An interview with Mitchell S. Jackson, author of Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family

Mitchell S. Jackson (photo credit: John Ricard)

Mitchell S. Jackson (photo credit: John Ricard)

By Robb Todd

A book can change a life, even save one. That’s what a book did for Mitchell S. Jackson and now he has written a memoir with that same aspiration: Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family. 

Jackson's book is astounding. Should it find the right hands, it seems likely to have the power intended. Along with lessons on history, heartbreak, and hope, the writing itself is beautiful. Jackson produces music with his sentences, which are such that they could only be his—a true measure of someone at the height of his art and craft. He can weave slang into a line that also has a two-dollar word such as "pulchritude" and make it sound natural, like the song a bird is born with. In doing so, he achieves a unique dual-register throughout his work.

Jackson and I first met in a writing class a decade ago. One of the best lessons from that class was that you never raise the pen to put yourself above another person. Jackson applies that in Survival Math, exposing his flaws while doing his best to be better. He's sold drugs, served time in prison, mistreated women, and has tried to make amends for all of it—and is still doing so. One of the other lessons from that class was that a writer should veer toward jeopardy. Jackson accomplishes that, too, with several of his essays, most notably, "The Scale." (More on that below.) 

Survival Math follows the success of his first novel, The Residue Years. I had the privilege and the pleasure of watching both books evolve through countless revisions. Jackson won't stop shining his sentences until someone yanks them from him. Because of that, my view of Survival Math is obscured in some ways by the knowledge of what came before, and by knowing Jackson for so long, so here are some other perceptions of the book:

  • The Boston Globe called Survival Math a "vibrant memoir of race, violence, family, and manhood," in which Jackson "recounts growing up hard and fast in Portland, Ore., and it’s a minefield from boyhood to adulthood. He shares his and his family’s stories through essays, historical reportage, letters, and poems called 'centos,' crafted with lines from other poems or writings."

  • The Paris Review called Jackson "arguably one of America’s most important contemporary voices" and said the 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." (The magazine also offers an excerpt.)

  • The New York Times was less enthusiastic, saying that Jackson did not "let us truly encounter him." Among other things, it took issue with his essay "The Scale" in which he "introduces his concept of 'The Men on the Scale' — players, users of women. He has been such a man, he says, but he alludes only vaguely to how he harmed them. Instead he includes 'victim statements,' testimonies of his behavior from five former partners. They describe being cheated on and lied to, coerced into abortions, feeling too traumatized to date again." 

Jackson took the time to answer some questions about the book, his process, and some of the early reactions to it.

Q: How did you come up with the term "survival math"? 

A: It came out of me reflecting on moments when my life was threatened. I can’t remember the exact moment that I arrived at the term, but I can remember thinking that I had had to do some calculations and that I was happy to have arrived at the right math. It’s interesting because so many people are able to take survival for granted. I supposed they are doing a different kind of math. The math of how to prosper—prosperity math.

Q: How long ago did you first get the idea for this book? Once you started working on it, how long did it take to finish and how many revisions did you make?

A: The book has its genesis with Oversoul: Stories and Essays, which was self-published in 2012. Back then it was going to be stories and essays. I decided it would be only essays around 2014. That’s when I started working in earnest. That makes me happy. Residue took fourteen years. Maybe the next book will take five. I cannot begin to count the revisions I made on the individual essays. And the sentences, sheesh. I’m sure that there are sentences that have been edited at least 20 or 30 times. I have trust issues with my work. I can’t be sure when it’s ready for me to commit to it as a final draft.

Q: You are meticulous with your revisions, as you are with your fashion. Are those things related for you? 

A: Absolutely. My last rounds of revisions are usually concerned with voice. With saying things right. With sounding the most like my evolving self. Or, in other words, I’m trying to figure out how to express my identity with the language. This is the same thing I’m doing in fashion. Trying to represent my identity with what I wear and how I wear it. Which is also my difference. To paraphrase Gilles Deleuze, “We know who are from who and what we are not.”

Q: What was the revision that gave you the most difficulty?

A: “The Scale” gave me the most trouble because it was the most personal. It was tough revisiting all that trauma I caused women. Plus, I had trouble with the tone. It seemed like I was bragging about what I’d done, which wasn’t at all my objective. The second one that gave me immense trouble was “Apples,” and that was another one about women. I detect a theme here: me writing about women is tough. I'm sure that there are a number of reasons why, not the least of which is that it calls on my empathy and understanding in a way that writing about men doesn’t. I don’t have the luxury of having been a woman all my life.

Q: Some of the reaction to "The Scale" has been tough so far. During your book release event at the Brooklyn Public Library, the person interviewing you used the term "triggered" when she brought it up, and a review was critical of your use of “victim statements" from women you harmed rather than your directly addressing those issues yourself. But you also mentioned at the book release that you started working on this in what was a different political moment. Can you discuss your reasons for not wanting to alter your work to suit the day's climate?

A: I think it’s important not to be tone deaf about the current cultural climate. But I think there’s a difference between being tone deaf and playing a tune that people want to hear as a way of courting public approval. That feels dishonest. And as much as I like positive feedback, acclaim, the fruits of public consent, I also value being true to myself and my objective of telling the truth even if it ain’t popular. The thing to remember is I am constantly evolving, or at least I hope that I am. Maybe I’ll look back on some of the things I wrote and have a different perspective. But, also, I meant what I wrote at the time that I wrote it. And I meant no harm to anyone. I didn’t write a single word of “The Scale” with malice in my heart. I said in an interview a while ago that I started writing what became “The Scale” in 2011, and that I published it near the height of the #MeToo movement. But as I understand the movement, it's women calling womanizers and sexual predators to reckon for their deeds. In this case, I initiated the reckoning. And it was not to get out ahead of a scandal. It was me deeming my actions worthy of critique and hoping that critique proved valuable for someone else. 

Q: What's the most unfair criticism you've received so far? 

A: It’s one thing to be critical of work and another thing to be malicious in assessing someone’s work. I’ve done my fair share of reviews and I try to read with compassion and empathy. I think that’s part of the job description of a critic. And even if I think a book deserves criticism, I try not to trash a book. I have read a review of Survival Math that seemed to cross into the realm of intentional harm. That particular review said that I alluded only vaguely to how I’d harmed women in “The Scale.” That assertion is just flat-out untrue. I invite people to read that essay to see if they feel I treated my harms against women as cursory. I spend pages and pages listing my transgressions, questioning why I committed them, trying to contextualize them, and even giving a few women a chance to articulate my harms for themselves. There’s nothing remotely vague about it. I read that comment and I asked myself, why would someone say that? I don’t have an answer and likely won’t. But somehow that didn’t seem like a fair read. Which is not to say I think the book is above criticism. It isn’t. There’s no writer, no book, above criticism.

Q: What the fairest criticism you've received so far?

A: I think there are two fair criticisms. One reviewer said that my mode was “exuberant maximalism.” Another one said that I was an essayist of “occasionally overwrought” prose. They are both true. And purposeful. I believe language is the key to identity, and also that what people call standard English was created by people who didn’t have the best interest of my ancestors at heart, and, as a matter of fact, used the language to oppress them. So, some of my excess is me reclaiming the language. One of my artistic aims is to impress upon the reader that I wrote whatever I wrote. Sometimes, often-times, that means pressing beyond some perceived line between necessary and excessive. It’s a risk, I know, but I also can’t afford safety on the page. Or at least feel like I can’t afford to recede into the background of my prose.

But those readers were right. Sometimes I’m pushing too far. Sometimes I’m pushing too far because I want the reader to have to re-read something, to slow down their attention. Again, a risk. But what’s making something with no risks?

Q: In the book are sections called “Survivor Files,” anonymous second-person accounts of men in your family whom you asked to answer the question, "What's the toughest thing you've survived?" Why did you decide to use the second person for these?

A: I love the dynamism of the second person. It operates like a first person POV, but also invites the reader to imagine themselves as the protagonist. And I had a hunch that the experiences in the files would be much different than those of my average readers. So I thought, how can I get them to most empathize? I also wanted to set them apart from the voice of the essays, which is mostly first person. I didn’t want, or couldn’t afford, people confusing the essays and the narratives. That’s also why the “Survivor Files” are distinguished typographically in the book.

Q: What's a question I have not asked yet that you wish I would? And what's the answer?

A: What is the role of the centos? Here’s my answer: the centos are composed from historic American documents, The Gettysburg Address, Plessy V. Ferguson, The Declaration of Independence… and I wanted to use them to situate the essays and the “Survivor Files” in historical context. It’s part of the evidence for the subtitle, what makes my family an all-American family.

Q: Where did the idea for the centos come from?

A: The centos are a product of me wanting to frame these particular stories about people in Portland, Oregon, in the context of history. I wanted to use venerated texts, to use exalted language, to show how it has been used to coerce the destiny of those men, but also the fates of so many people of color in this land. I drew from ten texts, including “The Declaration of Independence,” “The Gettysburg Address,” and the Dred Scott decision. I say in the author’s note that our history is inseparable from the history of America. The centos are one way asserting that claim.

Q: You've said that you wrote this book for '“the younger you”. What was the book that “the younger you” found had the biggest impact on you ending up where you are now?

A: The book that had the greatest impact on me was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. It was the first serious book I can remember reading. And though it was distant from my life, Harlem in the '50s, I believe, it also seemed like a world I knew intimately. I was amazed at Baldwin’s introspection, the way he could expand a moment to a kind of capaciousness that allowed for all kinds of insight. But the younger, younger me, the pre 25-year-old me, didn’t read books much.

Q: How did you come across that book by Baldwin? And can you discuss who you were, and where you were, at that time?

A: I don’t remember how I came across Baldwin. I must’ve read something that mentioned him as a serious black writer. I can tell you I checked out the book from the Portland State University Library. Or at least I think I did. The memories and the fictions get a little mixed up sometimes and there’s nobody to verify this one. At the time, I was working a job I didn’t like and trying to figure out how I was going to escape being average. I felt like my options were super finite because I had a felony and also because my imagination was limited in terms of possibilities for myself. I was living with my girlfriend at the time, driving a Lexus that may or may not have been insured during a given month because I didn’t have much money. I was wearing lots of white t-shirts and Air Force 1s. I was asking myself if I could risk selling crack again. It was as though I was on a precipice.

Q: How will you get your book into the hands of all the younger yous out there?

A: I’ll have to meet them where they frequent. I’ll have to catch them in school. Continue to visit group homes, juvenile facilities, adult facilities. Partner with programs that service them. It won’t be easy. Because even if I can reach them, convincing them to read a tough book, when they might not yet own a consistent reading practice, is an obstacle. No matter how tough it is though, I’m committed to it.

 Q: If your book can save someone else out there, as Baldwin's book did for you, what do you think they'll take from it that makes that happen?

A: I recently read an essay on wisdom in the age of information by Brain Pickings' Maria Popova. She distinguished information from knowledge from wisdom. She defined information as some basic fact about the world. She defined knowledge as the understanding of how information fits together to reveal some truth about the world. She argued that wisdom includes a moral component, that it is the application of information-worth-remembering and knowledge-that-matters to understand not only how the world works but how it should work. What I hope is that the book provides information and knowledge, but also inspires some to pursue wisdom about their circumstances. In the end, wisdom is the best survival math.

Robb Todd is a journalist and author in New York City. He has lived all over the country and was lucky enough to live in Hawaii twice. He also lived in Texas twice. And North Carolina twice. Actually, this is his second stop in New York City, too. He doesn’t do things right the first time.