This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month Survival Math by Mitchell S. Jackson.
Combining scholarship and personal history, and writing with his uniquely brilliant voice, Mitchell Jackson takes on the struggles, consequences, and even responsibilities that spring from growing up with the inherited burden of poverty and marginalization. Survival Math
is a gorgeously crafted memoir and, in its wider scope, a downright important book. — Gigi L.
Award-winning novelist Mitchell S. Jackson’s new work, Survival Math
, is bookended by epistolary addresses to his original Oregon forebear, an 18th-century African sailor named Markus, murdered his first day on shore, and to his teenage daughter, Justice. In between these remarkable letters, which lay out, respectively, a brief history of Portland’s Black community and Jackson’s Oregon roots and his feelings and failings as an estranged father is an astonishing body of essays and short poems.
Jackson is a rare wordsmith, drawing on a hybrid lexicon of literary, religious, and slang terms and techniques that stress the relevancy of history (specifically, Oregon’s history of race-based legislation and Jackson’s extended family) and work jointly to heighten the prose portions, yet ground them in the realities Survival Math
elucidates. In Jackson’s hands, a baby "glories" his first breath, Portland days are “ultra-drenched,” and women sit in “burgeoning applehood.” In an incredible section on bad male behavior titled “The Scale,” Jackson owns that $hort, Snoop, and Pac “were my sophists.” Jackson’s skill in blending biblical exegesis, American history, personal experience, and Western and popular culture arrests the reader’s attention, signaling that what they’re reading is more than a memoir, history book, or sociological treatise; instead, Survival Math
is a superb demonstration of how everyday life is an amalgam of how all of those forces — law, precedent, context, choice, and faith — work in concert to make us and our communities who we are.
is vital reading for anyone, but living in Portland gives it extra resonance. Portland is a fairly segregated city; depending on where you live, who your friends are, or what you do for a living, it’s entirely possible to live here and know almost nothing about the Black community. Portlanders of all backgrounds are also scrupulously polite and reserved, so it’s rare to engage in an honest conversation about anything as uncomfortable as our state’s history of expulsion and Portland’s ongoing struggles with policing, representation, and racial equity. Jackson’s candid portrayal of what it was like to come of age here in the ’90s, written in a mixture of self-critical firsthand accounts and unusual, second-person monologues, corrects the popular impression that Portland is an oasis of expensive ice cream removed from the racial violence that informs the rest of America.
A stirring and unusual memoir, you’ll want to share Survival Math
with everyone you know within and beyond the City of Roses.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here