Mitchell S. Jackson finds another Portland

An author speaks on growing up black in 1990s Portland and countering his city's hipster image.

 

Mitchell S. Jackson grew up in a version of Portland, Oregon, far from today’s Portlandia, where white hipsters quibble about culinary ethics and artisanal ice cubes. For Jackson, growing up black in 1990s Portland meant figuring out how to avoid letting his race and socioeconomic circumstances define his future. His award-winning autobiographical novel, The Residue Years, describes a mother and son who pursue their dreams despite the constraints of race and class: Champ sells crack to escape poverty, while his mother struggles to get clean. Jackson served 16 months in prison at 25, for dealing crack, earned an M.F.A. in creative writing and now teaches at New York University (The novel was reviewed in HCN, 3/17/14). Survival Math, a nonfiction account of his family, is forthcoming from Scribner.

High Country News Portland has been called the whitest city in America. How does your novel tie into this community?

Mitchell S. Jackson By ignoring (Portland’s reputation). Growing up in northeast Portland, it was predominantly African-American. So we were, I guess, insulated from that. But now, I can see how some of the issues that were happening in northeast Portland (might have been) because it was predominantly African-American, in that there weren’t enough resources and people who cared about the community for it to not be like that.

HCN Who were you hoping to reach with this novel?

Jackson If you’re a writer — and especially if you’re writing literary fiction or literary nonfiction — your audience is white. But I always intended Residue to be for the people from my community. That’s why I kept a lot of the diction, because it really wasn’t for the highfalutin literary readership.

HCN What was it like to serve time, and then speak at prisons after your book came out?

Jackson It feels almost like a calling — like I had to go through that little bit of time in prison so I could come back and talk to these guys and connect with them. The average person — they look at a prisoner as someone who’s violent or doesn’t have any feelings, or doesn’t have any loved ones. And that’s just not the case. They’re human beings and they’ve been put in situations or sometimes, they’re just making bad decisions. It’s made me a more forgiving person than I would’ve been.

Charlotte M. Wales

HCN Your mother’s crack addiction began when you were 10, and you started dealing as a teenager. How did you not let these circumstances derail your life?

Jackson Well, they did. (laughs) They did in most of the ways they derailed my friends. Part of the reason I was able to get back on track is because I always valued school. I had teachers who took interest in me and told me I was bright. I also came from a family who emphasized school. I really never wanted to be a successful drug dealer, because I knew how much of my morality I would have to give up.

HCN Portland is divided into four quadrants, and most of The Residue Years takes place in the Northeast Quadrant, where you grew up. How have these neighborhoods changed?

Jackson When I came home when the book was coming out, I attended a meeting with the mayor, the police chief and some local community leaders, and they passed out a sheet listing all the crimes in the area for the previous week. (In the past) if there was a shooting or a stabbing, it was, like, 95 percent of the time in Northeast. So they passed out this sheet, and in north and northeast Portland there were no crimes. But out in “The Numbers” (far east Portland) — where they’d pushed all the people who used to live in Northeast — there were two shootings, a stabbing, a car theft, a robbery, and I was like, “Wow, they really just relocated the problems.” And so it was interesting to see that you can just take a problem area and plant it somewhere else.

HCN You seem to have a reverence for Portland.

Jackson It shaped me. I spent 25 years there, so I think the important parts of me were built in Portland. The people that I love — my primary, my first loves — they’re in Portland. I recognize the struggles of the city, and I feel more deeply connected to them than I do to the struggles of New York.

HCN Your protagonists keep searching for a home that is out of reach. What do you see as home, and how has that idea changed?

Jackson I still consider Portland home. I forget who said: “You can never go home again.” I think in a certain sense that’s true, because the Portland that I knew is gone. But I still feel a real deep connection to the people there, and want to represent the Portland that’s gone. (At the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference) the first story that we workshopped was by a guy who lives in Portland now. And his story is about a potbellied pig, and he spoofs Whole Foods and riding your bike everywhere and growing organic weed, which I understand is an element of Portland, but I just — I don’t understand that. If there was no Residue Years, there would be very little counterpoint to that idea of Portland. So now, I want to be the counterpoint of home.

Devon Fredericksen is an editor at Girl Friday Productions, a book editorial company. She has been published in Guernica, Yes! Magazine and Indian Country Today.