Leslie S. Jamison '04 is an essayist and novelist who directs the nonfiction writing concentration at Columbia University School of the Arts. Jamison visited Harvard on Oct. 1 while on tour for her newest essay collection, “Make It Scream, Make It Burn. ” In between introducing her baby daughter to her undergraduate house (Pforzheimer) and discussing her essay collection with English Professor James Wood before a crowd in Fong Auditorium, Jamison spoke with FM in the Barker Center courtyard.
FM: What is it like to revisit Harvard now, when you've revisited it so many times in your writing?
LSJ: Coming here, it was like that thrilling and terrifying threshold moment of self-making, and I think there was a kind of deferral, of never quite feeling at home in my world when I was a child or a teenager, and thinking, maybe when I'm embarking on life on my own then this project of inhabiting myself will happen. Then inevitably, when you finally hit the horizon that you've been aching toward, there's this terror. Because here you are, and what will happen now? I think that's part of why I felt such a sense of being lost when I was first here, and that really keen sense of needing to prove myself and feeling constantly like I was falling short — which I think Harvard as a place can certainly produce in people — but it was almost this feeling that I'd carried around with me all my life, that Harvard then managed to put an official language or structure around. In order to exist, you need to prove you're good enough to exist.
I really struggled with that. It's less that I feel like I found myself here, and more that I feel I found relationships and community, which is maybe a way of saying that that is where my sense of self ultimately resides. And maybe that's part of why I keep coming back to it, is trying to make sense of what parts of myself were forged here, and how and why, and what part other people played, and what part drinking played, and what role art played, because all of those felt like they were part of that conversation.
FM: Or, "You've described yourself as a person who once wanted to take up as little space as possible. Do you still feel like that person? When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer and stop thinking of yourself as... a girl?"
LSJ: Well, I was recently having dinner with some friends and we were talking about conversational tics, because I had an ex who wrote a memoir and he called me out for always saying, "I will say," at the beginning of everything.
LSJ: It was funny, because he's right! But he read it as if I was declaring that I had something important to say by saying, "I will say." And I realized that I say it all the time almost as a confession of partiality, like, I can't really issue the full or comprehensive take on this thing, but I will say, X. Then I also became, in a paralyzing flood, aware of all my other tics, including the fact that I often say, "It's really interesting that," and then say the thing. Which is really embarrassing because it's as if I'm advertising things I say before I say them, but I really think it comes from insecurity. From some part of me that's still 10 and still feels like I have to raise my hand at the dinner table and say — listen, listen, listen, everybody, I do have something to say. All that to say, it's really interesting that I think I do still often feel afraid of being excessive, of taking up too much space, or wanting too much, or wanting another person too much, or wanting things I can't have; all those various forms of too muchness, which feel like they are continuous with the 17-year-old self who was literally afraid of taking up too much space.
So even though I am drawn to conversion narratives where we transform, and are no longer ourselves — that's a very American story; I think a lot of us are drawn to versions of that story — I do also think we're more like, I don't know, trees, or Russian dolls. I mean, I do totally believe in transformation, I believe in everything Lana Del Ray sings in her album, but we’re also always holding the old selves inside, too. Even though I do feel quite different from that 18-year-old version of self, I still feel that the things that she was afraid of, I'm still afraid of, but sometimes those fears just go by different names. The things she longed for are still the things I long for. And maybe that's the axis upon which I feel most connected to her, still, is the axis of longing, because I feel like a lot of those motivating desires are still the same.
FM: Which are what?
LSJ: Like longing to be loved, basically. And a lot of things are subcategories of that great longing. Wanting to be good enough, and — I don't know if the desire to make great art is wholly about wanting to be loved, but I think it shares something, in the sense of wanting to be heard.
— Magazine writer Eva K. Rosenfeld can be reached at email@example.com.