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Voice, Diction, and Influence

An Interview with Mitchell S. Jackson


PUBLISHED: August 29, 2018

Photo by John Ricard

Mitchell Jackson began fastening the hashtag #litlifeislife onto his Instagram posts as early as September 2014. He has since adopted it as his unofficial catchphrase. The slogan is scattered generously across his feed, slapped onto snapshots of colleagues’ newly published books, event posters for upcoming writing festivals, slides announcing literary contest award winners, and—most recently—manuscript stacks of the forthcoming Survival Math fanning across tables and bedsheets.

Swayed by swelling pressures to up their digital presences, many artists overbend for the sake of self-branding. They contort themselves into highly manicured, and often unidentifiable, caricatures of their former selves. Jackson’s 2,475-photo-deep feed, however, resists such identity-stripping influences. His posts are genuine, often under-filtered, and admirably imperfect, offering a window into the purity of his intentions and enthusiasm about claiming space within an authentic community of intersectional writers. Celebrating the successes of a peer or partner or child or stranger is as much his mission as giving voice to his own triumphs. Truthfully, #litlifeislife can, and perhaps should, be rebranded as #selflessnessislife.

Jackson is a dual graduate degree recipient, having earned a Master of Arts in Writing at Portland State University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at New York University, and he exercises an ability to write across a range of genres. He is the author of The Residue Years, his debut novel now also a documentary; the collection Oversoul: Stories & Essays; and numerous short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction pieces, published in the likes of the New York Times Book Review and Tin House. He has received fellowships from TED, the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Center for Fiction, Bread Loaf, and the Lannan Foundation, as well as taken home the Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence for The Residue Years and a Whiting Award. At present, he is in the process of editing Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family, which will be released in March 2019. A current resident of New York City, he is a father of two (be sure to check out his father-son dance battle and father-daughter fashion matching display on Instagram) and a writing instructor at New York University.

In his writing, Jackson tackles seemingly impossible subjects two-, three-, and four-at-a-time. His short story “High Pursuit,” published in the Summer 2018 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, touches on the fragility of toxic masculinity, the tempation of drug dealing to make ends meet, racialized matrices of domination, and the prevalence of prostitution in low-earning communities. Raised by a single mother in a small, black, Portland neighborhood, Jackson was expected to confront the realities of impoverishment, black erasure, and governmental indifference from a young age. He was sent to prison in his youth after being arrested on drug charges, and it was during this time that he developed a penchant for autobiographical journaling. Not only is Jackson’s work socially aware, intended to affect his readers at a textual level, but he invests a significant amount of energy in giving back, especially to those residing in his home community, using more than his pen. Beyond working with individuals already within the criminal justice system, Jackson supports and helps educate young people at risk of choosing paths pointed toward prison.

Jackson wears kindness like a cape. This truth established itself instantly, within the opening minutes of our car-to-car phone conversation. At the time, Jackson was half a country away from home and grappling with travel responsibilities, but he did not allow such matters to chip away at the concentration of his responses or mask his obvious enthusiasm for literary contemplation. I can still imagine his words spilling out of slightly rolled windows as he tears toward the airport, his ideas waving their arms excitedly by the fender, ushering forth a rising master of the contemporary writing scene.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Caroline Hockenbury: What brought you out to the West Coast? 

Mitchell S. Jackson: I’m from Portland. I come out here often, but I came for a creative meeting with people trying to do a TV show. 

Is this project based on one of your pieces? 

Yeah. I’m working on a film for Survival Math. I’m actually meeting with the guy who shot and edited it to go over it. I’m trying to connect all of my manuscript-length writing projects to a film. 

What is that experience like: repurposing or writing texts for the screen as opposed to a page? 

It’s more nerve-racking because I’m less confident and informed about it. Writing a book is a collaboration in a sense, but filmmaking is absolutely a collaborative process. The more that I do it, the more I learn that I don’t know. There’s just so much to learn, and I’m dependent because I don’t shoot and I don’t necessarily edit. It puts me in a different position than when I’m writing. 

What made you feel inspired to pursue doing The Residue Years in documentary format? 

I anticipated getting questions about what was true and what wasn’t in the novel, and I thought that I could clarify a lot of those questions if I just did a doc.

When did you come to writing and realize the transformative effect that it can have? 

I came at it backward. I think people usually come to writing because they are reading, but I came to writing by journaling. When I went to prison and I was trying to make good use of my time, I started scribbling an extended journal about some of the things that happened to me and my family. I didn’t decide that I was a writer, or that I could be a writer, until I was already in graduate school. I was like, “Oh, I could do this,” but I was already working on an MFA. 

In your essay [“Re-Vision”] on why fiction matters, you write that “you should apply the tactics of revising for the page to revising a life.” What prompted your personal self-revision when you were in prison? What was the turning point for you? 

The turning point is your first day in there when you look around and say, “Okay, this isn’t the place for me.” I don’t think it was a revelation. It was just, “I can’t do this anymore.” And it wasn’t about me rehabilitating my thinking. It was a decision that “This is not a place for me.” Some people come to prison, and they say, “Oh, this is not that bad. I could do this. This is all part of the life that I bargained for.” And I bargained for it, but when it came time to ante up on the deal, I was like, “Nah, I can’t do this.” 

Were you revising some of these extended journal entries while you were in your MFA program, or did you produce completely new material? 

I didn’t really know much about revision. I didn’t know much about drafting, really, because I was learning techniques about writing. I was learning about point of view and characterization and how to write and punctuate dialogue. I was so much of an amateur that I had to learn everything while I was in graduate school. And I didn’t have taste, so even if I was reading, I didn’t know when something was strong or when it wasn’t. I had to develop taste to figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be. It actually took two graduate programs, and then maybe even after when I met Gordon Lish, before I started developing taste and a sense of style. Then I got really specific in the kinds of things that I would read because I wanted things that were going to help me expand my idea of what my style was. 

Did learning by reading while you were in school influence your development of a minimalist style? In “High Pursuit,” you don’t use any quotation marks. What inspired that editorial decision?

To be honest, one of the first books that I read that I loved that didn’t use quotation marks was Junot Díaz’s Drown. John Edgar Wideman is also a mentor of sorts for me, and he eschews quotation marks and a lot of other punctuation. He doesn’t even use question marks. So I took that on, but I didn’t just want to do it because it was aesthetically pleasing. I started to think about, well, why wouldn’t I use them? And part of why I chose not to was because it’s a way of not distinguishing between a dream and what you believe happened and what actually happened. A lot of my work is some kind of amalgamation of a dream or something that I really think is reality, but I’m not quite sure about the details. What I’m communicating is that all of it’s true, whether or not it actually occurred.

It’s a form of story truth. These stories have validity, even if they’re not word-for-word exactly what happened. 

Right. That’s a good way to say it, “story truth.” I’m going to start using that. 

Would you also say that in ditching quotation marks, you’re looking to potentially merge voices? 

Oh, yeah. To me, voice is so essential. I don’t want anything to distract from the voice. Especially with a voice like the one in “High Pursuit,” I’m asking a lot of the reader just to follow it. It’s not just the quotation marks; it’s also white space on the page and line breaks. I’m thinking about all of those themes and how I’m communicating this voice to the reader. One of the things I tell my students is, “What are the expectations that you’re putting on the reader, and then what are the payoffs for those expectations?” By showing the quotation marks on the page, I’m communicating, “You don’t have to worry about here. Let’s concentrate on this over here.”

Are you pointing to pressures characters may feel to match others in the ways they speak?

I remember one of the edit suggestions was to use an apostrophe when I took the “g” off of a gerund, and I don’t like doing that because I think it marks the text as not as credible as texts that would cap it on. I’m always fighting that fight. The way that these people speak should not be diminished in any way. I don’t see a reason for that. Part of the mission of my work is to communicate my position that this is legitimate language and that I don’t need to qualify it for someone. 

Definitely. Similarly, Junot Díaz often mixes and matches Spanish and English without using italics to differentiate between the two languages or propping one up as the “proper” form. I think you nod to this in the ways you think about whiteness vs. blackness. You shouldn’t have to code switch; both modes of speaking are legitimate. 

There’s that quote by Gustavo Pérez Firmat in the beginning of Drown: “The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I don’t belong to English though I belong nowhere else.” I also read something where Junot said he never wanted to be a native performer, and that really resonated with me, too. I’m not writing for white people to inform them on black lives. 

In your TED talk, you argue that nodding to blackness as a concept demonstrates complicity in racial division. How, then, do you write about or around blackness without motioning to it too much as a separate entity? 

It’s a question that I wrestle with. I have an essay where I dissect whiteness in Survival because I want to influence, but I also know there are given terms. I don’t want to be trying to invent some new language to talk about people that they don’t understand, but I definitely have to show that it’s problematic to use a title. I think I’ll be working on that problem for the rest of my life. In the movement toward gender equality, people don’t have to use binaries. If we can imagine that, then we should be able to imagine the same concept for race. 

As a writer, have you ever experienced discrimination for being previously incarcerated? 

No, not that I’m aware of, but I think it was because I took the card away from them by not hiding it. I come in with the understanding that this is my experience and I’m writing about it, so you know that about me before we even have a conversation. I also felt like if I would have waited or tried to hide it, that it would eventually come out, and then I would have had to face repercussions for it. If you take away the thing that might harm you, then what else do they have left?

With your writing, how do you seek to encourage others to pursue self-revision? 

In [“Re-Vision”], I talk about looking back to the former self, and I think that’s a way to live. You don’t want to dwell, but you want to examine your decision-making, too. You also don’t want to be operating in a historical vacuum. It’s important for all of us to understand the context of our problems and never give up on the idea of revision as a possibility. Really to me, that’s rounder than hope.

All of those things really work on the page, too. When I was writing “High Pursuit” and was two-thirds of the way in, I stopped that story, and I put it away for six months. I was like, “I don’t know where to go.” But I never, ever give up on a story. I know people say, “I wrote a novel and I put it away,” or “I started it and I threw it out.” I don’t do that. If I’m going to invest my time, then I’m going to see it through. And I think that’s also a counter-revisionist strategy, to say, “Okay, well I’m stuck here, but let me look back and see what I’ve done.” There’s a precursor story for “High Pursuit” called “Head Down, Palm Up.” Looking back at that story was helpful for me on deciding where to go with “High Pursuit.”

How do you give back to communities in which you were raised and on which your writing touches?

I get on every plane that I can. I help youth and go to elementary schools. Usually when I’m in town, I’ll post something, and someone will say, “Oh, you’re in town? Can you come by and talk to my sixth graders?”

And yesterday, I went to this basketball camp for this program in Portland called Self Enhancement, Inc. The program started as a basketball camp, and then it evolved into a program that helps youth [realize potential]. It’s been around since the 1980s. I won this fellowship called a Bearing Witness Fellowship, and as a part of it, they gave us money to give to a nonprofit that works with incarcerated persons or people who are returning citizens. But I pushed back a little bit and said, “I totally understand why you want to work with that population of people, but also I think it’s important to catch people before they get to prison.” They approved me giving the money to Self Enhancement, and actually while I was here, the money came in, so I went over to SEI. If there’s a way to help people from where I’m from, then I’m down for it.

What steps did you take in your early years and beyond to promote the visibility of your work? Do you have any advice for emerging writers? 

Don’t feel compelled to publish everywhere all the time. Don’t spend your whole MFA program sending out your work, looking for publications. This is really antithetical to what most people say, but I don’t think that the number of publications counts as much as the quality of the publications. Quality is going to come from one: you getting as strong as you can become as a writer, and two: sending to those places where the odds are not necessarily in your favor, but they might be. Then, later on in your career, you can get an agent or you can hire an advocate, and it will get a bit easier for you to get into the places that matter.

I have published about four or five short stories in my life, but I’ve probably sent out a total of six or seven. Most of my publications now come out of someone I’ve met or my agent sending something out. I know that’s not everybody’s position, but even when I didn’t have an agent, I wasn’t sending out because I knew, when the time comes, people will want to see the work. They’ll want to publish the work. It just has to be that strong that it attracts the publication. It’s kind of like being at the mercy of someone’s taste. I know this is probably a different story for poets who, I think, need more publications than prose writers, but I still think you can spend a lot of time trying to publish and lose time in becoming stronger. 

 

I think fellowshipping is important, too, because you come in with a cohort of people. I used to go to AWP when I was in graduate school, and I’d hang out with Tayari Jones, Terrance Hayes, and all these people who were three to seven years ahead of or older than me. Also, they were one or two publications into their career when I was fielding graduate school. Tayari used to say, “Mitch, you are the future.” I understood that it wasn’t my time. You spend all of this time working and building relationships, and that is what eventually will pay off. 

Do you feel like it’s easier to break in once you have publication credentials stapled to your name?

People do pay attention to that and awards, but again, I think it’s really about the work. I can remember getting a fellowship at the Center for Fiction, and at their spring reading, they invited a bunch of publishers, editors, and people who work in publishing. I did a three-minute reading, and afterward, editors, publishers, and agents started [saying], “Hey! What’s your name? Where have you been published?” That really was the moment things turned for me career-wise, and it was just three minutes. It was something that I had worked on with Lish for a month or so, and before that, I hadn’t published anything. It was the right time in my career, and it was the right moment. 

Who are you reading right now, and are there any artists’ work you’d like to amplify? 

I just finished a galley of Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy. The last book I read before that was Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. I’ve been reading books for work. The one I read before that I reviewed, which was Gregory Pardlo’s memoir, Air Traffic, and right now I’m reading Bulfinch’s Mythology. I never had a teacher or professor who assigned me these anthologies, so I’m playing catch-up.

Who are some of your favorite poets? 

My partner, Safiya Sinclair—I like her work. I like Rickey Laurentiis, Terrance Hayes, Rita Dove. Natalie Diaz is one of my favorite poets. Jericho Brown. 

Where do you find most of your reading suggestions?

Different places. Because I teach so much, I read a lot of short stuff. I teach at NYU in the Liberal Studies program, and every semester, I teach our version of English comp. We call it Writing I and II. I also teach creative writing for other colleges in the university, both fiction and nonfiction, as well as lit seminars. Because of that, I end up reading a lot of essays, short fiction, poems, [and] sometimes even plays.

The books that were on my reading list this summer were Bulfinch’s Mythology, the Bible, and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I might not make it through all of those, but that’s what I intended to read this summer.

Do you like teaching?

Yeah, I do like teaching, but it’s selfish because I like it because I like learning. I’m always being challenged and pushed by my students. I get paid to do what I love now. My students inspire me with their curiosities. They expand my thinking on issues. It’s an important, important, integral part of my life.

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