In her new essay collection Make it Scream, Make it Burn, Leslie Jamison writes about subjects as disparate as you can imagine. From blue whales to the Museum of Broken Hearts to Sri Lanka, she lends a fascinating gravity to seemingly mundane topics.
What brings the essays together, other than Jamison’s own lyrical and ruminative prose, is not always immediately clear. In an essay about children who remember past lives, she notes, “I found myself increasingly addicted to writing about lives or beliefs that others might easily dismiss,” which could be viewed as a thread that winds through the entire collection. Jamison’s willingness to inhabit corners of society others overlook is, perhaps, the glue that holds the book together.
But Jamison herself is also a constant presence. She doesn’t hold herself at arm’s length from her subjects or her own reactions to them. Jamison writes multiple times about a tattoo on her arm that reads, “I am human, nothing human is alien to me,” a declaration she constantly questions as she encounters new, bizarre or uncomfortable experiences. It’s a meaningful perspective to include, but one that can feel out of place. When a man she’s interviewing wants to show her his gun collection, she wonders if she can truly relate to him—a seemingly throwaway moment with little connection to the rest of the essay. The question of her tattoo and how she’s experienced the world through it could (and should) be an essay unto itself, rather than a feature that appears at random throughout others.
The collection is broken into three sections: Longing, Looking and Dwelling. Looking, the strongest section of the book, includes essays that question the ways in which we see, observe and understand. Jamison writes beautifully about Civil War photography, a travel assignment that dropped her into Sri Lanka with virtually no preparation, James Agee’s writing on Alabama sharecroppers, and photographer Annie Appel’s 25-year project highlighting a Mexican woman and her family. Her ability to wrap together unique threads of narrative and observation is well suited to these subjects—so, too, is her penchant for not finishing on a judgmental note. Complex topics like war photography or the travel writing industry are nuanced enough for Jamison to end her essays with the sense of a question mark.
Elsewhere, though, the reader might want more than Jamison provides. Her writing is lovely; her thinking is at once intellectual and accessible; her subjects are fascinating. And yet, in many of the essays, the end result feels like less than its parts. Jamison’s ability to blur the lines between memoir and reportage has set her apart as a writer, and when she’s at her best, there are few like her. But she sometimes loses the thread when she shifts focus between herself and the subject. While the prose in Make It Scream, Make It Burn is beautiful, the meaning of it all never comes to the surface.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.