Mitchell S. Jackson paid his dues and drew inspiration from James Baldwin to write his first novel, The Residue Years
True dedication is rare, change is difficult and systems are made to keep you in. Occasionally someone spots a way out. They dedicate, they change and they escape the system. Mitchell S. Jackson’s story goes something like that. In 1997, Jackson was on his way to becoming another statistic of the drug laws that incarcerate (and keep incarcerating) so many of America’s young black males. While serving a 16-month prison sentence for drug charges, Jackson began to write some things down. When he was released, he brought around 70 pages home with him. Today, 15 years later, those pages can now be seen as the important seeds of The Residue Years (Bloomsbury), Jackson’s critically-acclaimed first novel, a fictionalized version of his life growing up in the tougher parts of Portland, Oregon.
"I had to succeed,” he says. “My daughter would never understand why I had to leave, but if I were to come back years later having failed, then there would be no explaining."
He met me on a rainy day and we found a quiet bar where we could talk. Jackson is tall, but muscular enough as to not appear lanky. He is sharply dressed, and has a kind way about him and a disarming smile. Unlike most writers, Jackson confesses to have not been much of a reader until he was in his early 20s, and had entered the graduate writing program at NYU. Becoming a writer before being a reader is not especially common, although Jackson doesn’t appear to have suffered from it. In fact, it may have been beneficial. There’s something pure and untainted about his writing voice that might have been lost had he been more influenced by established writers. The narrative language and dialogue in Residue are simply stunning (think Junot Diaz, but from the West coast and on steroids). Jackson takes the vernacular of the street corners and barbershops where he grew up and twists it into a language that at times sounds almost Elizabethan. Jackson’s literary voice is an affirmation that there are no real rules in writing, and that new voices in literature are still being born. Jackson shows how language can be elastic, how it can fracture and mutate.
Even if Jackson was not a reader early on, he later drew inspiration from a wide range of writers, most pointedly from James Baldwin, particularly his essay Fifth Avenue, Uptown (a portrait of race and Harlem in the ’60s and the inspiration for the photo shoot). “The novel that got me started was Go Tell It on the Mountain,” he says. “Baldwin was one of the few writers of color that were let into the canon, and refused to be marginalized, because if you wind up marginalized and no one pays attention to you, then who cares?” Although Baldwin was an expat who left America for Paris, he never forgot what being black in America felt like and always returned to the experience in his writing. Distancing himself helped Baldwin see America more clearly, and Jackson feels the same about coming to New York to get a better understanding of his past in Portland.
The decision to become a full-time writer did not come without sacrifice. New York City has never promised anyone success, and attending a graduate writing program in New York meant he would have to temporarily leave his young daughter back in Portland. “I had to succeed,” he says. “My daughter would never understand why I had to leave, but if I were to come back years later having failed, then there would be no explaining.”
Jackson has a second book in the works, Oversoul, that he initially published himself until Bloomsbury picked it up, and has wrapped up a documentary as a companion piece to Residue Years. “Since the novel was pretty autobiographical,” Jackson says. “I thought the documentary would reveal the context and maybe help the reader see what was fictionalized and what was not.” The rough side of Portland is not something many people are aware of—it doesn’t have that Compton kind of fame. “No one believes me when I tell them that Portland was serious,” says Jackson. “Now you can see for yourself whether it was serious or not.” Either way, the landscape of Portland molded the writer and was an impetus for a fine first work from a writer who is just getting started.