An excerpt of Mitchell S. Jackson’s Survival Math was published in The Paris Review’s Fall 2018 issue.
Mitchell Jackson (Photo: John Ricard)
Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel The Residue Years was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and it was the winner of both the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence and a Whiting Writers’ Award winner. He is arguably one of America’s most important contemporary voices. For years, readers like myself have been awaiting his next proclamation. His new memoir, Survival Math, arrives not a day too soon amid the political turmoil of 2019. In his second masterpiece, Mitchell has cast aside the fictive cover and turned the lens deeply inward. He delves headlong into issues of race, class, masculinity, love, addiction, and redemption, which unfold into an urgent American odyssey that sweeps history, time, register, and place. His 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.
Mitchell is the only person who has invited me to an event so fancy the invitation was flown to my home overnight express. When we attended the awards ceremony, Joy Williams wore her signature cowboy boots and sunglasses onstage. Don DeLillo stared, stone-like, straight ahead. “Hey,” I leaned over to Mitch and asked, “Isn’t that woman handing out awards with her back to us a famous actress?” “You mean Meryl Streep?” he said. We both laughed. This, it seemed, was already his milieu. It was my honor to interview him about his craft.
Survival Math opens with a quote by Baldwin: “That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth—and indeed no church—can teach.” If you could boil it down to one edict, what is it that you most want to teach readers with this book?
The epigraph is close to an edict, but Baldwin genders it. I’m a cisgender black male, and my sense of manhood, which is to say the substantiation of what I now ascertain as a narrow sense of the qualities of a man, has informed me for almost as far back as I can recall. But this book is also about womanhood—my great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mother, aunts, partners, et cetera—which is to say, it’s my attempt to understand the circumstances of women who’ve shaped my life. I don’t know if I want to teach readers so much as I want the book to serve as an invitation to reckon with the truth that we’ve been here and we’ve mattered. By we I mean my family and friends, but also black and brown folk from my state, my city, and in a broader sense, black folks all over the country. It bothers me that concern about blacks in America is topical, that our lives count most when we’re murdered or commit some headline crime. It troubles me that our worth is measured against what white people in power care about on a given day, week, month. The stories of my people are evergreen. I will write about them for a lifetime.
In the prologue, you trace the usage of the term “law and order” back to the twenties and the second coming of the KKK, which flourished in your home state of Oregon. You explain, “One summer night the Portland klavern goaded reporters and civic leaders to a meeting in a hotel with the cryptic message: ‘Learn something to your advance.’ ” To close the meeting, King Kleagle—a Southern transplant who saw the state as a promised land for his ilk—offered the ominous warning: “Respect for the law and the working of a small army of unofficial detectives who will work with the constituted law are the makers of the Klan character … There are some cases where we will have to take everything into our hands. Some crimes are not punishable under existing laws, but criminals should be punished.” Nearly a century later, I couldn’t help but feel the disturbing echoes within the rhetoric surrounding ICE. In Trump’s 2016 stump speeches he professed: “I am the law and order candidate.” I wonder if you, too, hear those echoes and what you think they portend.
Oh yes, oh yes. There are echoes. There are more than echoes between Trump’s xenophobic, fear-stoking, hate-mongering agitprop and the propaganda of white supremacists. He’s not even dog-whistling most times, he’s more like trumpeting. What’s ICE if not an arm of white supremacy? I was in Brazil for the new year, and during a walking tour of Rio, our guide talked to my partner and I about how Brazil was the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1889. After its abolishment, the leaders of Brazil were so scared of the “negro problem” that they began importing Europeans so that they could whitewash the country. They termed it branqueamento, which translates to “racial whitening” or “whitening.” I see echoes of branqueamento in what I apprehend as the telos of the current regime, the whitening of America. The “law and order” rhetoric has been used to demonize persons of color for decades. Both Nixon and Regan used it (and in effect set the stage for mass incarceration). I’m no immigration historian, but Trump’s plan appears to be a means of fostering a numerical resurgence of whiteness by limiting, legally and ethically, the immigration of people of color. Maybe he and his people got spooked reading the Brookings Institute study that predicts white people will be a statistical minority by 2045. In any case, white people demonizing black and brown folks to maintain or advance their power is old, so old that it’s foundational to this country. As I write this, dude just declared a state of emergency, which would seem like an unbelievable plot point in a dystopian novel had I not lived through the last two years.
One of the many devices I’ve always marveled at in your writing, both in your novel The Residue Years and in Survival Math, is your use of lists as a kind of lyrical exclamation. From your description of Portland’s social life in the twenties—“The Freeman Second Hand Store; Rutherford Haberdashery, Barbershop, Cigar and Confectionary Store; and even the Egyptian Theatre”—to the way you build the contrasts in contemporary Alberta, Mississippi—“On Williams avenues, I beheld more miles of bike lanes and bike shops and bikers and the Bike Bar. There was an art deco building under construction and a bakery and a hair studio and a Pilates studio and yet another damn yoga studio. There was a mother pushing a hooded stroller and couple traipsing the sidewalk hand in hand as if this world would never fail them. But what I didn’t see on Williams Avenue was a single black face any which way my head turned.” These lists act as long exhales, in which you paint entire scenes with one brushstroke. I wondered if you could talk about how you construct them?
I’m always trying to make music on the page, and the list is a way for me to control the acoustics of my prose, its rhythm, its cadence. The list also allows me to compress information, which appeals to me. But I also love the way lists accumulate, how I can create a sense of abundance. There are times when I want a list to overwhelm my reader. But I’m also interested in the way that lists mimic our everyday lives. The list is a repetition and so much of how we live is repetitious. Shoot, we couldn’t live without the repetition of our heart, our breathing, our pulse. Also, the repetitions of our daily lives, our routines, our habits. We could also think of it in terms of physics. Motion requires repetition. If you want to get from here to there, it’ll require the locomotion of train wheels or turbines revolving to send us up and away, or car tires spinning, or one foot down and then the other. I also love the way lists and repetitions can serve as a comfort. We can predict a repetition and that’s soothing, but we can also alter it to create something new, which, in my case, often produces a joy.
In The Residue Years, the narrator Chance’s relationship with his mother and her addiction is central. It’s a theme you return to here in smaller strokes. However, in Survival Math, we also find a complex portrait of fatherhood in the essay “Composite Pops.” You write, “Folks have argued differences between a father and a dad, but herein and furthermore I’m considering them the same […] This is my beating heart: boys need fathers. Boys need fathers—period, exclamation point. And if a boy isn’t blessed with a dad or a dynamic stand-in, he must find ways to forge one. He must identify the father-ish men in his life and seek and be open to receiving what he needs from them.” You then go on to craft a portrait of Big Chris: “Big Chris heart-throbbed my mama. Big Chris was a recent parolee—bank robbery, what a dreamer!—and a neophyte, soon-to-be prosperous pimp but also a smart, witty, compassionate man whose jokes could give you stomachaches […] I would forever be one of his boys, our bond was deeper than DNA.” I wonder how you approached the process of rendering the lives of the actual “Composite Pops” who touched you so deeply?
I think it was easier to render them as human because they are human to me. Still, I had to work to see them as full beings. I loved Big Chris, but when I was young, I wasn’t compelled to see him outside of the roles he played in my life. Seeing the people I choose to write about as full beings is crucial to my job as a writer. My old therapist was fond of saying, A relationship is never one hand clapping. I’d argue my job is to see and hear both hands, by which I mean to apprehend my people and myself in the fullest context. I also like the added challenge of writing about people who don’t fit neatly into our cultural definitions of moral or respectable citizens. That demands giving people the benefit of empathy, which I try to do in real life and on the page.
So much of Survival Math is about taking on adult roles as a child. You write, “When I was an old boy who felt older.” As a reader, it struck me that this was in fact a unifying concept for the stories in the “Survivor Files” section of Survival Math. These stories, which reify many of the larger themes of the book, are powerful, voice-driven snapshots written in the second person. They seem to function half as handwritten letters from the heart and half as wake-up call to your audience: “The next day you apartment hunt as an unemployed, zero-credit eighteen year old high school senior. You soon find out how tough it is for somebody jobless and credit-less to be able to see an apartment, much less rent one, whether that somebody’s grown-ass-manness is affirmed by law or not.” The story repeats over and over that poverty is cyclical and that the government turns a “shut eye.” How did you decide to craft these sections? How did you decide on the use of the second person? It’s a brave choice in that it interrupts the flow of the narrative you set up.
An old boy feeling older was common in my community and I’m sure elsewhere. Back then, I was mostly ignorant of how black families had historically been dismantled. I couldn’t see how that disconnect had manifested over the centuries. What I did see were enough fatherless households for me to think it normal. As a result, plenty of us willed ourselves into our vision of a man. When I was young, an old head might see one of us at the park and greet us, What’s up, lil man. And we believed we were exactly that, little men. Then we were men—full stop. Rather than seeing the “Survivor Files” as interruptions, I see them as segues. Or at least that’s how I intended them. I intended the stories to highlight some of the obstacles black men face daily, but also to underscore the extraordinary strength and resiliency of men—not superheroes, but guys who aren’t exalted as exceptional. I elected the second-person point of view because I think it collapses the distance between narrator and reader, because I wanted readers to imagine themselves as the protagonists of the stories, and because it seemed most apt to close an empathy gap.
In a section titled “American Blood,” you detail the story of your mother hopping the bus downtown twice a week to sell blood at the plasma center as a way “to make some loot without getting a second job.” There’s this incredibly prescient conversation you have with her. “So tell me, what’s your idea of a patriot?” you ask her. “Hmm. I’d say a patriot is someone who believes in their country,” your mother replies. “A patriot is someone who, whether America is right or wrong, they ride with them. Some who’d rather live in America over anywhere else. Come to think about it, a patriot is almost like being a mom.” She ends by saying, “Some people see America as a mother. But what if it’s the other way around? What if America is the child the patriot must protect?” American blood, you write, is:
old and glorious and star-spangled. There are atoms of McCarthyism in American blood, as well as FDR professing, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” American blood, as JFK once did, asks, “what can you do for your country.” But American blood seldom, if ever asks, as writer Amy Hempel once did, asks, “Aren’t we all … somebody’s harvest?”
This passage struck me as the heart of this book. Are we all somebody’s harvest?
Well, the short of it is that in America, unless you’re a privileged white male, you’re somebody’s harvest. That’s certainly been true of my mother, of people of color, of poor people—and poor people of color, forget about it. But that ain’t news. However, one could also argue that women who identify as white—Baldwin claims whiteness is a choice—are also sometimes a harvest. In “Apples” I contend that white men often coerce white women into serving as co-conspirators in maintaining their supremacy. Here, let me submit as evidence the millions of white women who helped vote an obvious misogynist into the white house. Or, more recently, the congresswoman who was the deciding vote in confirming a supreme court justice that had been deemed unfit for the job by the ACLU, the American Bar Association, a retired justice, et cetera. Yes, more people are a harvest than are not. That holds true for groups of people but also our interpersonal relationships. Imagine the mental acrobatics or maybe even delusions necessary for the harvested to feel a sense of national pride. It’s easy to feel patriotic when your country seldom fails you. But what if your country seldom secures you?
In a section you call the “Victim Files,” you write about your relationships with women. You say plainly, “Let me address the obvious: no matter what I do, I’ve privileged my perspective over women, over, in particular, the women I’ve wronged.” I’ve always known you to be a champion of women writers, of equality at all costs, of the underdog, no matter who that is. And I count you as a dear ally. I wonder how you think about your relationship with women today and how you think we, as a nation of men and women living in this complicated MeToo era, can begin to raise one another up and find alliances? Is it too soon?
I mention in that essay, which took the longest to write and revise of any of the essays in the book, that I was trying to reckon with the legacy of my emotional harms against women. In drafting and revising the essay, I often wondered if my interrogation had crossed into the realm of excuse-making. How much questioning is too much? Thankfully, my relationships with women today are much different than they were twenty-odd years ago. For one, I count several women as friends, which, as crazy as it sounds, wasn’t always the case. I attribute that change to growing older and, I pray, wiser. I attribute it to watching my daughter effloresce and knowing she’s watching me. Some of it has been the product of writing about my previous relationships. Some of it is having several women who are invested in seeing me succeed and wanting not to disappoint them. I could go on. You’re right about me wanting to champion underdogs, people who I believe won’t get a fair shake, which often includes women. When I was young, if someone was verging on fisticuffs they’d say, Give me the ones, which meant they wanted a one-on-one fight without someone else jumping in. Or else they’d request to fight a fair one, which meant the same thing. Since I believe most people don’t get a fair one, I try to find ways that I can be of some assistance. As far as a nation of men and women building up alliances, I can’t see it happening on a wide scale. The power mongers—name a group of people that gave up power willingly—aren’t interested in alliances. What they want are relationships that keep their wheel of fortune right on turning. And since that ethos will, by and large, remain the case, then the best that we—the we being any group subject to oppression—can do is fight inequality and bias and bigotry and racism when and where and how we can. That goes for any era—MeToo, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, Civil Rights, you name it.
Read an excerpt of Survival Math in The Paris Review’s Fall 2018 issue.
Annie DeWitt is a novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. Her debut novel White Nights in Split Town City made the New York Times Book Review’s short list. Her story collection Closest Without Going Over, which is in progress, was shortlisted for the Mary McCarthy Prize.
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