Throughout “Twelve Minutes and a Life,” Mitchell Jackson’s stirring essay about the last moments of Ahmad Arbery’s life, the writer often compares himself with the former high school football star and murder victim.
Arbery was arrested for carrying a gun a year after graduating high school, Jackson tells us, before relaying that he, too, was arrested a few years after high school for a similar offense.
“Maud – dear God, whhhyyy? – is dead, and I, by grace, am a writer-professor hurtling toward middle age,” Jackson writes.
The brutal honesty with which Jackson shares pieces of his own life in the Pulitzer-winning essay – which was also recently recognized with the 2021 Jenkins Medal for Best Sportswriting, in addition to the 2021 National Magazine Award in Feature Writing – is remarkable, but not at all out of character.
Much of Jackson’s writing draws heavily on his personal experiences.
His 2013 debut novel, “The Residue Years,” is a semi-autobiographical account of a young Black man’s coming of age in the mostly white city of Portland, Oregon. In 2020’s “Survival Math,” Jackson ditches the veil of fiction altogether and dives into the history of his own family – violence, heartbreak, addiction and all.
Jackson, a recent hire to Arizona State University’s Department of English, didn’t set out to be a social justice advocate, but the frankness with which his writing confronts issues of race and class has arguably made him one.
ASU News had the opportunity to speak with Jackson in late September, just as the fall 2021 semester was getting underway. The conversation ranged from his first brush with reading fiction in prison to the best writing advice he ever got to his forthcoming novel “John of Watts,” about the cult leader Eldridge Broussard, some of whose followers Jackson knew as friends.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
ASU News: So nice to meet you! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. How are you liking Phoenix?
Jackson: I was in New York for like 20 years, so this is a big difference. I walked out of class yesterday and I was like, oh, this weather … I can deal with this.
ASUN: That’s awesome to hear, and we’re glad to have you. So let’s start with what got you into writing. I know you spent some time in prison and you took an interest in literature then. But had you ever thought about being a writer before then? Were you a big reader as a kid?
Jackson: It wasn't even a consideration when I was a kid. And I didn't love books enough then to think of that as a profession or a calling. My engagement with books when I was young was always for educational purposes, so I never read for pleasure. My mother, who has been visiting with me this week, has been reminding me how before school started in September, I would always ask to go to the library so I could refresh myself and get back into being a student. But yeah, I didn't really engage with creative writing when I was young.
ASUN: When you first started engaging with literature in prison, were there any books or authors in particular that made an impact on you?
Jackson: Well, we didn't really have a great library at the prison I was in. The books that I remember reading there were by Terry McMillan. She was a huge author in the nineties. She wrote a book called “Waiting to Exhale” that became a movie with Whitney Houston in it. So those kinds of stories weren’t necessarily reflective of my life, but that’s the first fiction that I can remember engaging with as an adult. It took me until I got into graduate school to really develop a reading practice.
ASUN: What made you decide to pursue writing as a career?
Jackson: I remember when I was young and had to write English papers, or whatever subject it was, and my teachers would always tell me that I had talent, that I could write. And I didn't pay it any mind. I was going to be an NBA basketball player and I didn’t feel like my writing skills were going to come into play. Later on, when I was an undergrad – so after I got out of prison – I started to mine that and explore it a little bit. But I really didn't think I could be a writer until I was already in graduate school. I decided I was going to go to graduate school mainly to be back in school again, to have an identity as a student, which was very important to me. But I didn't know I could write. Not really.
ASUN: What changed your mind?
Jackson: I think being accepted into NYU’s program was a kind of marker. But really, to be honest, it didn't happen until I was well out of graduate school and I met this writer-slash-editor named Gordon Lish. He was really popular in the 1970s and '80s as an editor and a teacher. And he told me not just that I was a writer, he was like, “I think you would be great if you really put your mind to it.” But yeah, he was the first person that made me think that I could be exceptional at this.
ASUN: Your debut novel “The Residue Years” has been praised, not just for the excellent writing, but for bringing attention to some of the injustices of American society. Is that something you intended to do when you were writing it, or was it just a story that you felt needed to be told?
Jackson: It was just a story that needed to be told. But I also knew that my story was like a microcosm for things that were happening elsewhere. I had done enough traveling and knew enough people to know that my experience was not isolated. But I didn't start out wanting to be a social justice advocate or wanting to return to prison (as an advocate). And even now, even though that's in my bio, I wouldn't necessarily consider myself a social justice advocate. I would say that I go back and try to connect with people who have a similar experience as me. And a lot of those people happen to be in prison. But when “The Residue Years” came out and people started talking about it and I started getting invitations to go into prisons and started seeing how the guys in the prisons were reacting to me because I had published, I recognized that it has tremendous power. And that’s important to me.
ASUN: In “Twelve Minutes and a Life,” you’re not just an objective storyteller, you share about yourself in the narrative, and in very honest ways, whether it’s mentioning similarities between yourself and Ahmad or expressing personal emotions. That can be really hard to do, especially with heavy subjects. Was it difficult to get to a place where you could be that honest in your writing?
Jackson: Yes, it was tough, but by the time I wrote the Ahmad Arbery piece, I had already written the “The Residue Years,” which was semi-autobiographical and shared a lot of personal – even though it's fiction – there were a lot of personal aspects of my life in it. I had written “Survival Math,” which is the most personal thing that I'd ever written and exposed me in ways that were really embarrassing. My mentor (Gordon Lish), he used to say, “Your wound is your bow.” The thing that you're scared of most is also the thing that gives you the most strength on the page. And so I understood that the things that have wounded me, that I've been embarrassed about, are also things that have made me stronger by being brave enough to share those things on the page. So, yeah, it was difficult in the beginning, but by the time I got to Arbery, I had already done it. I don't think there's much more that I could share about my life that would put my ego in more jeopardy than what I did in “Survival Math.” So I was sharing myself as a shield for Arbery, who could not defend himself, because I knew that (readers) were going to bring up some of these arguments (about his character). And I wanted to say, “Well, these don't really have that much merit, and here's why.” I'm using myself as an example to show you why these arguments you're making about him getting in trouble after high school, or whatever it was, that these things should not have had an impact on what happened to this young man.
ASUN: Do you have any advice for writers who struggle with being honest?
Jackson: I would give the same advice that I was given: Your wound is your bow. The things that are hardest for you to write about give you the most power. There's another thing that I think about in the classroom, too, which is to never put yourself above the other. So if you're writing about someone on the page and you can point out their flaws, you ought to be able to turn that same light on you and be able to point out your own flaws. So there's always a kind of equal humanity on the page. So I think those two things – your wound is your bow, and never put yourself above another – are like guiding principles in my work. And I think they can work well for others too.
ASUN: You've written both fiction and nonfiction. You've also written some poetry. Do you have a preference as to genre?
Jackson: I can't even claim that that's poetry in “Survival Math.” Don't let my poet friends hear you call me a poet, I'll be in trouble (laughter). But no, I don't have a preference. I've written much more nonfiction than I have fiction. I think mainly I'm into the challenge of whatever the particular writing presents and the thing that spans across whether fiction or nonfiction is the musicality of the language and me trying to assert what I believe to be my literary voice in whatever it is that I'm making. So if you look across all of my work, my goal is that you would be able to read something that I wrote without my name on it and know that it was me. So I don't really have a preference. I will tell you, I'm working on some fiction now, and fiction is probably the thing that scares me the most because I do it the least.
ASUN: Speaking of which, you're actually teaching a fiction course this semester. What can you tell me about that?
Jackson: Yeah, it’s a workshop class, but I try not to be too imposing on fiction writers because I don't want them to be writing about subjects that concern me or that I'm interested in. I want them to be writing about what they're interested in, and oftentimes that’s something that’s very different from my interests. And some of them come with work that they’re in the middle of anyway. In both of my graduate programs, I only ever worked on “The Residue Years.” I had a pretty singular vision for what I wanted to come out of the programs with, and I would encourage that in the writers that I have as students now.
ASUN: You're at work on another novel right now, “John of Watts,” about Eldridge Broussard, the youth preacher and former basketball player who started the Ecclesia Athletic Association, which is now regarded as a cult. Why did you want to tell this story?
Jackson: One thing that I'm committed to is writing about home. That's why there was stuff about Oregon and stuff about me in the Ahmad Arbery piece, because at the nexus of everything that I do is home. And so this story is connected to home in that the man who eventually became a cult leader went to school in Oregon, and also, some of the members – the young people that were in his group – are friends of mine. So to me, although this guy grew up in Watts and some of this novel will be set in Watts, it's also a story about home for me. And that's just something that’s important in all of my work.
ASUN: Do you have any outreach work going on right now?
Jackson: I actually just had a conversation like 20 minutes ago with a lawyer in Arizona who is advocating for a young man who was driving drunk as a teenager. He got in a car accident and someone died. So she was asking me what I could do for him, because he’s also a writer, so she was interested in getting mentorship for him as a writer who’s inside. But I don't really have specific plans for outreach, I just do what I can. I do try to visit a facility wherever my stop is when I’m on book tours. So if I have 10 stops, I try to make sure I'm going to a bookstore and a youth facility at each one. And I'm definitely going to keep that up. But in the meantime, if someone calls and asks me to come visit, I'll do it. And then I have enough family, sadly, in prison that that's outreach in itself.
ASUN: Who are you reading right now?
Jackson: I'm reading Michael Eric Dyson’s latest book (“Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America”) because I'm doing a conversation with him at ASU on Oct. 21. I'm also reading Keisha Blain. She's a historian. I’m reading her new book (“Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer's Enduring Message to America”). Hanif Abdurraqib, who just won a MacArthur today, he’s an essayist, and I just started reading one of his essays. I’ll probably be reading his essays for the next couple of days.
ASUN: Do you have any parting thoughts for the ASU community?
Jackson: Just that I'm happy to be here and working with these tremendous students and colleagues. I have no decision remorse.
Top photo: Mitchell Jackson, the John O. Whiteman Dean’s Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at Arizona State University, leads a fiction workshop on ASU's Tempe campus. Photo by Jenny Dupuis/ASU Academic Enterprise Communications