Three Questions and A Quote: Novelist and Nonfiction Writer Mitchell S. Jackson

Mitchell S. Jackson, award-winning novelist, journalist, and nonfiction writer

Mitchell S. Jackson has become a force in U. S. literature and journalism, as well as an outspoken advocate for, and critic of, his hometown of Portland, Oregon. His evocations of Portland’s Black community life, in both fiction and nonfiction, have garnered national attention and numerous awards. In recent years, he has become a major figure in magazine writing, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award for his profile of Ahmaud Arbery in Runner’s World and, more recently, profiling other important Black figures and writing about vital national issues as a columnist for Esquire.

For a full bio, see below.

Mitchell S. Jackson

WNW: What aspect of the Northwest do you feel hasn’t been adequately addressed in writing yet?

MSJ: Good question. I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that question, but for me, I love writing about the Black experience in Oregon. It was something I didn’t read about growing up. I’m interested in recording the history of Black people. In revealing or reifying the value of our experiences. I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that much of the writing about Oregon reflects its demographics, which are overwhelmingly white. We need voices that aren’t represented in the area in great numbers. We need stories about groups that get pushed to the margins, silenced, forgotten. Not just Black people but any group that fits that description. I’m interested in pushing against the master narratives.

Martin Luther King Jr. mural in N. Portland, image from The Guardian

WNW: How would you characterize your approach to the Northwest in your own writing?

MSJ: At least ostensibly, my writing is narrow in scope. Mostly, I’ve written about Portland. Not Oregon at large. Not the Northwest. And to be more specific, I’ve mostly written about the Black community in Portland. That said, I believe in that microcosm I am able to write about things that are universal or at least not limited to Black people in Portland. We aren’t the only ones who’ve faced housing discrimination. Aren’t the only ones who’ve had to deal with a problem of youth violence. We aren’t the only ones whose community has been wracked by mass incarceration. We aren’t the only ones who created culture out of our oppression.

WNW: What is your favorite book about the Northwest and why do you like it?

MSJ: My favorite book about the Northwest is Fight Club. I love what Chuck [Palahniuk] does with voice. Love how he captures the anxiety of a generation, captures men’s fascination with violence. I love love love those Tyler Durden monologues. And then there’s the surprise at the end, which testifies to how well it’s plotted. That book is so good. So, so good. And the fact that he wrote that book while in Tom Spanbauer’s Portland-area workshop makes it more special to me. That book is a tie with Jesus’ Son. Among other strengths, the poetry of that book’s prose is unrivaled. I read it every year or so just to be reminded of what prose can do. That book is magic.

WNW: What is one of your favorite passages about the Northwest from your own writing?

MSJ: It’s the opening of Survival Math. It’s written as a letter to Marcus Lopius, the first Black man on record to step foot in what became the state of Oregon. Writing that essay pushed me to research more of my home state’s history, and let me tell you, it was revelatory. Something else: I can’t talk about that essay without mentioning Dr. Darrell Miller of Portland State (Go Vikings!) to whom I’m indebted for making me aware of Lopius and other important elements of Oregon’s history. In the essay, which is titled “Dear Marcus,” there’s a point at which I write about the beginning of whatever significant Black population Portland has:

“Scores of us can trace our roots in this city, the Rose City, to the 1940s, when one of our kinfolk from down South peeped a Help Wanted ad in their hometown paper, packed their life into bags and-or suitcases, and caught boxcars called the Magic Carpet Special or the Kaiser Caravan into Portland for a chance to build a new life working in one of Henry Kaiser’s shipyards. Those relatives locomoted into the City of Roses and found a hovel or shacked up with friends or relatives or in some cases slept on the pool table of a tavern and washed their private parts in a squalid bathroom. Or else moved to a slapdash development dubbed Kaiserville and renamed Vanport City. No matter the shelter they found, they could feel gratified building Liberty ships that would help the Allies beat the Nazis while clocking more dough for work than they ever did where they came from.”

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Mitchell S. Jackson is the winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing and the 2021 National Magazine Award in Feature Writing. Jackson’s debut novel The Residue Years won a Whiting Award and The Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence. His essay collection Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family was named a best book of 2019 by fifteen publications. Jackson’s other honors include fellowships, grants, and awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Creative Capital, the Cullman Center of the NYPL, the Lannan Foundation, PEN, and TED. His writing has been featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book ReviewTime, and Esquire, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review, The Guardian, and elsewhere. Jackson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Esquire. He holds the John O. Whiteman Dean’s Distinguished Professorship in the English Department of Arizona State University.

More links:

Mitchell S. Jackson website

Pulitzer Prize webpage about Mitchell S. Jackson’s award

Review of The Residue Years in The Guardian

Review of Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family on the NPR website

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