From The Paris Review 3/8/19:
Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel The Residue Years was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and it was the winner of both the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence and a Whiting Writers’ Award winner. He is arguably one of America’s most important contemporary voices. For years, readers like myself have been awaiting his next proclamation. His new memoir, Survival Math, arrives not a day too soon amid the political turmoil of 2019. In his second masterpiece, Mitchell has cast aside the fictive cover and turned the lens deeply inward. He delves headlong into issues of race, class, masculinity, love, addiction, and redemption, which unfold into an urgent American odyssey that sweeps history, time, register, and place. His writing is searingly beautiful, self-abnegating, clairvoyant, and brave. Celebratory and confessional, deeply researched and fully realized, he speaks from the gut about the dissolution of family, the disquiet of a country still steeped in deep racial prejudice, and what it means to survive everything, from prison to his mother’s addiction. Survival Math is at once risky and immaculately conceived.
Mitchell is the only person who has invited me to an event so fancy the invitation was flown to my home overnight express. When we attended the awards ceremony, Joy Williams wore her signature cowboy boots and sunglasses onstage. Don DeLillo stared, stone-like, straight ahead. “Hey,” I leaned over to Mitch and asked, “Isn’t that woman handing out awards with her back to us a famous actress?” “You mean Meryl Streep?” he said. We both laughed. This, it seemed, was already his milieu. It was my honor to interview him about his craft.
Survival Math opens with a quote by Baldwin: “That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth—and indeed no church—can teach.” If you could boil it down to one edict, what is it that you most want to teach readers with this book?
The epigraph is close to an edict, but Baldwin genders it. I’m a cisgender black male, and my sense of manhood, which is to say the substantiation of what I now ascertain as a narrow sense of the qualities of a man, has informed me for almost as far back as I can recall. But this book is also about womanhood—my great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mother, aunts, partners, et cetera—which is to say, it’s my attempt to understand the circumstances of women who’ve shaped my life. I don’t know if I want to teach readers so much as I want the book to serve as an invitation to reckon with the truth that we’ve been here and we’ve mattered. By we I mean my family and friends, but also black and brown folk from my state, my city, and in a broader sense, black folks all over the country. It bothers me that concern about blacks in America is topical, that our lives count most when we’re murdered or commit some headline crime. It troubles me that our worth is measured against what white people in power care about on a given day, week, month. The stories of my people are evergreen. I will write about them for a lifetime.
In the prologue, you trace the usage of the term “law and order” back to the twenties and the second coming of the KKK, which flourished in your home state of Oregon. You explain, “One summer night the Portland klavern goaded reporters and civic leaders to a meeting in a hotel with the cryptic message: ‘Learn something to your advance.’ ” To close the meeting, King Kleagle—a Southern transplant who saw the state as a promised land for his ilk—offered the ominous warning: “Respect for the law and the working of a small army of unofficial detectives who will work with the constituted law are the makers of the Klan character … There are some cases where we will have to take everything into our hands. Some crimes are not punishable under existing laws, but criminals should be punished.” Nearly a century later, I couldn’t help but feel the disturbing echoes within the rhetoric surrounding ICE. In Trump’s 2016 stump speeches he professed: “I am the law and order candidate.” I wonder if you, too, hear those echoes and what you think they portend.
Oh yes, oh yes. There are echoes. There are more than echoes between Trump’s xenophobic, fear-stoking, hate-mongering agitprop and the propaganda of white supremacists. He’s not even dog-whistling most times, he’s more like trumpeting. What’s ICE if not an arm of white supremacy? I was in Brazil for the new year, and during a walking tour of Rio, our guide talked to my partner and I about how Brazil was the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1889. After its abolishment, the leaders of Brazil were so scared of the “negro problem” that they began importing Europeans so that they could whitewash the country. They termed it branqueamento, which translates to “racial whitening” or “whitening.” I see echoes of branqueamento in what I apprehend as the telos of the current regime, the whitening of America. The “law and order” rhetoric has been used to demonize persons of color for decades. Both Nixon and Regan used it (and in effect set the stage for mass incarceration). I’m no immigration historian, but Trump’s plan appears to be a means of fostering a numerical resurgence of whiteness by limiting, legally and ethically, the immigration of people of color. Maybe he and his people got spooked reading the Brookings Institute study that predicts white people will be a statistical minority by 2045. In any case, white people demonizing black and brown folks to maintain or advance their power is old, so old that it’s foundational to this country. As I write this, dude just declared a state of emergency, which would seem like an unbelievable plot point in a dystopian novel had I not lived through the last two years.
One of the many devices I’ve always marveled at in your writing, both in your novel The Residue Years and in Survival Math, is your use of lists as a kind of lyrical exclamation. From your description of Portland’s social life in the twenties—“The Freeman Second Hand Store; Rutherford Haberdashery, Barbershop, Cigar and Confectionary Store; and even the Egyptian Theatre”—to the way you build the contrasts in contemporary Alberta, Mississippi—“On Williams avenues, I beheld more miles of bike lanes and bike shops and bikers and the Bike Bar. There was an art deco building under construction and a bakery and a hair studio and a Pilates studio and yet another damn yoga studio. There was a mother pushing a hooded stroller and couple traipsing the sidewalk hand in hand as if this world would never fail them. But what I didn’t see on Williams Avenue was a single black face any which way my head turned.” These lists act as long exhales, in which you paint entire scenes with one brushstroke. I wondered if you could talk about how you construct them?
I’m always trying to make music on the page, and the list is a way for me to control the acoustics of my prose, its rhythm, its cadence. The list also allows me to compress information, which appeals to me. But I also love the way lists accumulate, how I can create a sense of abundance. There are times when I want a list to overwhelm my reader. But I’m also interested in the way that lists mimic our everyday lives. The list is a repetition and so much of how we live is repetitious. Shoot, we couldn’t live without the repetition of our heart, our breathing, our pulse. Also, the repetitions of our daily lives, our routines, our habits. We could also think of it in terms of physics. Motion requires repetition. If you want to get from here to there, it’ll require the locomotion of train wheels or turbines revolving to send us up and away, or car tires spinning, or one foot down and then the other. I also love the way lists and repetitions can serve as a comfort. We can predict a repetition and that’s soothing, but we can also alter it to create something new, which, in my case, often produces a joy.
… For more of this conversation between Mitchell S. Jackson and Annie DeWitt, please see the full article in The Paris Review. Find out more about the author (and watch his TED talk!) at his website, www.mitchellsjackson.com.