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Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

Nothing Is Alien: An Interview with Leslie Jamison

April 7, 2014 | by

leslie_jamison

When Leslie Jamison and I met outside the Glass Shop, an airy café in Crown Heights, I noticed her left arm was sporting a wide, wordy tattoo. It was in Latin, and she spared the embarrassment of translating it—“I am human; nothing is alien to me.”

Too often, Leslie says, people treat tattoos as an invitation to intimacy. Strangers on the subway ask her to relay the story of her tattoo without a second thought, much as they would, in offering a seat to a pregnant woman, ask for the details of what’s growing inside of her. But in Leslie’s case the tattoo does point to an intimate story—or rather, to a whole constellation of intimate stories that Leslie offers in her essay collection The Empathy Exams.

“I am human; nothing is alien to me” is the epigraph to the collection. It is a quote that has been casually misattributed to Montaigne, John Donne, Karl Marx, and Maya Angelou, but it actually comes from The Self-Tormentor, a play written by Terence, the ancient Roman slave turned playwright. It is the thread that connects such different yet equally luminous works as “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” “Pain Tours,” and “The Devil’s Bait”—meditations on how to feel pain, both physical and psychic in nature, and how to regard the pain of others in a way that respects their humanity. Having read The Empathy Exams, I can begin to appreciate why Leslie has made the small, if painful, jump from writing about the body to writing on the body.

Leslie and I circled this conversation so many times at the Glass Shop that we decided to revisit it one morning in late October at my apartment in Brooklyn, and later that day, on the Metro-North to Yale University, where we are both finishing Ph.D.s in English literature. Most of the time, the tape recorder was on, but sometimes I switched it off so we could gossip idly, and forgot to switch it back on until Leslie was already halfway into a thought on feminism I wanted to preserve. But if this interview reads like the midpoint of a conversation that’s been taking place for some time now, that shouldn’t prevent you—the reader—from making sense of it. After all, you are human. This will not be alien to you.

The most ungenerous criticism of the collection that I could imagine is, Oh, she keeps putting herself in these positions to experience pain or woundedness so she can have something to write about. How narcissistic. I can see people thinking as they’re reading, She’s a real glutton for pain.

I guess that’s why it felt right to put “Grand Unified Theory” at the end of the collection. That idea of being drawn to pain is starting to emerge as a pattern in the essays themselves, and the final essay speaks to that directly. What position of pride do I have in relationship to these experiences?

There’s a basic and important distinction to draw between positions I inhabit as somebody who has experienced some kind of trauma and somebody who’s seeking out pain. Going to the Morgellons conference is a choice in a way that getting hit in the street isn’t. But the collection chooses to bring all of those experiences together in a certain way—what kind of appetite is being spoken to there? In certain ways, as a writer, you do profit off your own experiences of pain, and there’s a way of seeing that profit that’s wholly inspirational—in terms of turning pain into beauty—and a way of seeing it that’s wholly cynical—in terms of being a “wound dweller” in a corrosive or self-pitying way. The honest answer—to me—dwells somewhere between those views. Read More »

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Staff Picks: Geoff Dyer, Lydia Davis’s Cows

May 6, 2011 | by

Thanks to a three-day flu I read Rebecca Wolff’s witchy coming-of-age novel The Beginners, then stayed up late reading the rest of Jennifer Egan’s juggernaut A Visit From the Goon Squad (it lives up to the New Yorker excerpts), then started rereading Geoff Dyer’s deeply charming book on photography, The Ongoing Moment, plus a bunch of his old magazine pieces, now newly collected in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition ... all worth a good deal of coughing and sneezing. —Lorin Stein

I picked up Lydia Davis’s The Cows, a chapbook about, well, the cows that live across from her. “She moos toward the wooded hills behind her, and the sound comes back. She moos in a high falsetto before the note descends abruptly, or she moos in a falsetto that does not descend. It is a very small sound to come from such a large, dark animal.” —Thessaly La Force

Amid the impeccably constructed drama of the last of John Updike's Rabbit novels, Rabbit at Rest, sits an unforgettable line about how popular culture produces and reproduces itself, one generation after another: “They lead us down the garden path, the music manufacturers, then turn around and lead the next generation down with a slightly different flavor of glop.” —Rosalind Parry

Thanks to associate editor Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, my summer reading list has unmistakably flipped its wig. Friedersdorf has compiled a list of nearly 100 superb nonfiction pieces from 2010 for every one of us to start diligently plowing through. Our very own interview with John McPhee claimed a spot! —Angela Melamud

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Geoff Dyer on ‘Otherwise Known as the Human Condition’

April 19, 2011 | by

Photograph by Lawrence Impey.

“Writing, for me, has always been a way of not having a career,” Geoff Dyer explains, by way of introduction, in his new essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. His goal in such a retrospective, he adds, is not to illustrate the coherent themes of his work. Rather it is “to serve as proof of just how thoroughly my career had avoided any focus, specialization, or continuity except that dictated by my desire to write about whatever I happened to be interested in at any given moment.” Dyer’s readers will find that sentiment unsurprising. He is the author of four novels, a critical study of John Berger, a book of photography criticism, and several books inexplicable in blurb form (e.g. Out of Sheer Rage, a National Brook Critics Circle Award finalist ostensibly about D. H. Lawrence but largely about the process of Dyer attempting to write about D. H. Lawrence; and Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, a travelogue as easily filed in humor as it might be in philosophy). Otherwise Known as the Human Condition is a curio cabinet of reviews ranging across photography, art, and literature, combined with Dyer’s experiential approach to topics as wide as forays into the foreign world, and his search for the perfect cappuccino-and-doughnut combination.

How does one approach selecting from a life’s work for an essay collection like this?

My editor, Ethan Nosowsky, and I both independently turned up with a provisional list of what we’d like to see. And we were pretty gratified at how, in a Venn diagram sort of way, there was so much overlap between the two. I’ve written a real lot, including things I’d forgotten about. The general rule would be that they had to at least raise some question—I’m thinking of the pieces about books here—something that transforms it from being a review to a sort of essay in its own right. People either are or are not interested in Denis Johnson, say, but there are a few things in that essay which are worth raising about people other than Denis Johnson. The better the piece, in some ways, the more irrelevant it would render this issue of whether or not you had read the book in question. The pieces also aren’t chronological, so you get a juxtaposition of a piece written maybe twenty years ago with a more recent one—and the slight contradiction that emerges because of that.

Most of these essays are personal at some level; do you look back on the sentiments and feel like the they hold up for you over time?

What I’ve really liked doing is combining what you might call art criticism or music criticism with something that is happening in real life. Something like “Blues for Vincent,” where I combined what is in a photograph with something in a love letter. So to answer your question in the most prosaic, literal-minded way: Of course I’m not in love anymore with the women to whom these love letters were sent. But I think there is an enduring truth in the sentiment, even if the sort of cast list has changed.

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