Structural Design within Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family
by Randall Horton
According to the literary critic, poet, professor Stephanie Burt, in the 2011 book titled Memoir: An Introduction, the scholar G. Thomas Couser argues that “we go to the genre not so much for detail or style as for “wisdom and self-knowledge,” for what the main character, who is always the author, has learned, which is, of course, true.” However, I would like to also add that the structural design within memoir, the scaffolding of narrative, the ways in which presentation matters or should matter, is what’s most important for an effective memoir, especially memoirs that waver between suffering and redemption. I don’t know if suffering is necessary for redemption, but in order to have been redeemed one most have done something to create a need for redemption, and the way in which that story is told can have a huge impact on the reader.
Failure or disappointment through actions and then reversing those actions for a greater good can and should be viewed as triumph. I’ll say this: I do believe the past informs the future. In my own work, that is, of course, informed by several disciplines to include poetry, which can often highlight interruption, compression, extended metaphor, anaphora, alliteration. Then there is musicality, especially jazz as a verb, which allows for freedom and exploration, not to mention theoretical inquiry that if used correctly, can provide various pathways towards discovery. I also operate under the auspices that in order for the memoir to be effective the writer should, no, the writer must create a visual/vivid experience that is all encompassing.
To me, and this is a personal choice, but I am more inclined to gravitate toward the memoir that resurrects everything hidden around the “I.” Without question I operate in the echoes of Amiri Baraka’s assertion in his liner notes for The New Wave in Jazz, that one must find the self and then kill it. Of which the writer and theorist Nathaniel Mackey responds with, “One of the things that he [Baraka] meant by that was [that] in the course of improvising and getting to the point where you can play free music, you have to find yourself. And to also quote poet and theorist Fred Moten “The moment of death is also the moment of individuation.” In other words, the assimilation of the uncollected memory into a complete entity that is present. You have to find out what your sound is. Or, again, as Baraka once asserted: how you sound?
By definition (I cringe to use that term), memoir represents a particular time and place in the narrator’s life. This is what most readers assume coming into memoir. To me, the most fulfilling memoirs take (I) out of the equation and give you so much more than the (I). Every memoirist should ask the difficult question, as in: How can (I) make everything around the (I) relevant within the context of [my] own work, which I tried to accomplish in Hook: A Memoir which features poetic prose, journal entries, epistles, flashbacks at mail call to an incarcerated Lxxxx along with engagement in the critical theory of Jacques Derrida and Immanuel Kant.
Most Recently I was ask to interview the writer Mitchell S. Jackson about his memoir Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family. This request most likely occurred because of our similarity in life experiences—incarceration, drug selling and the reconfiguration of the self being the lynchpin. I remember after reading his debut novel The Residue Years, thinking finally we get a book of fiction that accurately highlights the effects of the white blizzard of the 80s and the residue it created for the generation that followed in the 90s. Having been an active participant within the epoch of the crack explosion of the 80s, having sold drugs and been caught within the clutches of chemical dependency, having resided in the state penitentiary as inmate #289-128, I thought Jackson’s vivid portrayal through his protagonist Champ offered a humaneness often lost in criminal justice jargon. Survival Math in many ways builds off of this humaneness with its structural design and attention to detail.
The opening “Dear Markus” echoes “My Dungeon Shook” in The Fire Next Time, anepistle addressed to James Baldwin’s nephew. With his opening epistle in Survival Math Jackson provides a foundation—the undeniable historical record of African Americans in Portland, Oregon. The oppression created by the construction of race in this city is critical to understanding the social conditions many citizens had to negotiate growing up in a place where they were not actually wanted. This layering is helpful information to the reader and is only one of many stratums within the structural design of Survival Math, which also offers an in-depth investigation on men, fatherhood, the misconceptions of manhood and a new awakening that occurs through confronting the frailties of Jackson’s past. Each section in Survival is grounded in historical context before personal experiences are explored, providing brevity and depth, giving the reader context before the upcoming narrative unfolds.
One of the staples of book are the survival files, which are vivid exposes into the men associated with Jackson’s past, present and perhaps future. Jackson’s files provides both spectacle and spectatorship through lyrical language, channeling the unremembered, their performative acts tied to cause and effect. I would argue, too, that these files are what the poet Greg Pardlo refers to as totems, individual pieces that hold the manuscript together. The files vary: gang life, mental depression, prison and gunplay are just a few of these thematic threads. By providing a space for those who may not be able to speak for themselves, these files help create the overall magic and tone of Survival Math. One could posit that the writing in Survival Math is born, constructed and reconstructed within a social climate created by Jackson based on a series of reactions to an [act] or actions, drawing on memory, or the dichotomy of laughter and pain that memory encapsulates. Jackson’s Survival math references a central body of cultural experiences through memory, reconfiguring the erased into the un-erased, who are oftentimes commodified for modernity’s sake.
Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family could be compared to a jazz rift—language and narrative seeking to break its physical boundaries. There is a search for the “unexpected” or, the unknown. Survival Math, is of course, the social residue of societal interaction and the exploration of the self. Through Jackson’s alternative structuring of memoir, what is created is a representative language and a “living human experience” that is conscious, representing the past, present and future. With that said, let’s jump right in the conversation.
Randall Horton: First of all, I want to thank you for
writing Survival Math: Notes and an
All-American Family. I find the title very interesting from the mathematics
one has master to survive the game of hustling to the probability of avoiding
or entering a jail cell. Before we go in-depth with some aspects of the book,
can you please talk a bit on how you determined the book’s title?
Mitchell Jackson: The book was going to be titled “Head Down, Palm Up” at first, which is the title of one of the essays. I was considering making that essay book length. But then I had a meeting with my agent and her boss suggested I re-title the collection Survival Math, which was also an essay in the manuscript. That really shifted my perspective. I started to look at all that I had written through the lens of survival, imagining what else I needed to engage in a deeper exploration of how we persist against oppression. Not too long after that I developed the idea for the survivor files. I knew that if I talked about survival, it needed to be much bigger than my personal story. The subtitle Notes on an All-American Family came when the manuscript was in a much later stage. I wanted to emphasize the all-American because American black folks are consistently having their Americanness questioned or else assaulted and done so in ways both explicit and tacit. Calling us the all-American family is a direct challenge to the violence of stripping us of what we deserve. Not only are we American, we might be most American. Run tell that.
RH: Very true on all fronts and good to know. One of the things I most appreciate about Survival Math is the structure, the organization of narratives, the blending of the historical, the journalistic eye and not to mention the survivor files that assist in anchoring the book, which we will come to later. With that said, I have always insisted that although memoir incorporates memory, the effectiveness of retelling those memories hinges on how well the author is able to bring the periphery forward to interact with the active narrative. I was hoping you could speak on how you decided on the structure of the book? What was most important in this regard.
MJ: Early on my editor and I had a meeting where we talked about structure. She started asking questions about it. I think at that point I wasn’t settled on the number of essays I would write. Because of that, it was hard to figure out how I would group them. Sometime during that meeting, it occurred to me that I could arrange the essays around answering some of those key questions. Around that same time, I decided to end on a letter to my daughter. But also, at the time, the first essay was not epistolary. I later I decided to write a letter to the first black man (on record) to step foot in Oregon. I realized that I was writing letters to my past and future and that seemed like a fitting way to begin and end. I love endings that are recursive to the opening. The last thing I did was decide to add the centos (poems) from the American documents. Since I still wanted to frame each section with a question, I made those questions a titular line in the poems. What was most important was having a title that got at the heart of the overall project, but then also figuring out where the pieces would go. A couple of the essays are much longer than the others, so I put them in a section alone, meaning there are only two of them whereas there are three essays in the other sections. I did that to not only allow myself a prologue and epilogue but also because I thought it was the way to make the reading experience more consistent.
RH: Here is something I want to bring your attention to. In many ways, the older men you reference in Survival Math are closer to my age. I grew up with the same ideological principles these men adopted and passed on. I really admire the way you address your flaws and shortcomings in “The Scale,” something that brought me closer to the work, mainly because in the writing of my own memoir, this was something I needed to address. How difficult was it to write about your flaws in terms of relationships with women? Ultimately, what message did you want to establish with the reader?
MJ: That essay “The Scale” was the most difficult thing I wrote. It took the longest time to revise. Years ago, I read an essay in Esquire titled “Why I Cheat” written by an anonymous man. I was impressed by the candor in it. But I was also critical that he had chosen not to identify himself. Still, I knew that I held ideologies similar to his. I challenged myself to investigate that thinking, and decided that if I was going to do it, I had to identify myself. One of the shortcomings of that Esquire essay was that the author didn’t try to contextualize his ethics. Because I had tried to historicize all the other subjects I was writing about in what became the book, I knew I would have to do the same for the womanizing I was critiquing in “The Scale.” I wanted to see if I could find the roots of the thinking. The more I researched, the more I determined that the emotional abuses that men over history had dealt, that I had dealt in my own romantic relationships, were a kind of criminal behavior. Not in the state statute crime sort of way, but in a way that was a knowing violation of the human contract. That lead me to structuring the essay as a criminal profile. “Victimology” is one of the standard sections of a criminal profile. That’s a complete profile of the victim: who they were, what happened during the crime, and so on. While I was writing about the woman I had victimized, I realized that I was privileging my assessments in a way that was unfair. Then it dawned on me, this after many revisions, that I needed to invite them to speak. So, I did. A few of them declined, but I was thankful that a few said yes. To be all the way real, I worried about that essay. There is no way to come out clean at the end of it. But also, I knew that I wasn’t alone and that subjecting myself to serious interrogation could prove useful to someone else who, for whatever reason, couldn’t or wouldn’t do the same.
RH: You are correct. We don’t get to come out of clean and unscathed. But I do appreciate you keeping it 100%. Again, while reading Survival Math, I could not help but become overwhelmed with guilt and shame. I was involved with a drug runner that ran cocaine for a drug cartel during the 80s and early 90s. I can clearly remember influencing 14 and 15-year-old kid’s decision to enter the drug game and sell crack on the streets of Washington, DC and Birmingham, Alabama. Mitch, can you talk about the psychological pull, the societal pressure of a capitalistic society that produces the need to rise above your circumstances through selling a drug?
MJ: I do that think it’s a societal pressure but that the average dude doesn’t experience it in that way. The average dude is myopic. He sees the hustler on the block or in cruising the boulevard or in the club or in the park, all the time sporting new shiny things, and he becomes covetous. Or else he grows up with hustlers and has that way of life normalized. I guess I had it both ways. But I was always critical of the life because if you’re looking, you’ll simultaneously see the gifts and the curses. You’ll see some dude doing bad and will hear stories about how he had it his way some decade ago. My uncle Henry is a prime example of that. From being a millionaire to years of scraping a few bucks together. In The Residue Years one of the hustlers says, to paraphrase myself, you get a few moments of the high life and all the rest are the residue years. So yeah, for a 14 of 15-year-old kid the life looks downright effulgent. But if you could show them what it looks like for most hustlers at 40 or 50 years old, well, I think most of them would say that’s not what they want for themselves. But also, we have to convince them that they’ll live to see 40, 50, 60, which might feel to some like an unlikelihood. I hope I can do some good in the world, but you and I know it’s all systemic, so for the most part, the wheels keep right on turning.
RH: Yeah, a friend of mine’s mother from Miami used to always tell with us would-be-hustlers that “it was either feast of famine, no in-betweens.” She understood that there is always an expiration date. I never forgot that because it truth. Now, getting back to your work. When reading certain passages, I thought they read like fiction, and for me, if memoirist can bring the narrative to life, I’m all in. I thought you did that well. You also seem to have a poet’s ear. How important is the influence of poetry in the writing of your prose?
MJ: I love the Baudelaire quote, “Always be a poet even in prose.” If there is no music in the prose, I don’t want to read it. I don’t want to write it either. If fact, I won’t write it. I read much more poetry than I do prose. I love the compression of poetry, but also love the attention to diction, to acoustics, to structure. I tell my students that the best nonfiction writer would be someone who came from fiction and became fluent in all the conventions of fiction, could write scenes and description, understood narrative and conflict, could write dialogue with subtext, etc. That fiction writer would also need a facility with the poetics: with alliteration, cadence, syntax, imagery… To me that’s the sweet spot: the skill sets of a fiction writer and a poet, one who won’t forsake the poetry for the story or the idea. If you put some research skills in there, the daring to tell the truth, and the persistence to keep looking for it, well, you’d have a mighty fine nonfiction writer.
RH: Believe it or not, I tell my students the same things in terms of poetry and its influence on prose. So, I totally agree. And now switching gears, there is something that I would like to bring up. In many ways, the hustlers and kingpins I associated with help to create many young Mitchell Jacksons. I’ve been robbed, shot at, done the shooting at, etc., too. How important was the drug game to you before you went to prison? Were you at any time able to step outside of yourself and understand the devastation you were causing yourself and the Black community?
MJ: It’s determinantal to step outside of one’s self and critique the thing that’s making it possible for you to survive and in some instances thrive. Because of that, I got pretty damn good at ignoring my conscience. It was helpful that at a certain point, I wasn’t selling dope to people who used them but people to sold them. I wasn’t standing on a corner or sitting in a dope house and therefore forced to see firsthand the effects of my deeds. Shoot, if you’re high done well enough, you don’t even really need to see or touch the dope—this was never me by the way—which I’m sure makes it easier to persist. Plus, if you got enough money you can do things to assuage your guilt. I knew a guy that would hand $100 bills to homeless people. I used to help folks pay rent, buy school clothes, pay tuition. All of those things served as bribes for my conscience. But I’ll tell you what, when my mama asked me for some dope to smoke, I couldn’t ignore that. I was like, damn, how did I get here.
RH: Damn that’s real brother, and I appreciate you keeping it one hundred. Okay so going back to my earlier statement on making the memoir not just about the self, but interactive—those survivor files are golden and provide another layer to the Survival. Each one of those profiles reminded me of someone I’ve crossed paths with. How important was it for you to tell your these narratives?
MJ: It was hella important for me to give a broader view of survival in the place I grew up. It’s like writing the history of home. Those guys aren’t just homies in the files, they are family—brothers, cousins, uncles, grandfather, nephew—so in a very real sense, I was also writing a family history. I wanted to highlight what they’d endured, but also to underscore the resiliency that it took to get to the other side of those trials. I mean, they were alive and free when we spoke, and things could’ve worked out different. Of course, I also want their stories to stand in for the crucibles that black men elsewhere face. I’m sure we aren’t alone in the experiences.
RH: I have to ask you this question. When you were running around with killers and those to be killed, when you were cooking up dope, trying to stretch it with baking soda or some other agent, when you were hanging around a bunch of men, whom if you told them you were going to be a writer, might’ve robbed you on the spot, did you ever once imagine yourself a writer and in the position you are in today?
MJ: I was a student the whole time I sold dope, so I suppose it wouldn’t have been that much of a stretch to imagine becoming a writer. And yet, I never imagined it. I was going to get a D1 basketball scholarship, maybe play overseas afterwards, and figure it out from there. As for what my patnas or dudes I dealt with in those days would’ve done. I don’t think they would’ve robbed me. Or even disparaged me. I think they might’ve even encouraged me in the ways they knew how. Because no one really wants to sell dope or pimp or tote a pistol. No one really wants to toddle out their house with their head on swivel because they don’t know if somebody is coming to jack them. I see some of those guys now and they are happy for me even though they don’t really know what kind of life I I’ve, even though they may never read a word a write beyond a social media post. They are happy because they believe I made it out. And I have made it out—if by that we mean that I won’t be going to jail for distribution of a narcotic. But also, I can never make it out all the way because I care, which is to say if they ain’t free (free to make a life for themselves) then I ain’t all the way free.
RH: Nah, I totally get it. Of course, I was kidding about the robbing part, and I totally get what you are saying in terms of jokes being happy for you, believing you “made it out.” And so as we wind down this interview I need to tell you that I love so much about Survival Math. The layers provide so much context to a great book. However, I don’t want to spill all the beans and give up the goodies. I want readers to be enticed and go purchase the book and revel in the experience, the history, how incarceration doesn’t always have to be an end stop. With that said, what is that you hope the casual reader will take away from this book, and what national conversations do you hope to jump start?
MJ: There’s a line in the opening essay/letter where I say I’m writing to “keep alive the record of where we lived and how we lived and what we lived and died for.” That about sums the telos of the book. The “we” includes my family and friends and black folks from Oregon, but also blacks across the nation. I don’t know if I’ll jump start any conversations, but I do want to be a part of them. But I also want to push past the language of common discourse—mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, the school-to-prison pipeline—and into language and stories that don’t let us obfuscate the harms. I can’t see mass incarceration but I can see my homeboy who came home from 17 years for a murder or my cousins who’ve done years and years in state facilities. I can’t see the prison industrial complex, but I can describe for you what it felt like to walk through my old prison with a film crew behind me and later to chat with a superintendent that was a guard during my time there. I can’t see the school to prison pipeline, but I can tell you stories about the kids in my Book Up afterschool program who wouldn’t volunteer to read because they were such poor readers. It’s important to look at things from a broad vantage and have language that points to its breadth; its crucial to apprehend the systems that foster the problems, but I don’t ever want to lose sight of the individuals that feel acutely what others have the luxury of treating as mostly data and theory. So, I guess I want Survival Math to remind us that we must never lose sight of the personal in our considerations of the systemic.
Randall Horton is the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature, and, most recently, the GLCA New Writers Award for Creative Nonfiction. He is senior editor at Willow Books, a literary publisher dedicated to promoting diverse voices within the publishing industry. His works include the poetry collections The Definition of Place (2006),The Lingua France of Ninth Street (2009), both with Main Street Ragand Pitch Dark Anarchy (Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press, 2013). Hook: A Memoir(2015) is published by Augury Books. As associate professor of English at the University of New Haven, Mr. Horton is the only person in the United States with seven felony convictions and academic tenure. He serves on PEN America’s Prison Writing Program Committee, and is a member of the experimental performance group Heroes Are Gang Leaders, who have performed at premier venues and jazz festivals worldwide.