Book Report: Hard math in Northeast Portland
Mitchell S. Jackson is a native son. Born in 1975, he grew up in Northeast Portland, where few traces of his neighborhood are left today.
His dazzling new book, "Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family" (Scribner, $29), is a passionate memoir, family history, ode to Portland's past street life, and a brutal story of various kinds of survival.
In the prologue, Jackson writes about a recent walk down Williams Avenue and "the bike lanes, the big-ass bike lanes, and yoga studios" that have transformed his old neighborhood. "What I didn't see on Williams Avenue was a single black face," he writes.
Jackson, who lives in New York City, won the Ernest Gaines Prize for his first book, "The Residue Years," about his turbulent youth.
His memories swing easily from after-school days skipping to the convenience store for candy to the crime and violence all around him. The candy store is the same store where he eyed prostitutes out back and later learned where his Aunt Essie was last seen alive. Her body would be discovered in North Portland's Overlook Park.
The cover shows photos of some of the many faces Jackson grew up with, his extended family. For a section he calls "Survivor Files," he asked each of them: What was the toughest thing you survived?
In the book's early pages, Jackson ends a shift at The Oregonian press building (where he stacked "pallet after pallet of inky-ass newspapers"). He's arrested later that night for a small-time dope deal. The stakes are high because it's just months before he is supposed to leave for grad school.
As has been well-documented, drug charges sent Jackson to prison, where his love of literature and writing took off. Upon his release in 1998, he earned a Master of Arts degree in Writing from Portland State University, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from New York University.
Jackson would become a writing teacher at New York University, where he now is a clinical associate professor of writing.
We talked by phone as Jackson's classes ended and he walked to his next appointment:
Tribune: You mention Portland's Tom Spanbauer as one of your mentors. When did you know you wanted to be a writer, needed to be a writer?
Jackson: I think it was when I got to graduate school. I needed some actual evidence before I could be a writer, that I could do it.
Tribune: You asked the women in your life to write about their time with you. When did your attitude toward women change?
Jackson: That was the toughest and longest part of the book. It wasn't like one day I walked out of my house and I was changed. Talking to them made me feel like I was convicted in a way that I hadn't felt in a long time. Having a daughter makes me fearful that there are more young men out there like my younger self, and having been that way myself, I know how attractive it is.
Tribune: You say in the book that America's true religion is whiteness. Explain that.
Jackson: A philosopher I cite in the book says that the three things you need to have for something to be a religion — it cuts across gender, class and age. I think it's also that it's the thing you're praying to, and that's privilege. It's freedom from the cognitive dissonance of seeing yourself through the eyes of others. A white man doesn't have to see themselves through anything but his own eyes.
Tribune: What are your students reading? How do you engage them?
Jackson: The best thing I can do is pose questions. Just today we were talking about "The Pura Principle" by Junot Diaz, it's a short story in his collection "How You Lose it." We're also reading "Sunny's Blues" by James Baldwin.
Tribune: One moment you write about a summer day on the basketball courts at Irving Park. Then your memories meander into a section about sex trafficking and the Mann Act.
Jackson: I always start with something personal, something that happened to me or someone close to me, and then I have this point of research so I think that's how you get there. It's a rabbit hole I guess.
Tribune: You bump into a man you knew from prison on the PSU campus 10 years after your time together. He's getting his MBA, but you learn he ends up back in street life. How did you survive?
Jackson: I always knew I was better, and I was no better, than the guys I was with. It's a paradox and that's how I got through it.
• Portland author Francis Halpin ("Destiny Expires") is hosting an egg hunt tied to the release of his follow-up book, "Inflection Points."
Whoever finds the white-granite egg wins $500, a party at a Pearl District wine bar, and they can keep the egg, valued at $1,350.
To unlock the egg's location — hidden in plain sight somewhere in Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington or Yamhill counties — it helps to have read "Destiny Expires" and "Inflection Points," which goes on sale April 30 on Amazon.
"I know a lot of people in Portland enjoy these kinds of competitions," Halpin says, "so I couldn't pass up this chance to merge the world of the novel with reality."
A phone number and code are etched on the bottom of the egg. To claim the prize, call the number and provide the code.
"Most of the clues are in 'Destiny Expires,'" Halpin says, "so if you do the legwork, you should know where to find the egg quickly upon receiving the paperback version of 'Inflection Points.' Even though the egg is hiding in plain sight, you'll have to put your skills to work, and maybe the skills of your friends, to solve the puzzle and find the egg."
For complete rules for the "Inflection Points" egg hunt, visit www.francishalpin.com/egghunt.