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Acclaimed author tells how he turned his life around

COURTESY OF CHARLOTTE M. WALES - Mitchell Jackson has a lot of people to thank for his rise from early Portland troubles to successful author and New York University instructor.Last Tuesday night I found myself sitting in the front row of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall for an evening with author and teacher Mitchell S. Jackson, presented by the Multnomah County Library Everybody Reads program.

It was a packed house with more than 860 students from 22 local high schools and hundreds of students from Portland State University and Portland Community College.

After much formality and the thanking of sponsors, Jackson was introduced. He walked onto the stage in a finely tailored black suit with a silver tie, thick black glasses, diamond earrings that sparkled in the stage lights, and a pair of velvet slippers.

“I feel like I just closed my eyes backstage, clicked my heels three times and POOF, I was here,” Jackson said.

Jackson, basking in critical acclaim for his novel “The Residue Years,” began his lecture with a long list of thank yous. He thanked his mother, he thanked his grandmother, he thanked some teachers.


It was like those uber-boring speeches at the Academy Awards where some out-of-touch cinematographer thanks people who you couldn’t give a rip about. Thinking this was going to be a long night, I began wishing I could spend the next hour checking Facebook on my iPhone.

Then, Jackson threw out a jarring twist.

“I want to give some unusual thanks,” Jackson said.

Jackson proceeded to thank his friend Ricky, who was holding some of Jackson’s drugs and spent eight years in prison for him. He thanked “every guy who pulled a pistol on me and didn’t pull the trigger.” He thanked the officers who came to his car one night and saw that he was carrying a gun.

“If they had the wrong kind of prejudice — which they would’ve been justified having — or an itchy trigger finger, I wouldn’t be here,” Jackson said.

Jackson thanked the judge, who he said was in the audience, for sending him to prison for 16 months instead of 10 years.

Suddenly, I was mesmerized. I was in the presence of one of the most gifted public speakers I have ever had the pleasure to witness.

Jackson began his prep years at Benson Tech before graduating from Jefferson High. He went on to study at PCC, where he played a bit of basketball before being awarded a scholarship to attend Portland State.

That is a nice story, but like the beginning of Jackson’s speech, it’s pretty boring.

The small twist came when Jackson was arrested for drug possession and went to prison.

The bigger twist came when Jackson took the events of his life and turned them into “The Residue Years,” a novel loosely based on his early life. The debut novel has been universally well received, becoming a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction as well as being Multnomah County Library’s selection for the 2015 Everybody Reads program.

Jackson now teaches at New York University — where he earned his master of fine arts in creative writing — but Portland remains close to his heart. Besides his lecture at the Schnitz, Jackson will be the master of ceremonies for the Oregon Book Awards.

Jackson's 'The Residue Years.'If he is anywhere near as dynamic at the Oregon Book Awards as he was for 2015 Everybody Reads, the audience for the April 13 presentation at the Gerding Theater at the Armory is in for a spectacular show.

Jackson’s talk was on the subject of revision. He talked about friends he had in his days living afoul of the law. He spoke of a friend named Kevin from Benson, who got involved in gangs and died by the gun. Jackson told the story of his friend “Lil Smurf,” who met a similar fate. He also talked of his pal Stevie, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison for an ambush killing in 1997.

The story Jackson told of each of those men sucked you in the way that a gifted storyteller can make you care about people you normally would never care about. After each story, Jackson offered the audience the advice he wishes he could have given to his friends that might have saved their lives, were any of those men given the chance of revision.

“Revision isn’t just for artists,” Jackson said.

In the middle of his speech, Jackson took a brief break to show a video he had shot of a sit-down between a member of the Bloods gang and a member of the Crips gang. The few minutes of video were interesting, but not nearly as interesting as hearing Jackson speak.

After telling the stories of his friends, Jackson told his own story.

“I didn’t want to be an artist,” Jackson said. “I just didn’t want to be a guy in the headlines who makes your mom want to cry.”

Jackson said he had his speech for the event planned out for months, until one day he looked on Facebook and saw the smug mug shot of a man who had killed two people.

“I wanted to show that not everyone who commits these crimes lacks humanity,” Jackson said.

As would be expected of any gifted storyteller, Jackson finished his speech by coming full-circle.

“What are you going to do?” Jackson asked the audience. “What are we going to do to make sure the next artist, who doesn’t know they’re an artist ... how are we going to help them revise?”

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