The Paris Review

Rigorous Grace: A Conversation Between Leslie Jamison and Kaveh Akbar

Kaveh Akbar, left, and Leslie Jamison, right.

Leslie Jamison makes her life more difficult than it needs to be. In her most recent essay collection, Make it Scream, Make it Burn, the subjects she chooses—the world’s loneliest whale, Second Life devotees, the Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia—could carry the pieces with their propulsive novelty alone. Certainly, Jamison is brilliant enough as a sculptor of language that we’d happily oblige her. But what makes Jamison one of the essential essayists of our generation is her rigor. She renders her subjects, the world that made them, and her own gaze all within the same frame. In each of these essays, there is the subject, but there is also the long history leading up to it, and then there is also Jamison herself, observing and writing. So should we call her new book journalism? Or literary criticism? Or memoir? Yes. For an imagination, a curiosity, as expansive as Jamison’s, there can be no partitions. Her writing, like her mind in this conversation, leaps freely between each world.

AKBAR

Can we begin by talking about grace? One of the things I’m most drawn to in the book, and in your work more broadly, is the steady orbit you make around the idea of grace. There’s a moment in one of the early essays in this collection where you crystallize it, writing: “The definition of grace is that it’s not deserved.” I have been grappling with this idea in my own life, the notion that if I’m capable of doling out grace only to those obviously deserving of it, it isn’t grace exactly. It’s kindness or it’s pity or it’s maybe even just propriety. What is grace to you? And what can it do?

JAMISON

Starting with grace is like diving into the deep end of the swimming pool—so much better than slowly lowering each inch of thigh down the steps in the shallow end. Or maybe it’s really like diving into the deep end of an infinity pool, where you come up to the edge and see that below is a more infinite body of water than the one you’re swimming in. Which is part of what grace means to me, you feel the world get larger around you, feel yourself get smaller within it. And the world can get large around you in so many ways. As a bespoke digital wonderland, as the infinite hall of mirrors of your prior lives, as a big blue whale large enough to swallow us all. All of these things—mythic whales,

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