Portland writer Mitchell Jackson is best known for his award-winning debut, a semiautobiographical novel recounting the struggles of a poor black family in pre-gentrified Northeast Portland during the early-1990s crack epidemic. The Residue Years is an unapologetic, personal glimpse into the author's relationship to this city. After the book was published in 2013, Jackson moved to New York and won a prestigious $50,000 Whiting Award, solidifying his literary stardom. But the author's relationship with Portland hasn't waned. It's a connection that Jackson explores further in his upcoming collection of essays, Survival Math.
"Most of what I produce is an attempt to answer one central question: "How did I get here?" he says. "Living in Portland…shaped the stories that I have to tell, the kind of writer that I am and the content that I write about."
As with The Residue Years, Jackson's new essays address complex societal issues through personal anecdotes. In the short piece "Composite Pops," recently published in a compilation of contemporary black essays and poems called The Fire This Time, Jackson reflects on fatherhood. The important men in his life—his mother's boyfriend, his maternal grandfather, his uncles and, on occasion, his biological dad—provided a cumulative paternal role model. All of Jackson's writing is personal, but because he is now a father, this piece takes on a particular sense of urgency. It's also a complicated topic because black fatherhood has historically been so highly scrutinized.
"I want people to have another perspective on fatherhood," he says. "It's really easy to condemn men for not being good fathers, and I'm not trying to excuse anyone for shirking their responsibilities. But you could sit around and mourn your father's absence, or you could be productive in trying to make a life for yourself and not let a setback define who you become."
In addition to Jackson's personal past, Portland's history will play an even stronger role in his upcoming collection. "I'm excited for people from Portland to read [Survival Math], because it inspired me to learn about the city, state and culture."
From his current home in New York, Jackson says he hopes for a reason to return to his native city.
"I want [Portland State] to offer me a job where I can teach one semester every year," he says. "That's my goal. You can put that in print."
He has yet to be offered a position at PSU, but Jackson will return to Portland this fall for speaking engagements at two Beaverton-area high schools. He'll give a glimpse of what we can expect from Survival Math, and maybe a hint at how Portland past and future add up.
Mitchell Jackson will speak at Jesuit High School's African American Summit on Sunday, Sept. 25. The event is not open to the public.