Writer Mitchell S. Jackson

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The award-winning writer reflects on beating the odds, as portrayed in his debut novel, The Residue Years.

Mitchell S. Jackson grew up the hard way. Born and raised in Portland, OR—a Black man in a deteriorating neighborhood in one of America's whitest cities—he got caught up in the drug trade and served time. But, he went on to earn a master's in writing, as well as an M.F.A., and win an award for his work. Now based in Brooklyn, NY, Jackson teaches at NYU, CUNY's Medgar Evers College and John Jay College and has worked as an entertainment journalist. Hoping others will learn from his story, he published the e-book collection, Oversoul: Stories and Essays and, in his autobiographical novel, The Residue Years, candidly portrays his coming-of-age backstory.


Tavis: Mitchell Jackson battled the kind of difficult childhood that often derails young lives before they get a chance to ever succeed. He grew up in a crime-addled neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, and saw the crack epidemic take casualties with the force of an explosion.

He had his own brush with the law, spending time in prison for selling drugs. But he turned his life around, earning and MFA in creative writing from NYU. He has just published his first novel, and everybody is talking about it.

It’s clearly autobiographical, and it is called “The Residue Years.” Again, getting outstanding reviews from just about everybody. Mitchell, congratulations and good to have you on this program.

Mitchell S. Jackson: Thank you, man, appreciate being here.

Tavis: Let me start with – I was going to say “an unlikely place;” not unlikely for you. That is, before I get inside the text, one of your reasons for writing. He does not get the respect I think he deserves.

Jackson: Yeah.

Tavis: But Baldwin, James Baldwin –

Jackson: Yes.

Tavis: One of your great influences. Tell me how Baldwin influenced your wanting to do this.

Jackson: Well, I read – “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was one of the few books that I read that it struck me as – I identify with that, even though the experience was far away in Harlem.

I just always liked the way James Baldwin was able to kind of enter the interior lives of the people and ask questions about how and why, rather than just what. So when I read him, I was like, wow, if I could do that. So I spent a good deal of time early on just trying to knock off James Baldwin.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Jackson: But I really appreciated that he was – it seemed like he was more concerned with, like, creating the emotional and the intellectual lives of his characters.

Tavis: Yeah. What did Baldwin’s experience in Harlem say to you on the other coast of the country? How did you connect to his storyline, his narrative?

Jackson: Well, I actually connected with him probably later on, when I really started to read him.

Tavis: Right.

Jackson: I started with “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” but I put it down. I didn’t read the essays at first. But when I started to read, if you read Baldwin now, like an essay like “Uptown Fifth Avenue,” where he talks about the poverty in Harlem, it’s really the same thing going on.

He seems like a genius and also a fortune-teller, because people are still kind of infatuated with the wrong things. Girls are still having babies like they were having.

So I think Baldwin was just really able to see, like, the broad view of what was happening in the culture. I’ve always been one of the people who, even when I was in those circumstances, was trying to ask how, why is this happening. Why are dudes doing this? Why am I even doing this? I think that’s one thing that he did.

Tavis: Let me shift to your book, then. Tell me about Grace.

Jackson: Yeah. So Grace was a character that I – well, I think, to back up, it’s semi-autobiographical, but I used, it was more like a palette of people in my life that I used.

So no one character is any one person, but Grace is most like my mother, who struggled with addiction from the time I was 10 years old until probably when I was into my twenties.

So one thing that I felt like really was a turning point writing the novel was that I realized that it wasn’t just the son’s story, that it was her, and it was a son and a mother story.

So I really took a lot of care and asked a lot of questions from my mom and other people who have been through addiction about how to really portray this honestly.

Tavis: Yeah. I’m glad you went there, because I wanted to ask. How did your mother, how did she, how is she, handling the publishing of this? It’s one thing for her son to write a book that’s getting critical acclaim.

But to your point, the Grace character is, in large measure, patterned after, or based on her.

Jackson: Right.

Tavis: That’s a difficult thing to come to terms with.

Jackson: Yeah.

Tavis: How’s your mama handling her business –

Jackson: (Laughs) Yeah, in the streets.

Tavis: – being put out there? Yeah, in the streets in this way.

Jackson: She was helpful, especially when I was writing it, but one thing she said towards the end was that, “I hope that our story is able to help someone.” She was like secrets can really harm you, and I hope that by us telling this and being truthful about our lives that it does some good. So she’s in this with me.

Tavis: Yeah. There’s a powerful line I want you to unpack for me. I get it, but it just struck me as so – so poignantly. You eventually, as I said a moment ago, in your life, you start selling drugs.

You see the impact it’s having on your mother, and you’re trying to hold on as best you can. Eventually, not unlike a lot of kids your age, you just gave up and said, “You know what? I’m going to sell drugs myself.”

Jackson: Right.

Tavis: The line is if don’t nobody care about my mama, why should I care about anybody else’s mama?

Jackson: Right, yeah.

Tavis: They don’t care about my mama, why should I care about they mama? I’m going to sell some drugs, make a little money, take care of myself.

Jackson: Right.

Tavis: That line, though, is powerful for me.

Jackson: Yeah. I think you kind of develop an apathy for it, and then at a certain point you don’t want to be victimized by it. I think you feel like by selling drugs you’re no longer a victim, that you have your fate in your own hands, when really you don’t, to a large measure.

But it feels like that, and it’s kind of an empowering thing for someone who doesn’t have anything, to be able to at some point take care of some of the things they need to.

Tavis: I said it was a powerful line, unless people misunderstand my point. I know you didn’t. I should say it was arresting for me, is what I really meant by that. But I’m glad you answered that.

So let me fast-forward, because I can’t do justice to all this in the matter of time that I have here. But you’re in college.

Jackson: Right.

Tavis: Somehow you worked your way through all that. You get through your mama’s crack addiction, you get through having siblings and the help that they need. Somehow you find your way into college, and into your junior year in college you get arrested for selling drugs.

Jackson: Right, yeah.

Tavis: Then you go to jail, go to prison for about 16 months or so.

Jackson: Yeah.

Tavis: That’s where you start to discover, in a real way, your gift for writing.

Jackson: Right.

Tavis: Take me back to your junior year in school, and how in the world you processed being in college one day and in prison the next.

Jackson: It was a longer process, because I didn’t know probably for three or four months after I got caught. Because I didn’t have a record I thought well, maybe they’ll just give me probation.

But once I figured out that I was going to prison, it was disheartening, because I felt like I disappointed people who believed in me. Because I wasn’t a person who didn’t have – some guys, they do it because they feel like it’s their only means.

They’re not good in school, they can’t play sports. So I had those things and I was still doing it, so I felt like I disappointed the people who believed in me.

Tavis: Why were you doing it? If you had access and you had opportunity, obviously intellect, why were you doing it?

Jackson: Right. Early on, it kind of started as the apathy I said. But then later on it became something that was a means of support for me and my family. Then it was like an identity. I walked around and that was my identity.

People stopped calling me the basketball player or the school boy and they thought of me in another way. It felt like something that I was almost compelled to do, and I didn’t see a way that it was going to end unless something bad happened.

Tavis: Tell me about your time behind bars.

Jackson: A lot of it was pretty useless, playing basketball, dominoes. But at some point towards the end of it I thought I need to make something of this time and do something constructive.

That’s when I started to scribble what happened to be the, or came to be the book on some loose leaf pages. But it was really no one that kind of compelled me to do it. It was just like I’m here now. How am I going to make the best of this?

Also knowing that I had to go back in school, how am I going to get ready for that kind of intellectual experience again?

Tavis: Was writing already a gift that you had, or was this your first time discovering that you had this gift, when you were in prison?

Jackson: It was – I don’t even think I thought it was a gift in prison. I just wanted to do something. I didn’t even know that I had a talent for it, really, until I was into graduate school already. I used to scribble notes when I was young, but never a story. I never thought about being a writer. Just scribbling notes, journaling.

Tavis: Yeah. What do you make of that, that you could put something out that is this well-received, this critically acclaimed. It’s your first one, and you never even thought of yourself as a writer. Just journaling.

Jackson: Yeah, I think people, they come to their gifts, I guess, later on, and I’m just fortunate that people encouraged me to do it, and that I believed in them before I believed in myself. Then once I started to believe in myself, then I just put the work in.

Tavis: Why the choice, the decision to do this as a novel as opposed to nonfiction?

Jackson: Well when I started it, there was so many people involved, and I thought I could get some people in trouble. (Laughter) That was the first one –

Tavis: That’s the (unintelligible).

Jackson: Yeah, you know, I still have to mind the ‘hood ethics. I can’t just walk around –

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter)

Jackson: – snitching on people. But also, later on, fiction gave me a kind of leeway, that being kind of change of the truth, that kind of truth, didn’t have. So it worked out for the best.

Tavis: So what are your boys, whose names have been changed to protect their innocence or guilt, what are they saying about the book?

Jackson: People are proud. Some of the guys who were doing some of the illegal things might not even be home now, so I don’t know what, if they read it or not. I sent a couple of them a book.

But I hope that they’re – if you’re locked up and you got 17 years, you probably are thinking your decision-making wasn’t the best, so they probably see some of the truth in this, and also a little caution.

Tavis: You spend time talking to prisoners these days?

Jackson: Yeah, yeah. I went back to the prison I was in, actually, last spring, and talked to those guys. It was really a powerful moment for me.

Tavis: You said earlier in this conversation, as we close, that your mother expressed to you what she wanted, what she hoped for as a result of this book, “The Residue Years.” What is it that you hope will come of this for readers?

Jackson: My hope is that a guy who doesn’t normally read, that’s sitting around living the kind of experience that I had, this’ll be the one book that they pick up and read and hopefully identify with.

It’s great if “The New York Times” says some good things about it, it’s great if a woman in Westchester picks it up. But I’m trying to speak to those guys because I think that it’s so little that they gravitate to. So I hope that this is an honest conversation with them.

Tavis: I’ll close where I began. Everybody’s talking about this. It’s going to be one of the books of the year, I believe. It’s called “The Residue Years: A Novel,” written by this young brother, Mitchell S. Jackson – Portland’s own.

Jackson: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: Portland’s own Mitchell Jackson. You’ll want to get it and add it to your collection. Mitchell, congratulations. I’m so glad it’s being so well received.

Jackson: Thanks.

Tavis: First one out the gate. I assume you’re going to do some more writing now.

Jackson: Yeah, definitely.

Tavis: You’ve been bitten now.

Jackson: Yeah, yeah, I got it, I got it.

Tavis: You got it. I’m glad to meet you, man.

Jackson: All right, man, you too.

Tavis: Glad to have you on the program. That’s our show for tonight. Good night from Los Angeles. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: September 11, 2013 at 11:47 am