Leslie Jamison on Why Surprise Is Her “Working Definition of God”

Akbar and Jamison

I’m both boggled and inspired by the ways the plotlines we write for ourselves are always getting overturned.

— Leslie Jamison

I recently came across an incredibly interesting conversation between two contemporary authors—Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar, and American novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison. It was published last year in The Paris Review under the seemingly paradoxical heading, “Rigorous Grace,” and contains some nuggets that were too good for me not to share.

Both authors discuss aspects of each other’s writing, although, as Jamison was the subject of his interview, Akbar’s main priority was to unpack key themes from her recent essay collection, Make it Scream, Make it Burn, which covers subjects as diverse as “the world’s loneliest whale, Second Life devotees, [and] the Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia.” Here’s a heavily-abridged version of their conversation:

AKBAR:

Can we begin by talking about grace? … 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. … The vending machine of grace is vast and it never gives you exactly what you asked for. And that means we have to pay attention, because we’re not always aware that grace has arrived. As you wrote, “I live in the gulf / between what I’ve been given / and what I’ve received.”

It makes me think of a beautiful sentiment I once heard from a stranger: Sometimes the solution has nothing to do with the problemI think surprise is an important part of grace. You thought you wanted cookies, but you really needed seltzer. Grace isn’t the thing you planned, it’s what you get instead. Which is maybe connected to the ways you and I want to uncouple it from a sense of contingency or deserving it. It’s not a product of narrative or moral cause-and-effect. It catches you off guard. And it’s usually quite partial, rather than utterly transformative. Like, a woman wakes up to spend a few hours in her paradise cottage, and then she leaves her computer to make breakfast for her four kids and show up for her shift at the call center. Or, you understand your dad a little better and then you have to wake up the next day and understand him a little better all over again. Et cetera. The et cetera is part of it, the ongoingness. “The boat I am building / Will never be done.”

My obsession with surprise as a crucial part of grace is connected, I think, with my obsession with thwarted narratives. I’m both boggled and inspired by the ways the plotlines we write for ourselves are always getting overturned. Is there a particular way poetry can pay attention to that overturning, do you think? I think your poetry does a wonderful job honoring the force of surprise. I wonder when and how you surprise yourself when you write—you must!—and if that ever feels like grace. I wonder how you think about the relationships between grace and gratitude and delight, which feel so electric in your work. Like these closing lines, which I have read aloud so many times because I love them! “There is a word for these fits of incomprehensible / delight I said it last night / when my mouth was full of cake.” Grace is better when we can’t say its name! The sentiment works better when you let the line break keep us in a little bit of suspense after incomprehensible…

AKBAR:

“Uncoupling grace from a sense of deserving.” Yes, yes, yes. I struggle mightily with this, maybe most in relation to myself. I’ve conned the world into paying me to do the one thing I have any interest in doing. It’s hard for me to shake the sense that I’m being grossly overpaid—cosmically, socially, professionally. And yes, financially. But of course the idea that I would know what I or anyone deserves is just another manifestation of my own outsize ego, right? That I should be the arbiter of such things. Thank the stars I’m not. …

You build so many of these essays around surprise, an imagined version of someone’s life fracturing as their reality bares itself. The old woman is noxious and entitled, then her disability is revealed, then its horrible violent genesis, then the less dramatic, less traumatic version of that genesis. At each turn, we feel ourselves recalculating our formula for how much of our sympathy, how much grace, the woman deserves. Which is so bizarre of us, and you make that bizarreness real.

And it keeps happening throughout the book! A photographer protests the arrest of a poor bricklayer at the hands of crooked cops, only to learn the bricklayer had just struck his wife in the face with a belt buckle. You yourself talk about how part of you wanted to give birth just to argue against the idea that maternal love was somehow deeper than any other, only to end the essay with a direct address to the child. “There you were: an arrival, a cry, the beginning of another world.”

The miracle of the book is how you repeatedly enact, in real time, that fallacy of grace-as-vending-machine, grace as some moral algorithm where you put in X and invariably receive Y. That repetition, “which is the point—the again-and-again of it… You have to keep living this willingness to look at other lives with grace,” is so difficult to get a read on in living, and even harder to write. …

[T]here is a way in which your book felt … [l]ike a kind of practice manual for learning to separate grace from judgment. It’s an argument for love as an action. And it comes to a staggering crescendo in the book’s final essays, looking closely at your own family members, the love you’ve built with and for them. Can you talk about that progression, how, or if, you consciously shaped the collection toward that?

You talk about breakups as useful, if not altogether happy, opportunities to celebrate what was gathered over the course of a relationship. Most of my breakups have been dominated by the sense that I’d never be loved so well again, that I had fucked up with the one person who’d ever be capable of loving me. And I think that sense springs from a misunderstanding of love as a static reservoir instead of as a practice—as a well bucket instead of the hands lowering it into water. I read your book as a kind of argument for rigorous loving. …

JAMISON:

I rigorously love your description of my book as an argument for rigorous loving. I used to believe rigor and love were mutually exclusive, or that they somehow worked against each other, that love was supposed to feel like something flooding you, something you surrendered to, rather than something you showed up for daily, tinkered with, sculpted, rediscovered. I guess another way of putting it, I imagined love as the bucket’s water drenching you, rather than the hands reaching into the well to pull up the bucket, day by day—to draw it out, to bring it to the mouth, to drizzle it over the garden. I love your formulation of love as practice rather than static reservoir. There’s so much forgiveness in that notion of work. I used to think rigor was a sign that you were doing love wrong, or loving the wrong person, that it made the love stingy. Now I think it’s spacious and necessary to allow work to be part of love, rather than thinking of it as a pollutant.

I’m sure you’ve heard that formulation about feeling like a bucket with a hole. All the love and affirmation in the world can come in, but it still keeps leaking out. Maybe thinking of love as a practice is a way through this dilemma. It’s okay to have some leaks. We have to keep the water in motion anyway. It makes me think of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and the idea that anything you hold onto too tightly will die in your hands. I love that. I also think it’s sometimes okay to want to hold onto things. That’s part of what I was trying to get at in the essay about breakups, that it’s human to want to preserve things, that you might want to save the toaster you and your ex used to make your peanut butter toast each morning, and you can do that work of preservation while simultaneously understanding love as something that can still surprise you, that you don’t fully know yet. To your point, each love is not the end, the alpha and omega, there might be other loves, or even other ways you can be loved—by other human beings, or by God, or by big skies, or friends, or books—that you can’t anticipate. My friend Harriet and I are always talking about the importance of remaining curious about what we don’t yet know about ourselves. …

Which all comes back to your observations about surprise! Surprise is sometimes my working definition of God. Or grace. I’ve been thinking a lot about this thing that the comedian Kyle Kinane says in one of his stand-up routines, that a miracle is just the world letting you know it can still surprise you. He’s talking about burning his laundry. The first time I heard that, I was driving across the Arizona desert in the middle of this pretty surreal, wonderful, uncategorizable fever dream with another person, and I thought, amen. Being surprised means staying humble, means being perpetually being reminded of everything you don’t know, everything you didn’t understand. Getting expanded. You’re right that many of my essays are about surprise, or are trying to find forms or structures or lines of inquiry and narrative that can dramatize surprise. I want to let it unfold on the page, rather than simply fast-forwarding to revelation or certainty. I actually think that much of my definition of rigor comes back to surprise. Among other things, rigor means letting yourself get surprised over and over again, submitting to that ongoing dislocation.

For much of my life, I thought of rigor in terms of deprivation and restriction—trying to conquer my own desires, my fragility, my weakness. Now I think of rigor much more in terms of abundance, in terms of how to stay grateful, remain alive to simultaneity and multiplicity. In that sense, gratitude is a kind of rigor, too. … It makes me think of a line from your gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous essay about fasting in Marfa. “I wonder if part of the point of fasting is this: keeping the body enamored of the particular delights of nourishment.” Which is maybe a way of saying that the self who thought of rigor in terms of deprivation and the self who thought of rigor in terms of abundance were both wrong, because the point is that deprivation and abundance have never really been separate. Sobriety is an absence that makes room for so much plenitude. One of the things I love in your fasting essay is the way you think about fasting as a means of making porous the boundary between self and divine—in that sense, it’s a deprivation that doesn’t just keep you alive to nourishment, it brings you into contact with something vast and mysterious and expansive.

I wonder how you think about the connections between deprivation and abundance in your life and in your work? Are there ways in which restriction—formal constraint, for example—feel generative to you? …

AKBAR:

Oh Leslie, your words are the clarity I didn’t realize I desperately needed. Yes, so much of my thinking my whole life around rigor—in terms of faith, love, compassion—was shaped by ideas of deprivation and self-restraint. … We have these ten commandments that are functionally all pronouncements about the virtues of abstinence. Don’t cheat, don’t murder, don’t steal, et cetera. But you can avoid doing all those things for an entire life without ever doing anything useful for anyone, too, you know?

This is part of what has always appealed to me about Islam, since I was old enough to be able to understand it. It seems to me to be a spiritual practice rooted in action—proactively helping those who need it—often in the form of “zakat“—is one of the five pillars of the faith, right up there with prayer. There’s something in that that feels so simpatico with the vibrations of my own soul. Action, action, action. Maybe it’s that I don’t trust my own idleness. My friend Tommy Orange told me a story recently about a scared starving person alone in the desert who prays to God for help, and so God sends the scared starving person a scared starving child to protect. That’s how God answered the prayer. I wanted to melt. It was everything. I feel furthest from sobriety when I think of it as purely an absence. Sobriety is a grace and grace is everything but absent. I love your calling it “plentitude.”

I have been thinking about your idea of God as surprise, or surprise as God. So much of rigor in my life involves being open to revision. Open to the possibility that my best intentions were undermined by fear or ignorance or selfishness. I often find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with people who disagree vehemently with me. Who openly dislike me, even. So often I want to say, Oh wow, yes you’re totally right. Sometimes I’m able to actually say that, and those are occasions for gratitude. Mostly I’m an oaf. I’m wrong often. I love your book because it celebrates wrongness as an opportunity for course correction, a way to step a little bit closer toward the horizon of our own goodness. And like any horizon, we march toward it forever and never really arrive.

Horace says a good poem must delight and instruct. I tend to think of his delight not as baby coos and kitty whiskers, but as a kind of surprise, an encounter with an unprecedented experience of language or sound or living or thinking. I find a lot of poets so eager to charge into instruction that they forget about the other side, the surprise. As writers of the English language, our medium also happens to be the deadliest and most sinister colonial weapon ever invented. Our project has to be at least in part the breaking of the language, which is another way of saying our project is surprise, which is another way of saying delight, which is another way of saying God.

Wasn’t that an evocative and delightful conversation? Hope you enjoyed it. Now for a little more about that tragic and beautiful and bizarre and somehow still uplifting museum in Croatia mentioned in Jamison’s book…

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