, adopting the French word ‘essay’, to try.  She explores her feelings and thoughts about a wide range of topics, using the essay form as a means of exploration not necessarily resolution.  Second, she delves into a most fascinating array of topics and characters.  The first chapters in this book explore the following ‘weird’ topics: a group of people who use the internet to communicate with and about Whale#52, a blue whale migrating north and south in the Pacific whose vocalizations are uniquely higher in frequency than other whales; a family in Louisiana who are convinced that their young son was the reincarnation of a Navy fighter pilot who died in WWII; the story of a missed plane, a layover, and the connection to a stranger who needed help for all the wrong reasons; and a long exploration of Second Life, an internet universe occupied by people who apparently are happier in their virtual life than in their real life.  Other chapters explore the result of the civil war in Sri Lanka, James Agee’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men,  Annie Appel, a photographer who has spent 23 years capturing a Mexican family on film, a family who she met in a random encounter on a Baja beach, and a number of strange encounters in Las Vegas. The final section is much more personal as Jamison shares her story of falling in love, becoming a step-mother, and having a baby.  Through all of these laceratingly personal and candid explorations, she writes beautifully with just the right comic touch to relieve what might otherwise be a painful reading experience.  Her insights are often brilliant in the “aha, now I get it” mode as in this description of becoming a stepmother and wife after years of broken relationships and emptiness:  “These days my life is less about the sublime state of solitary sadness or fractured heartbreak and more about waking up each day and making sure I show up to my commitments…Life now is less about the electricity of thresholds and more about continuance, coming back and muddling through; less about the grand drama of ending and more about the daily work of salvage and sustenance.” .  Her phrasing is often perfect, in the “ah, that’s beautiful” mode, as in her description of her mother upon learning that her fetus was a girl (i.e. Leslie):  “…she could still remember looking at the snow piled on the branches outside the window of her doctor’s office when he told her I would be a girl, as if all her longing had gathered on those branches—impossibly beautiful, utterly ordinary.”  Her explorations of writing, photography, and other art forms are thought-provoking as is her choice of a quote from William Carlos Williams about Walker Evans’ photographs: “What the artist does applies to everything, every day, everywhere to quicken and elucidate, to fortify and enlarge the life about him(her) and make it eloquent—to make it scream, as Evans does.”  Those words apply perfectly to Jamison’s writing in this terrific book.  Jamison has a tattoo on her forearm which says Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto, which is Latin for I am human; nothing is alien to me.  Her writing lives that motto.

Shop your local indie bookstore