Visible Man: An Interview with Mitchell S. Jackson
January 30, 2014 | by Tim Small
Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel, The Residue Years, was published last fall and drew immediate notice for its amazing use of language and voice, the cadence of its sentences, and the authenticity at its center. It tells the sweet, sad story of Grace, a recovering drug addict, and her drug-dealing son, Champ, as they both struggle in an African American Portland neighborhood that was ravaged by crack in the nineties.
Critics said the novel was about race, or poverty, or America’s failed war on drugs. Big, social themes. Personally, I disagree: to my mind, The Residue Years is a personal story, a novel about love, redemption, and freedom. Interspersed throughout are a blank form for a rehabilitation center, a police report, a Baptist church member registration form, a petition for child custody—subtle reminders that this novel is also about all the ways in which we are held captive by institutions that, more often than not, fail us. Between these pauses lie some three-hundred pages of beautiful sentences that mix urban slang with pitch-perfect lyricism, resulting in a new way of expressing American English—at least to my European eyes. Victor LaValle agrees: “It’s tough to write beautifully about ugly things, but Mitchell S. Jackson makes it look easy.” Amy Hempel has said that Grace and Champ are one of the fictional families she has cared about the most. And that’s at the heart of Mitchell’s novel: family.
Last month I fired up Skype and talked to Mitchell for more than an hour—I was in Milan, and he in Brooklyn—about his novel, his writing, and the dangers of how books are marketed today.
Your language is a fantastic mix of literary, poetic, lyrical English, and urban slang—it goes up and down and back and forth. I’m curious to know if you tried to bring together those worlds consciously.
I do feel like I’m in the middle there. I have my preliterary experiences in the urban world, listening to a bunch of hip-hop and listening to my uncles, my friends. When I got in school and started reading, I found people who were writing about a similar kind of experience, and whom I thought the canon respected. But I don’t feel like I’m in a tradition. I don’t think I read deeply enough in either field to really know about a tradition. I do have influences—James Baldwin, of course, and John Edgar Wideman. But also Denis Johnson and Barry Hannah. I like to stay in the middle. I think that that tension lets me play around with voice.
What was your starting point for the novel?
I started writing autobiographical scenes and tried to string them together. I didn’t understand the characters’ motivations. It took me years to figure out what they really wanted. I had a premise—mother on drugs, son sells drugs—but that’s not human. Those are just things people do. It took me some time to figure out what the humanity in the characters was. I saw that this story was really about a mother and a son, about their will to redeem themselves from the hurt they’d caused. Once I realized that, I went back and rewrote a lot of stuff. When I started, the characters were so close to my own life that I felt like they had to speak and act and behave like the people they were based on.
Champ and Grace began as avatars of you and your mom?
At the beginning, and then they became composites. But the origin was in truth. Once you realize the characters have a life of their own and you let them do what’s right for them, the work opens up. I wish I were as smart as Champ, but I’m not as smart as him.
How was your book marketed? Did they go for a hip crowd? A literary crowd? Did they focus on the African American angle?
I did a lot of literary events because, I suspect, my publisher didn’t want me pigeonholed as an urban writer. You know, the hip, urban black crowd—they're not buying many books. It was smart of my publisher to do that, because I have a feeling that black people will get to the book later, if they feel like it’s a success. But reading a positive review in The New York Times—I don’t think that’ll make the book a success with the urban crowd. I have a couple friends in the music industry, and I sent them the Times review, and I got nothing. No response. But then, this girl who’s a hip-hop promoter was doing some sort of meet-and-greet and she did an event with me—she called it an “author meet-and-greet.” It wasn’t even a reading. She sent out an e-mail blast, and all my friends got back to me and were like, Great, man, you’re really doing it! And I was like, Doing what? This is nothing! It’s like, this is what you guys value? Like, fuck the New York Times, all you care about is a girl who gives you free drinks at a meet-and-greet? I realized those friends of mine don’t get it.
Who was your perceived audience? Are the literary and African-American audiences separate worlds? It’s similar to what happens with Junot Díaz—he’s a Latino writer, but his books aren’t perceived to be books for the Latino community. They’re literary books, which means, to a large extent, that they explain the Latino experience to white people.
I think what happens, simply, is that people end up writing about their experiences. If you’re a black person writing about a black experience, they give it that marketing term to find an audience. But it marginalizes the work. Even before the literature, it’s like, here’s a black writer. If you hear the conversation about the guys who have six to eight books out and you start to hear phrases like “Great American Novel” or “one of the greatest writers of his generation,” they almost always refer to a white man or a book by a white man. But maybe Junot will be the exception. The thing about Junot that’s special is that, from the jump, he was christened as the guy they were gonna let through the door. He was in The New Yorker right away, and some people work their whole careers for that. I think that they single out one or two people so they can say, it’s not a fair playing field, but we’re gonna let a few of you over here. And this is not to say that it’s not deserved. Junot Díaz is probably my favorite living writer. I think he deserves it, but I do think that he was singled out. I mean, if I was part of the establishment and I was trying to maintain some kind of hold on it, I wouldn’t allow that many people through either.
Now, this next part is hard to say. I think that part of the problem is that a lot of black writers are … satisfied with being successful outside of what you’d call literary fiction. And if you take that satisfaction, you don’t get in the club. You have to write literary fiction to get in the club. And there aren’t that many black writers that they’ve allowed in the club to choose from. As examples, Edwidge Danticat and Junot Díaz are great. But where are the other Caribbean writers the gatekeepers have given a pass?
That said, I recognize that my backstory will bring people to the book who wouldn’t ordinarily come to it. On the other hand, I’m really hypersensitive to people judging it as an autobiography. I want people to come to the work, but when you get there, I want you to judge it by its merit. Not because of the fact that I might have been in prison or I might have seen some of the stuff that I talk about in the book. That’s the kind of position you put yourself in when they market you in a certain way. You get readers coming to the book for the wrong reasons.
Is it easy for you to write?
No. It’s easy to write notes. But I have such a high standard for myself, at the sentence level. I want to write a book where every sentence is beautiful. Where every single sentence is beautiful. It prevents me from putting down bullshit. But it also kind of stifles me, because it stops me from getting involved in the messy stuff. I’m never like, Let me slap this down and get on to this other thing and worry about that later. I’m so concerned with every single sentence that it’s kind of troubling.
Are you worried about what you’ll write next?
In a way. But I don’t think it’s about having other things to say, or about waiting for stuff to happen to you so you can write about it. It’s more about going back to that one story and telling it in different ways. I was listening to an interview with Jay-Z and he said that he’s only written about five stories in his whole career. He’s only had five things he wanted to say, but he said them differently. I want my writing to stay in Portland. Edward P. Jones only writes about D.C.—be it D.C. a hundred years ago, or today. There are so many stories in a place. And nothing beats writing about home.
Would you consider moving back in time, maybe writing more historically?
You know, I never thought about that. And maybe there’s something there. People often write about the South during slavery, but there’s not much about Oregon in those days. You just gave me an idea, man! Right on!
I want five percent.
Sure. I’ll give you five percent of zero.