An Interview with Mitchell S. Jackson Interviewed by Connor Guy · May 2016 · New York, NY
Mitchell S. Jackson is a writer from Portland, Oregon who now lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of the acclaimed autobiographical novel The Residue Years, which Roxane Gay, writing for The New York Times, called “powerful” and “affecting,” remarking that “Jackson’s prose has a spoken-word cadence, the language flying off the page with percussive energy.” His many awards and honors include the Whiting Award and The Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Additionally, he has been a finalist for the PEN / Hemingway Award for debut fiction, the Hurston / Wright Legacy Award for best fiction by a writer of African descent, and the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. He teaches at New York University and Columbia University. Earlier this year, he released a documentary about his life and his writing, also called The Residue Years, on Literary Hub.
Let’s start by talking about the Northwest since we have that in common. What does it feel like, as a writer, to be a Northwesterner out here in New York? Writers come here from all over the world, but do you feel that where you come from informs your practice or makes you stand out in a way?
When I first moved out here, I didn’t know any other writers from Portland. Well, I knew writers from Portland, but they weren’t here. And so I felt alone, in a sense, but it also felt special to me, like it was an opportunity to... I knew I was always going to write about Portland, so it felt like being here gave me an opportunity to elucidate in writing some parts of Portland that hadn’t been touched yet. In one sense, it kind of dampened my sense of community but then on the other hand I thought, “oh, I could really do something out here.” I don’t so much worry about how what I write might relate to a New York audience or an audience somewhere else. I think in writing honestly (I’m not talking strictly about facts) about the experiences I choose, it will touch someone else. Tell the truth and let people come to it. Or not.
Do you see yourself as a Northwest writer? A Portland writer? You speak in your documentary about “getting out”—feeling that maybe there wasn’t a future for you in Portland, that you needed to come here because this is where people come to make it as a writer. Would you ever go back? Are you a New Yorker now?
I’m definitely not a New Yorker now. I actually still get turned around on the trains. But more than that, I don’t write about New York. Most everything that I write is grounded in Portland and home and the people I encountered while I was there. And, you know, I wrote a few essays about mentorship in New York, but... So, one of the questions that I always find myself revisiting in some way when I sit down to write is “how did I get here?” And a lot of that is examining the early stuff, before I moved to New York. Because I think that was really most influential in shaping me. So yeah, man, I don’t know if I would call myself a Northwest writer, because I don’t live there, but Portland is always at the heart of what I’m writing.
There’s been a lot of change in Portland recently, and the pace of gentri-fication has only grown more intense as the years pass. I suspect that when most people think of Portland today, they think of the TV show Portlandia—hipsters, organic food, general fussiness. But that world is so far from the world we see in your novel. In what ways have you seen or experienced this divide? How does it affect Portland’s overall identity as a city?
Well, I didn’t really experience that divide much while I was there. I was just reading an article today—it was actually a sociology report—and it was talking about white flight, how when black people began moving to the cities during the Great Migration, the whites who had inhabited those spaces left. And I think it’s interesting that when we talk about gentrification we don’t call it “white return,” because that’s essentially what gentrification is. That term obfuscates what’s happening. When I think about Portland, I think it’s really easy to get upset about what happened, but it makes sense—the industry and the commerce and all of the things that people want to do are in the heart of the city, so once they get sick and tired of driving like 75 miles to get where they want to go, they just come back for good.
But the other thing is that it’s such a long plan. City planners had to know that this was going to happen in the 70s or the 80s. It’s easy to think of it as a conspiracy. Because in a way it was: they had to red line and raise prices and let crime go. That seems very conspiratorial. But on the other hand, we were a part of that process, too. Like, no one put a gun to my head and said, “sell dope on this block.” And my drug dealing, our drug dealing and the elements that come with make it easier for someone or something to displace us. So I feel ambivalent about it. On the one hand, I feel like we were set up for this to happen, but on the other hand we were participants in making it happen.
In a way, I felt like your novel The Residue Years offers a kind of alternative history of Portland, of the Portland you don’t see on TV. You describe so many restaurants, bars, and neighborhood spots in such detail—probably beyond what has ever been written about these places before. As Portland changes because of gentrification, do you feel that one function of your work is to preserve or commemorate those places?
Absolutely. I think I’ve said this before, but I want to create a record that we existed. And that existence now is being erased. Like, the area I’m talking about in the book and the documentary, it just does not exist there anymore. So without The Residue Years and without other stories that go back to that... like, there may be sociological records and reports, but that can only go so far... without these stories, there will be very few records of this life, and that is an experience that shaped me and a lot of the people that were around there at that time. So if I were to make a list of my goals that would be high up there. I can’t think of another novel about that time and area in Portland, which makes me feel a deep responsibility to do my very best in portraying it. It’s a part of our collective legacy.
Do you feel like fiction is uniquely set up to do that?
I think fiction is uniquely set up to do it in a way that doesn’t feel didactic. Like, if you read a sociology report, you know you’re getting information that’s meant to prove a point. But fiction engages you in a way and makes you care about the people in a way that you might not if you read about the same events in an academic report. I think fiction does the work without it seeming like much work. And it opens up more space for empathy.
Where do you find the line between fact and fiction in a book like The Residue Years? The cover has “A Novel” crossed out, which I thought was a clever way to hint at its double nature. As I understand it, and as I think you’ve acknowledged all along, much of the novel is autobiographical. What went into your decision to write this as fiction rather than as a memoir?
Well, when I first started writing this, I had no idea about the genre. I was in prison and I was just writing. But somewhere along the line I realized that some of the people I was talking about... wouldn’t take too kindly to me writing their stories. So I figured, “well, I’d better learn some fiction really quick!” So that was really the nexus of why I went from nonfiction to fiction. But then when I learned more about fiction and when I got to a graduate writing program, I saw that fiction gave me the most leeway to get at a deeper truth than what was in the facts.
I also think that the tool belt of a fiction writer probably has the most tools in it. You could have everything that you have in poetry, everything that you have in creative nonfiction, but it’s not vice versa. You could be a poet and only write lyrics in which case you wouldn’t have to worry about narrative. You could be a nonfiction writer and lack a skill that’s in the repertoire of the poet or fiction writer. I think fiction writers, the kind I admire, are also poets. They also have the skill set to write nonfiction. So I thought that fiction opened me up to possibilities that I wouldn’t have had if I’d stuck to nonfiction.
One of the big themes that I see in your work is the idea of living in the present. There’s a great line in your documentary—something along the lines of “it’s important to look back to move forward.” There’s also a scene in the novel where one of the central characters, Grace, tells her family, “it’s not who we were, it’s who we are, right here.” It’s a beautiful idea, but you also explore how living only in the present can become dangerous, how it overlaps with the logic of addiction, with desperation. And this becomes particularly evident as things spiral out of control for Grace and her son Champ at the end of the book. How do you reckon with this dual nature of living in the present?
I think that a part of that is... Grace is saying that because, to some degree, people who have troubled histories have to live in the present because the past anchors them. They would have a really hard time navigating the world and being happy and trying to figure out how to maintain some semblance of a life if they could let go of those things. But then on the other hand it becomes like the YOLO excuse, right? Like, “I can do anything because I’m living in the moment.” And I think that’s really dangerous. But in both instances, I think the person has to be aware... like, it can’t be an absolute. You’d have to try to recognize what element of that you need.
So if you take me, for example, how would feeling conflicted about selling drugs to people’s family who I knew serve me as a 40-year-old college professor? So at a certain point, I had to let that go in order to do some work on... changing. But then, I can’t now... On the other hand, so when I was in that world, if I made $7,000 in a night, I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna go spend five,” right? So I think that’s really dangerous, too. I had to figure out what is it that I need. And I don’t know how people do that. I don’t know how my mom navigates the world without feeling really, really down about her experiences. But I guess the people who figure that out, those are the ones who succeed, and the ones who don’t...
So in a way, living in the present is a kind of defense mechanism.
Yeah, like a coping mechanism, for sure.
What do you think it takes to get kids growing up in your old neighborhood today, kids who face the same problems you faced, interested in literature and in expressing themselves through the arts? And in what ways do you think literature and the arts can help them?
Well, one of the ways to get them interested is to make writing and literature competitive with the arts that they’re already involved with. So, I mean, most of the kids are probably listening to music, reading a lot about fashion. I think the average kid who’s from where I’m from is concerned with how he looks, where he goes. And he’s definitely concerned with music, because he thinks that makes him cool. So if there were some way to connect literature to those things in a way that they could recognize, I think that could be part of it.
I also think we need to have more people who look like them that are involved with writing, more role models who they can aspire to. Even inside of what we call African American lit or literature from the African diaspora—there’s a wide range of different kinds of ethnicities, different kinds of writers from different backgrounds. But I feel like the guys that are from where I’m from (I’m speaking specifically about guys from my old neighborhood, which is not that neighborhood anymore), they’re like... they have a really narrow sense of identity. And there are not a lot of people that fit that identity even in the group of people who are in the African diaspora, there’s not a lot of people who fit that kind of template for them.
One concern you keep coming back to in your writing is how people project their identity to the world, particularly with words. In a scene at the barbershop, for example, the central character, Champ, gets scolded by the barbershop owner for his “smart boy vocab.” And I think a big part of Champ’s identity is this “smart boy vocab,” his intelligence and his ability to express himself in a really sophisticated way. But Champ speaks in different registers to project different identities to different people—to his mother, to his brothers, to his girlfriend, to his friends. Why is this?
Well, when I hear that it makes me think of the James Baldwin essay, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” He talks about the necessity of Black English, the vernacular. He’s arguing that it should be recognized... but there’s a line in there where he says, “If I may use Black English.” So he’s arguing for it and then there’s a moment where he asks, “can I use it?” to the reader. And I thought, “well here is Baldwin recognizing that in some instances this language doesn’t have the power that he wants it to have, even as he’s arguing for it.” So what does that mean? It means you have to be able to switch. Right? Any person of color who is successful has to be able to switch between the dominant language and their own—I assume that most of them would not have grown up in the dominant language—or you’re screwed, I mean, you’re not going to make it. So I think that’s something that Champ recognizes, but what he recognizes perhaps even more than I recognized growing up is how much power there is in being able to speak the dominant group’s language. How much more credible that can make you. But then also how much credibility you can lose when you speak it to your core group. Like, it’s almost the worst thing you could do in some instances.
Well this is also related to writing, right? I wonder if another reason this question comes up in your work is because, as a writer, you’re inhabiting so many different voices and perspectives. One thing that struck me about The Residue Years is how different the voices of your two narrators, Grace and Champ, are—but they also sound completely right and believable. How do you pull that off and how, as you see it, are language and identity tied to writing?
Well, there are two things in the writing. There’s trying to create a believable voice—that took a lot of... at least for Grace that took a lot of interviewing and listening to people. Grace is really a composite of the different women that have inhabited my life since I was little. And so I was talking to them, listening, asking questions, paying attention to their idiosyncrasies. And then, with me, Champ is like, who I would want to be. He’s like Mitchell on steroids.
For the writing though, I’m consciously aware of the reader. When I sit down to write, I’m usually writing to my former self, to the twenty-two-year-old guy who’s into some trouble—who’s smart, but not necessarily literary. But I also know he’s not the reader for fiction. I find myself feeling really compelled to speak to both of those readers in a language that they’ll recognize. So really, it’s the force of the readers on me, and then the force of wanting to create something authentic that kind of pushes me to those voices.
I was really interested in the sections where Champ speaks to the reader directly, and also the way he’s always specifying who he means when he says “we”—it’s always in parentheses, “(the we being me and my boys).” And that made me think about who you’re addressing the book to.
I wanted to create a chorus. I’m always looking for ways to create to chorus, to bring something back with repetition. And yes, I’m always trying to define my audience. One of my mentors, John Edgar Wideman, said that the best stories are like letters, that the readers want to feel like they’re an interloper to private communication. And that’s the most intimate you can get with the reader. I think when I’m talking about “we” like I’m talking out loud, I’m just allowing you to hear me. Sometimes I just speak directly to the reader. So those “we” parts are really beseeching you to join in with me, to believe me and participate. I spend a lot of time in the book, and even in my nonfiction, saying, “believe me.” In some way, I’m saying “trust me, trust and believe.” I do a lot of that. I want you to join in so that I feel like I have a partner in this.
At times I almost felt like you’re addressing an outsider, someone who doesn’t know where you come from and what your upbringing was like—maybe even a white reader specifically. (It may be that reading the book as a white person, I felt this more acutely.) Was this something you
Yes, that was intentional, but I don’t think I’m always addressing the outsider. Sometimes, I’m addressing... Like, I remember one time in the book where Champ addresses the reader and is like, “are you tired of my pussy monologues?” That’s not really addressed to any particular ethnicity or gender. It’s really like a mea culpa. But I thought this is for the person who’s really invested in the book at this point. It doesn’t matter to me what that person looks like. I want them to feel like I pulled away some layers to just let them see.
Another related idea that you keep coming back to is authenticity. At one point, Champ says, “Admitted, most days I’m percents of a stone-cold fraud, but which one of us is authentic 24/7?” What drew you to this idea?
Well, I think especially for black males, a great part of their identity is built on this sense of manhood, and so... there’s this book—I don’t teach it, but I used to talk about it a lot in my classroom—it’s called The Cool Pose. It talks about how so much of a black male’s identity is built on this idea of coolness, and how it’s something that is both empowering but also damaging to them. Everybody wants to be a breadwinner you know, and feel educated and feel like they can take care of people. But when you can’t do it, then you have to find other means of building your sense of identity and your sense of worth and I think this is why black males especially are concerned with feeling authentic in the world, because when you can’t provide and you’re not as educated as you’d like to be, you feel like a fraud. Right? Then they’re always trying to figure out a way to say, “no, no, I’m...” No other group is as concerned with being “real.” You don’t hear white dudes going around saying “I’m a real white dude.” You listen to hip-hop, in like every song—“I’m a real nigga”—they say that in every song. I’m like, “why are you so concerned with it?” But it doesn’t exist elsewhere and I think that’s because we’ve been dismissed and emasculated in such a way that... it’s like a way to get back some masculinity.
I remember in your novel, in that same barber shop scene we were just discussing, Champ sees an old classmate who he says always puts a lot of effort into acting tough: “he plays like he’s too tough for TV, a muthafuckin man of steel. But hold up before you knock it. That’s how it is for us. How they made it... What I know is, no civilian should have to be that tough.”
Yeah, I remember that. It’s like, “why can’t you just be a human being? Why do you have to walk around like...” I was telling my students in class today about this study I read where they argue that trauma can change your actual DNA and be passed on to your offspring. They did a study on Holocaust survivors, and they saw that the trauma they experienced did something to their DNA, which has been passed on to their children, and in some cases it can go to your grandchildren. And I was thinking, “well, damn, obviously the Holocaust is a traumatic experience, but so was living through slavery”—so what kind of trauma was passed down through the generations? So you think about that, and then a person who lived through the trauma of reconstruction, then the trauma of the people who were terrorized under Jim Crow, which then may have been passed to my parents’ generation, which could still very well be in me.
So I was telling my students about this because of this other story. I said, there was one time in Portland, I was at Irving Park, one of my favorite parks, and there was a shoot out at this basketball tournament. And when I say shoot out, there were like seven or eight guys shooting, and they ran across the street and they were shooting over cars like cops and robbers. And that afternoon, during the shooting, I saw this guy—he was famous in the neighborhood because he was in the car during the first gang murder in Portland, he wasn’t the shooter but he was there. All of the guys went to prison, but he was the first one that got out, and that afternoon was the first time he had been out in the public. We were all sitting out on the benches in the park, so when they started shooting everybody jumped off the bench and scattered—but not him. Like, he was so calm. He didn’t jump or run. We were all hiding behind trees, and I just looked at him and thought, “why isn’t he scared?” Now I think, maybe there’s something in him that’s made him conditioned for trauma in a way that the rest of us aren’t.
From having lived through the trauma of being involved in the gang murder and going to prison?
Or maybe his parents or his grandparents had experienced some kind of trauma, which was passed down, so now he’s sensitized to it in a way that the average person isn’t. The average person hears gunshots and is like, “I’m outta here.”
I want to ask about the title of your novel (and the documentary): The Residue Years. When it shows up in the book, it’s the character Mister who says it. (Champ is dealing drugs and Mister is Champ’s supplier.) In this scene, he’s advising Champ about how much dope to take, how much he thinks he can sell, and he says: “One or two or twenty—get all you can while you can but not a gram or a dollar more than that... You want to last, that’s how you last... Most of us, if we’re lucky, we see a few seconds of the high life. And the rest are the residue years.” There’s a lot to unpack there, but I wondered if you could talk a bit about the meaning of the title and its importance.
Yeah, so... we’re talking about a situation where people are deprived of resources. I think what the drug dealer covets even more than money is to be visible in his community. For people to recognize him. So he comes by... I remember the drug dealers would come by and, you know, give all the little kids something, and park his car in the park with all his jewelry on. He wants you to recognize that he is a success, again getting back to the idea of how he builds his manhood. But there’s obviously a danger in that because then you become the target for the people who don’t have that yet.
And that makes me think, there was this guy named Darren Ezel—rest in peace—who was a really slim guy. We used to call him goggles because he had really big glasses. And of the street-level drug dealers, he was the one that came up first, so he would have his Benz, he would park his car at the park, and lean on it. And everybody was like, “There go Goggles!” But they kidnapped him, took him to his apartment, to his girlfriend’s apartment where they thought all his money was, and when they couldn’t find it, they shot him in the nuts and said, “tell us where the money is.” Well, the money wasn’t there and he wouldn’t tell them where it was and then they killed him. There’s a consequence for being visible in the community. “Get all you can while you can but not a dollar more than that” is recognizing that there is a consequence to pay for too much wealth.
And then the line, “you only get a few minutes of the high life”—it’s interesting that I had Mister say that, because Mister is a character that was based on my O.G., like the guy who really got me going selling dope. He was selling dope himself from the 80s to the early 2000s, without ever getting caught. I think he got caught in like 2006 and he got sixteen years—at the time he was fifty-something. So it’s like, you had a career, you had it going thirty years... That’s retirement! But you didn’t stop. And so now I feel like he’s in his residue years. He had more of the high life than any one drug dealer is supposed to ever get, and he still couldn’t quit. He couldn’t follow the advice that I put in his mouth as a character.
So the residue years are basically what comes after the fall?
Yeah, it’s like my uncle. I have an uncle who was like... there’s a newspaper and I still have some copies (it’s a defunct newspaper now) but the headline said, “Superman Goes to Prison” and the subtitle was “Oregon’s Biggest Drug Dealer Gets Caught.” They caught my uncle in 1982 with like $384,000 cash in his trunk. Since then he’s struggled with addiction for many years. Now if you were to see him, he might ask you to borrow a few dollars. So that’s the residue years.
There was an article that went around a few months ago about Oregon’s founding as a “White Utopia.”
Yeah, I saw that!
The article says that “When Oregon was granted statehood in 1859, it was the only state in the Union admitted with a constitution that forbade black people from living, working, or owning property there. It was illegal for black people even to move to the state until 1926.” Did you have a sense of that history, growing up there? Did it shape the way you experienced Oregon growing up there?
Well, not in any recognizable way, because I didn’t know about it at the time. But then you look back at it and it all makes sense. Like, how is it... if we were to look up the statistics now (and I haven’t done it in a long time), blacks have never been more than ten percent of Oregon’s population. And you’re like, “well they don’t have any more exclusion laws, how’d that happen?” But it’s built into the DNA of the place. Remember what I was saying about how trauma can be passed down through generations? Well, you’re also passing down a sense of how you want this place to look forever and ever. So now it makes sense that the population is so small... that Oregon is, in a sense, a white utopia. There’s probably no better place to be white than Oregon. I don’t know, maybe Vermont or Rhode Island or something.
At one point in the documentary, you’re talking about when you were going about the process of getting your novel published, and you say, “My first impression of the publishing world was, ‘that shit is not set up for me.’ I wasn’t represented there.” You go on to talk about how you ended up in a good situation with an incredible editor and publishing team, and it seems that they really did right by your book—but in what ways did you experience publishing as a system that was not set up for you?
Man, so, before I get to that—right now The Guardian is in the midst of posting the “Top 100 Nonfiction Books of All Time.” So I was like, “let’s see what they’ve got.” I thought it was going to be the whole list but they’ve only got one through fourteen up right now. Of the fourteen, there was one book by a person of color on the list—and it was President Obama! Like, you got to be the president of the free world to get on the list if you’re black? So I started thinking, “Who would be on here? Well damn, they called Baldwin the greatest nonfiction writer of all time. So how is it that not one of Baldwin’s books is in the top fourteen?” It just didn’t make any sense to me. But then it made absolute sense to me that this is how people build value in literature. Like, is the person who did it racist? I don’t know—probably not. On the other hand, he’s definitely exclusionary to think that only one person of color deserves to be included in the top fourteen. Granted, they did have a good number of women, so that’s good at least.
But for me, I remember when was at the Center for Fiction dinner. It was the first time where I was in a room where I felt like the publishing industry was there. There were publishers and there were editors, and I looked around. I remember this one dude was there who I knew from somewhere else, he came over to talk to me and he was like, “Mitch, look around.” And we looked around and we said, “we’re the only ones here.” And it was like hundreds of people. I was like, “whoa, that shit is crazy.”
I just wanted to ask briefly about your new book. Without giving too much away, can you say a little about it?
Sure. It’s called Survival Math—it’s narrative nonfiction and it takes the story of my family and uses it to explore their issues, which I try to connect to the historical context. So for example, my mother’s addiction, which I’ve already written about—I try to connect that to the War on Drugs. One of my uncles is on death row so I’ll take that and connect it to issues with the criminal justice system. I had a father who was a pimp, which I talked about in the documentary; I’ll take that and connect it to the history of prostitution. It’s asking the same question that I ask of myself, but for them. How did we get here?
Wow, that sounds fascinating—are you still working on it?
Man, yeah. I’m supposed to turn it in this summer.
Ah! Well, good luck. To close: I saw you a couple of weeks ago speaking at an event for the PEN Prison Writing program. I know this is something you care a lot about. Can you talk a little about the importance of that?
Well, it’s for the same reason that I’m writing to that version of myself. I don’t think that those guys see enough people that they recognize themselves in who are serious about writing. Like, there’s guys out there, who will go to prison, get out, write a hood story, make some money. That’s not what I’m talking about, I’m talking about really living the writing life, being involved, being a literary citizen, and reading the good work and trying to do the good work. I think that until there are more people doing this who they can recognize, we’re going to be hurting, right?
I don’t think that there’s much more respected in the world than a serious writer. And when you say someone who’s a serious writer, what you really mean is that they’re a serious thinker. You could be a celebrated athlete, but the people in the boardroom see you as a celebrated athlete and a commodity to sell some products to someone, and they don’t necessarily respect your intellect. And that’s something that writing makes the reader and the audience do, is respect that person’s mind. So I want to bring that to them. If we could create a couple more Dwayne Betts or NathanMcCalls, then... great.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Two.