The tattoo reappears as a subject of interrogation, tension and reflection in Jamison’s rich new collection of essays, Make it Scream, Make it Burn.
“Was it naive or even ethically irresponsible to believe I should find common ground with everyone, or was that even possible?” Jamison asks of her tattoo after meeting a gun-lover in her engrossing essay about reincarnation, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again.
The shape-shifting tattoo is also a useful embodiment of Jamison’s wider project: her writing is intensely interested in how meaning is made; the stories of our stories. Her essays hunt out the grey spaces, interested in fractures rather than resolutions; battering binaries of the seer and seen, the “I” and “you”, the past and present.
The collection of 14 essays in Make it Scream, Make it Burn are presented through a triptych of Longing, Looking and Dwelling. In her earlier acclaimed essay collection, The Empathy Exams (2014), Jamison’s gaze moved from inwards to outwards; here she pivots from pieces about others to pieces about the self. The essays have mostly been published before but have been revised, some drastically, for the collection.
The first section, Longing, consists of reported pieces that are broadly interested in the “human hunger for narratives” and the obsessions we use to define ourselves. There are absorbing essays, including one about the dynamic personal responses to 52 Blue, “the world’s loneliest whale”, whose call had an unprecedented frequency; and another about users of Second Life, a virtual online world that “crystallises the simultaneous siren call and shame of wanting a different life”.
Part two, Looking, examines the relationship between reporter and subject and the “elusive horizon of a complete gaze” through works of travel and criticism, including an essay about a documentary photographer who has taken images of members of the same family in Mexico for 25 years.
Jamison comes more intensely in focus in the third and final section, Dwelling, which includes personal essays about her relationship with her brother, her marriage, the challenges of being a stepmother and her pregnancy.
“I know that there are certain things that I will be obsessed by, probably until the end of my days, like the ways in which we can’t ever fully know another person, or the essential incompleteness of empathy, or the comprehension of another consciousness. I feel like that note is inexhaustible to me. And I hope that each time I strike it, I strike it in some way that adds a layer and inflection to it, or it’s coming to that idea from a different circumstance in a way that illuminates it,” says Jamison, who runs the graduate non-fiction program at Columbia University.
As Jamison deconstructs the homes we make for ourselves within stories, she maintains a consistent self-reflexivity about her own role as storyteller.
“I think I do have a kind of compulsive need to question the way the story is being told as I’m telling it and sometimes that can feel pretty claustrophobic but it also helps me feel alive and present in the story because I’m not shutting down that part of my brain. I’m letting that part of my brain speak and say its piece. And then when I edit, when I revise, when I make the second draft and the third draft and the fourth draft, I can sort of just fix out that excess self-consciousness if I don’t feel like it’s doing any good work,” Jamison says, when I question if she ever gets stuck in a spiral of self-reflection.
Her search for just the right words continues off the page and within our interview. It was Australian writer Nam Le, a close friend she met while at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who told Jamison: “Other people speak in sentences and you speak in paragraphs.”
If Jamison twists and turns her way around articulation, her essays do the same. They often take us as readers, and Jamison as a writer, to unexpected places. Surprise is one of the animating elements of writing for Jamison; she doesn’t know where she will end up when she starts to write. The Real Smoke began life as an essay about how the architecture of the Las Vegas Strip reflects collective desire but shifted when she had a promising-turned-lacklustre romance with a man in Las Vegas and again changed shape after she met her husband. An exploration of unbounded illusion turned into a tale of “inhabiting ordinary days”.
Jamison married American writer Charles Bock, author of the novel Beautiful Children, after meeting him in a Manhattan writing space where they both worked and he asked her to translate her tattoo. They eloped to Las Vegas, and married at the Little White Chapel. Jamison became stepmother to Bock’s daughter, Lily, and later gave birth to another daughter, Ione Bird.
In her 2018 book, The Recovering, Jamison wrote about her battle with drinking and the cultural history of alcoholism, including its literary representation and mythologies about the link between creativity and addiction. She joined the 12-step program and has been sober since 2010. Jamison continues to be drawn to how stories of wellness are told, in uncovering the complexities of states of intimacy, joy and happiness.
I do have a kind of compulsive need to question the way the story is being told as I’m telling it.
“When you turn away from high drama or intense self-destruction as having a kind of monopoly on profundity or meaning or intensity, it’s almost like you clear some of these big shadows and make room for a heightened attention to all the things that comprise ‘unremarkable’ ordinary experience, like what it means to wake up and care for your child and teach a class full of students, and to try to connect with your partner at the end of the day,” Jamison says.
“All of these things that aren’t the stuff of headline news or even essayistic headlines, but where there’s all sorts of fascinating interpersonal dynamics playing out, even in those quiet moments.”
In the collection’s final essay, The Quickening, Jamison weaves together an account of the eating disorder she experienced when she was younger and the pregnancy and birth of her daughter, now two years old.
“If the work of starvation had been as small and airless as a closet, then the work of birth was as wide as the sky. It expanded with all the unknowns of a life that would happen in the body that my body had made possible,” she writes.
Motherhood is a subject Jamison finds compelling, drawn to the tension between the profundity of being a mother, and the every-day, unliterary grind of having a child. She’s still searching for the contradictions, just of a new personal frontier.
“I haven’t written very much about motherhood yet, but I’m really interested in writing about it. It feels like the kind of next big challenge to me in a compelling way,” she says.
There’s also a second novel in the works; her debut, The Gin Closet, was published nearly a decade ago.
And a second tattoo? Jamison says travel writer Paul Theroux once told her about a philosophy of tattooing where the body is supposed to be in balance; a tattoo on the forearm stabilised by one on the ankle. She likes the idea of that balance. The other plan involves integrating a tattoo with the c-section scar from her daughter’s birth. Does it worry her that she might not always feel the same way about a tattoo?
“If there were such a thing as knowing always how you would feel about a statement or image, then you wouldn’t be sort of leaping in that way … kind of like a leaping without total surety. And I like that. I like that energy in it.”
But, Jamison laughs, “I could revise this very sentiment 10 years from now”.
Make it Scream, Make it Burn is published by Granta at $32.99.
Melanie Kembrey is Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald