SpeakEasy Blog

Seriously Questioning… Mitchell S. Jackson

The recipient of a Whiting Award in 2016, Mitchell S. Jackson has a bright future. When Roxane Gay reviewed The Residue Years, his 2013 debut novel (or “novel“, as the cover has it; it’s also sort of a memoir), she picked out its language, “flying off the page with percussive energy“, its “warmth and wit”, “a hard-won wisdom”. Set in a Portland that predates the advent of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, it tells the story of Champ and his mother, Grace; also of crack, prison, and black life in a Northwest Portland free of the hipsterism and postmodern irony with which many readers will be more familiar. Jackson is from Portland and has himself spent time in prison, where he discovered both a love and a major talent for writing (he discusses this transformative experience here). He now serves on the faculty of NYU and Columbia and has become an in-demand speaker, taking a leaf out of his hero James Baldwin’s book and asking “Should ‘blackness’ exist?” in a powerful talk at TED2016.

We spoke to Mitchell ahead of his appearance at our next Seriously Entertaining show, Failing Up, on February 7 at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater.

Name: Mitchell Jackson.

Age: I’m 41.

Where are you from? I’m from Portland, Oregon.

What is your occupation? I’m a writer and a professor.

Title of most recent work: My most recent book is a novel titled The Residue Years.

What are you working on now? I will be publishing a nonfiction book titled Survival Math in 2018.

If you had to paint a scene from your childhood to capture its essence, what would you paint? It would be on the playground of King School, my favorite elementary school (I went to a few). I would be playing basketball with my friends. Afterward we would do flips, front flips, back flips, in the sawdust or on the grass. We move to doing flips off the springboard or off the supports for the tire swing. The higher up the thing was, the greater our lore.

What’s your earliest memory of literature? My earliest memory of literature was when I was in prison and we had one little bookshelf with like three books on it in my dorm. One of those books was a Terry McMillan book. It was the first time I picked up a novel to read that hadn’t been assigned to me.

Which day in your life would you repeat? Which day would you delete? I wouldn’t change or delete anything, even the bad stuff, because it was formative. I change one thing and I end up another guy. Maybe I wear my pants too high with my belt cinched. Maybe I end up dead. Maybe I end up a miserable millionaire. I like my life right now. As my brother would say, “I had to take the bitter with the sweet.”

What are you reading right now? I’m reading mostly poetry right now. I’m dying to get my hands on a copy of Roger Reeves’s King Me (Copper Canyon Press, 2013). I just read Rickey Laurentiis’s Boy with Thorn (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) and Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

What are your go-to quotes? Baudelaire: “Always be a poet even in prose.” Keats: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Given sufficient budget, what would you put on your wall? I’d buy a Kehinde Wiley piece. I love his work.

Who in history would you most like to have a stinking-drunk night out with? I’d like to hang out with Shakespeare. Hopefully, I’d get him just drunk enough to tell me all his tricks.

What are your preferred writing materials? I write most of my stuff on the computer. However, I also write on my iPad or on my phone when I’m moving. I keep notes in Moleskine notebooks. If I have none of the above at hand, I’ll write on a scrap of paper.

What’s your favorite font? My favorite font is Book Antiqua.

How do you celebrate the completion of a piece of work? When I finish something, I read it a few times to myself. And if I really like it, especially the ending, I dance around my apartment.

Mitchell S. Jackson will appear at the Seriously Entertaining show Failing Up at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater on February 7, 2017. Buy tickets here.

Seriously Questioning… Idra Novey

To translate is not just to render in a different language but (done well) to ventriloquize the soul of another. It is to understand undercurrents transcendently, better to realize meaning. Translation isn’t just Babel fishing; it’s screen printing, recreation, midwifery. Idra Novey, the Brooklyn-based novelist and poet who’s translated Clarice Lispector, Paulo Henriques Britto, and Lascano… Continue Reading

Space Oddity

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space Janna Levin Knopf, 2016; 256pp The romance of the cosmos is the subject of Black Hole Blues. The romance of bodies of unimaginable size colliding and merging darkly and silently in space. Romance, yes — but also the knotty bureaucracy that has hampered and enabled scientists for the… Continue Reading

Review: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

The Sellout Paul Beatty Farrar, Straus and Giroux (hardcover) / Picador (paperback), 2015; 304pp Entering the world like the bastard love-child of a Chris Rock routine and a Thomas Pynchon novel, The Sellout is a sensational satire on race relations in the United States. Its outrageous plot, which reintroduces segregation to a forgotten ghetto in Los Angeles County, motors along… Continue Reading

Seriously Questioning… Richard Cohen

In How To Write Like Tolstoy: A Journey Into the Minds of Our Greatest Writers (Random House, 2016), Richard Cohen shares with readers the magpied loot of a lifetime of reading. Packed with examples from the best of world literature and interspersed with anecdotes from his one-time day job as an editor (he’s worked with Fay Weldon, Kingsley Amis, Simon Winchester,… Continue Reading

Agnus Dei

Sweet Lamb of Heaven Lydia Millet W.W. Norton & Company, 2016; 256pp Here’s our set-up. After the birth of Anna and Ned’s child, a “ragged, uninvited disruption” enters Anna’s life: she starts to hear voices. Ned is distant — he’d not wanted to go through with the pregnancy anyway — and Anna is left alone to… Continue Reading

Seriously Questioning… Madeleine Thien

Last month, Madeleine Thien‘s third novel was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Do Not Say We Have Nothing (W.W. Norton), which is set in both present-day Vancouver and the China of Mao and Tiananmen Square, captivates from its opening paragraph: “In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage,… Continue Reading

Seriously Questioning… James Rebanks

“Thousand shades of grey”. Picture from James Rebanks’s hugely popular Twitter feed, @herdyshepherd1. “When English people dream of a rural arcadia, they usually dream of our landscape,” writes James Rebanks in The Shepherd’s View, just published as an attractive, colorful hardback by Flatiron Books. His latest account of farm life in the Lake District is… Continue Reading

“Oh Beauty, You Are the Light of the World!”

The Light of the World: A Memoir Elizabeth Alexander Grand Central Publishing, 2015; 240pp Elizabeth Alexander‘s lovely, sad memoir is a tale of two thunderbolts. The first: love at first sight — “A torque inside my stomach, the science of love” — between Alexander and her husband-to-be, the Eritrean artist Ficre Ghebreyesus. The second: Ficre’s… Continue Reading

The Eye of the Blackbird

Thirteen Ways of Looking Colum McCann Random House, 2015; 256pp The first words we read in Colum McCann’s 2015 collection of stories are Wallace Stevens’s: “Among twenty snowy mountains / The only moving thing / Was the eye of the blackbird.” Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” provides the epigraphs for each of… Continue Reading

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