The Precipice of Possibility: Leslie Jamison’s Make It Scream, Make It Burn

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Not long ago, Leslie Jamison received the exciting kind of directive from a travel magazine that many writers dream of: Go somewhere, write about it, and we’ll pay you for it.

Perhaps even more exciting was the fact that Jamison would learn of her destination only twenty-four hours before she went. “It was the kind of assignment that made other people jealous,” she writes in the beginning the essay “Up in Jaffna”—and from my stuffy, crowded Brooklyn-bound subway car, I couldn’t disagree. What sounds more exciting, more fulfilling, than knowing you’re going to be sent to write about a random place in the world on somebody else’s dime? Talk about being a real writer. Talk about adventure.

Before I can jealously drum up a list of places that I would want to be sent (or, more realistically, places where I wouldn’t want to be sent, since I’m a picky eater and the only language I know thoroughly is English), Jamison puts me in check. Because while there is something exciting about her mission, she quickly points out that there might be something a bit “shameful” in it, too, “As if it had distilled a certain colonial arrogance into a jaunty journalistic lark: I’ll just show up ignorant and narrate this place!

The irony is that this is often exactly what she must do as a writer. But she does it gracefully and humbly, calling attention to her own blind spots and coming to terms with her responsibilities not just as a writer, but also as a human being.

Such self-awareness finds its way into each of the fourteen pieces that comprise Make It Scream, Make It Burn, Leslie Jamison’s latest essay collection. As riveting as ever, Jamison’s writing elicited within me many of the same responses I felt while reading her previous essay collection, The Empathy Exams: enlightenment, amusement, and of course, empathy itself. Like her 2014 work, Make It Scream also features a tremendous range of subjects: from a maybe-lonely whale to a child who was possibly possessed by a WWII pilot; from an irritating woman on a layover to an anxious journalist struggling to wrap his arms around the Great Depression. Divided into three parts—“Longing,” “Looking,” and “Dwelling”—Make It Scream, Make It Burn takes readers on a deep dive through various complicated themes like faith, hope, love, and loneliness. We, the readers, must sort through the pieces Jamison unearths right along with her, parsing out the superfluous from the essential and the expectation from the reality.

In “The Real Smoke,” we are pulled into Las Vegas, a place where many writers have gone before. But Vegas through Jamison’s wry, observant lens is cast in a refreshing light. It’s more than a place where “[y]ou could switch from Paris to Venice, from Luxor to New York, from the circus to the castle.” It’s more than a place where “[y]ou could get married. Then you could take it back.” For Jamison, who is two years sober when she is invited to read at the UNLV writing program, the City of Sin is a place that is so fake that it’s actually “radically honest”:

Even if it was trying too hard, it wasn’t trying to be something it wasn’t. Sure, it was lowbrow and absurd. Sure, it was tasteless. But fuck the snobs of taste. Why disdain Vegas for openly admitting what was already true everywhere? The whole world was making promises it couldn’t keep. The whole world was out to scam you. Vegas was just upfront about it. It put marquee lights around it. To me, Vegas felt like the urban-planning equivalent of a homeless man we passed whose sign said: WHY LIE? I WANT BEER.

While she’s able to see through the fakery, Jamison—who is fresh out of a four-year relationship at the time of her Vegas visit—still finds herself enticed by “the glimmering suggestion of what it might be like to fall in love with someone else.” (Jamison opens up often about her own personal life throughout this collection, in some moments offering us brief glimpses, and in others—particularly in the last section, “Dwelling”—revealing large swaths of interiority.) Even if that “glimmering suggestion” turns out to be merely a fling, she does not discount its importance. She decides that the anticipation of falling in love alone is “arguably even better” than the feeling itself. “Nothing was really at stake,” she recalls. “It was more like opening a window without having to go outside and face the sky itself.”

As it turns out, it isn’t love. Not this time, anyway. But there are no hard feelings—at least, not on the page. Jamison still grants us the space to believe that being on the precipice of a feeling we’ve been craving can be just as thrilling.

This thrill that comes with being on the precipice of possibility runs rampant throughout Make It Scream, Make It Burn. In “Maximum Exposure,” we meet Annie, a photographer who travels to Baja California from Los Angeles in order to take pictures of the same family over and over again—with their permission—for twenty-five years. “It’s the problem of Borges’s imagined map,” Jamison observes, as she assesses Annie’s compulsion to keep documenting. “In order to show every detail of the world, a map would have to be as large as the world itself… It would never be done.”

“Sim Life,” a probe into the once-popular virtual world Second Life (also described by Jamison as “the thing you haven’t bothered to joke about for years”), brings us into the lives of individuals who go online to assume new identities, in search of their own new possibilities. One of the most refreshing things about this eye-opening essay—in addition to the anecdote that Jamison gets her own avatar and tries and fails to start a conga line—is the fact she does not dismiss the people who are drawn to it. Nor does she waste too much time warning us, Black Mirror-style, of the psychological implications that come with living a life in the unreal world. Sure, Jamison pushes back against the idea of Second Life being “an equal playing field,” and she astutely points out that it “promises another reality but can’t fully deliver the rifts and fissures that give reality its grain.” (It is these “rifts and fissures”—everyday occurrences that “lie beyond our agency and prediction,” like unwelcome smells and unexpected rat sightings—that make us feel truly alive, she argues). But she also admits that it’s likely her own privilege has a lot to do with her initial resistance to a platform that lives online: “[M]y aversion to Second Life—as well as my embrace of flaw and imperfection in the physical world—testified to my own good fortune as much as anything,” she confesses.

Even more significant is Jamison’s challenge of the supposition that Second Life is “escapist”:

[F]or me, the question isn’t whether Second Life involves escape. The more important point is that the impulse to escape our lives is universal, and hardly worth vilifying. Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it—through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, hard drugs, adultery, a smart-phone screen. These forms of “leaving” aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms—the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.

It’s tempting to see the people she writes about as wanting to escape in some way: the black woman who lives her online life as a California blonde; the woman who is unable to have biological children of her own and has virtual children instead; the woman with multiple sclerosis who found Second Life after “wondering if there could be more.” But Jamison does not allow us to settle for the simple narrative that Second Life is only relevant for a specific kind of person having a hard time in the physical world—an “Other.” The desires of those who frequent virtual worlds are more intrinsic than we may think.

While “Sim Life” looks at the different kinds of lives that could exist outside of our bodies, “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again” looks at the lives that could exist within them. Initially, this essay’s focus on reincarnation seems to come from the same place the collection’s first essay—a piece that centers on a special whale—might have originated: out of left field. One can’t help but wonder if Jamison herself feels this way, too, as she opens up about her own opinions on the notion that one could have memories of living a past life. “In some deep unspoken part of my psyche, I’d convinced myself that agnosticism and acceptance were moral virtues unto themselves,” she writes, “but in truth I wasn’t so sure. Maybe I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by pretending that my belief system was agnostic enough to hold everything as equally valid.”

But a little later on in the essay, Jamison confronts her own inability to relate. She recalls hearing a news story in which a little boy in Queens has gone missing; she recalls having hope that he would be found, safe. How is her faith different? “Reincarnation struck me as an articulation of faith in the self as something that could transform and stay continuous at once—in sobriety, in love, in the body of a stranger,” she writes. “We can’t know for sure until the body turns up in the river—and even then, it might not be the end.” The biggest thing we can do, Jamison says, is “stay humble.”

It’s easier said than done. Unsurprisingly, Jamison does not turn down that free trip to Sri Lanka that she tells us about in “Up in Jaffna.” And arguably just as unsurprising, the assignment that’s supposed to make everybody else green with envy leaves her unsettled. She expresses guilt at her sense of futility in a foreign place: “People like me—which is to say, people who’ve had the privilege to travel, and to think of traveling as a constituent part of their identity—often like to travel where others like themselves haven’t already gone, often like to think of this travel as more ‘authentic’ and less ‘touristic,’” she writes. “But in Jaffna, being away from other tourists didn’t make me feel less like a tourist. Just the opposite. I was looked at, sussed out, wondered about, and rightly so, because what was I doing there, anyway?”

These lines, and many other lines in this book, are in direct conversation with the tattoo Jamison tells us she has on her arm: “Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto,” which means “I am human, nothing human is alien to me.” Of the veracity of this tattoo, which could be seen as the most empathetic of statements, she expresses her own doubts. “Had I been foolishly unwilling to acknowledge that some people were alien to me?” she wonders. “Was it naïve or even ethically irresponsible to believe I should find common ground with everyone, or that it was even possible?”

By the time I finished Make It Scream, Make It Burn, I felt unsure about the answer to these questions, and even more unsure about my own beliefs around many of the topics Jamison discusses in this collection, like marriage and reincarnation and the white woman who has been photographing the same Mexican family for a quarter of a century. But Jamison isn’t trying to convince me or you or any of her readers of anything except that perhaps this unsureness we feel toward the unknown—this uneasiness—is absolutely essential. Perhaps, when we try to tell a story that is not our own, we should be asking ourselves, What am I doing here, anyway? And perhaps this question belongs in the narrative, even if we don’t know the answer.

Zakiya Harris is a writer and part-time creative writing instructor who holds an MFA from The New School. She lives in Brooklyn, where she spends an inordinate amount of time falling down random Spotify rabbit holes (usually while working on her first novel, but not always). You can find her on Twitter at @zakiya_harris. More from this author →