Raves and Reviews: Survival Math by Mitchell S. Jackson

22 Apr

Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family by Mitchell S. Jackson

An electrifying, dazzlingly written reckoning and an essential addition to the national conversation about race and class, Survival Math takes its name from the calculations award-winning author Mitchell S. Jackson made to survive the Portland, Oregon of his youth.

This dynamic book explores gangs and guns, near-death experiences, sex work, masculinity, composite fathers, the concept of “hustle,” and the destructive power of addiction—all framed within the story of Jackson, his family, and his community. Lauded for its breathtaking pace, its tender portrayals, its stark candor, and its luminous style, Survival Math reveals on every page the searching intellect and originality of its author.

The primary narrative, focused on understanding the antecedents of Jackson’s family’s experience, is complemented by poems composed from historical American documents as well as survivor files, which feature photographs and riveting short narratives of several of Jackson’s male relatives.

The sum of Survival Math’s parts is a highly original whole, one that reflects on the exigencies—over generations—that have shaped the lives of so many disenfranchised Americans. As essential as it is beautiful, as real as it is artful, Mitchell S. Jackson’s nonfiction debut is a singular achievement, not to be missed.



Raves and Reviews


“[A] vibrant memoir of race, violence, family, and manhood…Jackson recognizes there is too much for one conventional form, and his various storytelling methods imbue the book with an unpredictable dexterity. It is sharp and unshrinking in depictions of his life, his relatives (blood kin and otherwise), and his Pacific Northwest hometown, which serves as both inescapable character and villain…It’s Jackson’s history, but it’s also a microcosm of too many black men struggling both against their worst instincts, and a society that often leaves them with too few alternatives…His virtuosic wail of a book reminds us that for a black person in America, it can never be that easy.”
—Boston Globe


““While never shirking from the various harms his family members inflict on themselves and each other, Jackson consistently writes about them, and truly all the people we encounter, from a place of grace…One of the book’s many treasures is Jackson’s attentiveness to providing historical context for the forces shaping his family and the place they call home…Jackson’s searing intelligence is on full display throughout the work, but it is particularly notable when he takes on the problems of gentrification, white supremacy, and corporations that gain their wealth off the bodies of the poor. Equally striking is the author’s unflinching commitment to turn his critical eye inward…a spellbinding narrative.”


“A vulnerable, sobering look at Jackson’s life and beyond, in all its tragedies, burdens and faults…Jackson dissects the darker realities of his hometown [and] his explorations feel strikingly unguarded.”
—San Francisco Chronicle


“Exuberant maximalism is [Jackson’s] mode … The detours recall the hectic narrative nonfiction of the ’90s and early aughts, by writers like Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace.”
—The New York Times


“[Survival Math is] dense and rich, alternately blunt and tender, with references that run the gamut from Snoop Dogg to Adam Smith … in recalling his own struggle, what Jackson has created is a monument to the marginalized—and it’s every bit as harrowing and beautiful as its architect’s life.”
—Willamette Week


“In prose that is both poetic and brutally honest, Jackson [explores] his family’s story as a lens into the history of his community. Themes like fatherhood, addiction, sex work, national pride, prison, race and violence against women can feel broad and universal, and Jackson expertly grounds these experiences within America’s legacy, via the inclusion of thoroughly-researched historical and religious references. And yet Survival Math is also deeply personal…Jackson powerfully disrupts various binaries, showing how academic scholarship and accessible writing can merge, how empathy and accountability can overlap, how self and social critique are interconnected.”


“Beyond his own past, Jackson juxtaposes his history with those of his male relatives to illustrate the hardships of class and race on a generational level, creating a timely narrative centered around what it takes to survive in America.”
—Time, 11 New Books to Read this March


“Jackson, the author of the novel The Residue Years, writes about his own childhood in Portland, Ore., and the entrenched racism and economic inequality that shaped his community. Along the way, he interweaves poems and narratives from members of his family. As Jackson puts it in his author’s note, “Our stories of survival are inseparable from the ever-fraught history of America.””
—New York Times, 12 New Books to Watch for in March


“Jackson revisits his early years in a black Portland neighborhood, telling the stories of his struggling family members and analyzing the marginalizing cultural forces around them.”
—Entertaintment Weekly, 20 new books to read in March


“Vivid and unflinching … Mitchell’s memoir in essays chronicles the struggles of friends and family with drugs, racism, violence, and hopelessness and puts a face on the cyclical nature of poverty.”
—Boston Globe, Most Anticipated Books of 2019


“An extensive and illuminating look at the city of [Jackson’s] childhood, exploring issues like sex, violence, addiction, community, and the toll this takes on a person’s life.
—Buzzfeed, Most Anticipated Books of 2019


“This is more than Jackson’s story, and as he traces his great-grandparents’ exodus from Alabama to Portland and the subsequent lives of his relatives…he captures the cyclical nature of poverty and neglect…The prose is a stunning mix of internal monologue and historical and religious references that he incorporates to tell his story…Thanks to Jackson’s fresh voice, this powerful autobiography shines an important light on the generational problems of America’s oft-forgotten urban communities.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred

“A dynamic, impressive debut memoir from the Whiting Award-winning author of The Residue Years (2013)… A potent book that revels in the author’s truthful experiences while maintaining the jagged-grain, keeping-it-a-100, natural storytelling that made The Residue Years a modern must-read.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred


“Award-winning novelist Jackson reclaims his history through an elegant memoir…one of rigorous self-examination, approaching his personal story with honesty and poetry…The result is an intimate portrayal of what makes us human…as much about a writer struggling to understand life’s jubilations, mistakes, and losses, as it is a chronicle of a black man’s place in America, appealing to fans of Kiese Laymon and Ta-Nehisi Coates.”
—Library Journal, starred


“In the second-person vignettes scattered throughout Jackson’s latest work, close-call scenarios threaten both the lives and freedom of Jackson’s family members. After escaping death or incarceration, their frequent refrain is, ‘Praise God!’ Yet the sense one gets reading this portrait of an African American family is that, for many black Americans, livelihood rests on blind chance more than divine intervention … Product-of-my-environment stories are common; beyond his candid self-portrayal as a willing-but-reluctant participant, what makes Jackson’s take on this theme so compelling is his inquisitive and unflinching investigation of the conditions that shaped him.”
—Booklist, starred


“This is a mesmerizing book, full of story, truth, pain, lyricism, humor, and astonishment: the stuff of a difficult life, fully lived, and masterfully transformed into art.”
—Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses and The Golden House


“Relentlessly clear-eyed and virtuosic, Survival Math offers revelation after revelation; in the end, it remakes our understanding of the world and those in it.”
—Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing


“Survival Math is the best memoir I’ve read in ages. With honesty, insight, and a tremendous amount of heart, Mitchell S. Jackson takes us deep into the stories that made, ruined, and saved him. I had the feeling while reading it that I’d never read anything quite like it before. It’s intimate and wise; poignant and compassionate; redemptive and raw. You have to read this beautiful book.”
—Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild


“Survival Math is a compassionate meditation on the human costs of this country’s ongoing war on black lives, and–more importantly–the methods we employ to endure despite it all. Mitchell Jackson calls on his singular linguistic gifts to craft this story of redemption and maturation with honesty and style.”
—Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House


“Jackson is no mere stylist. His prose is conceived from fabric to fit. Penetrating social critique, rigorous self-examination, epochs and eras attired with a craftsmanship that seems effortless: By every measure, Survival Math is ahead of the curve.”
—Greg Pardlo, author of Air Traffic and Digest


“In Survival Math, Mitchell Jackson turns a familial story into an American one, writing with brutal honesty about himself, and the men and women who shaped him. With a kind of tenderness not reserved for people who’ve suffered, Jackson’s Survival Math explores more than just the highs and lows of his loved ones, he gets at the texture and nuance, the grit and fight of those grasping onto to the hope of getting through the worst of it. Put another way: this book is dope. Awash in the kind of stories that easily get written as voyeurism, Jackson turns these lives and his own, into an American epic. This kind of memoir as essay is Beardenesque, collaging together his family’s lives in a way that, though excavating pain and hurt that easily ruins most, offers something that’s revelatory about the calculus it takes to keep going. Jackson reminds us to remember the words of Whitman: Vivas to those who have failed. Written in a prose that’s distinctly his own.”
—Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Bastards of the Reagan Era and A Question of Freedom


“In Survival Math, Mitchell Jackson pens a honest, first-hand account of a family caught up in the game. This book is like no other in the singular way that Jackson unpacks their lives with a rare eloquence and intelligence, spinning a tale that is by turns sad, horrifying, illuminating, and uplifting. In short: a dope book by a dope writer.”
—Jeffery Renard Allen, author of Song of the Shank and Rails Under My Back


“Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family tells the story of a young man and a way of life lived against staggering odds; Mitchell Jackson shows us his youth in Portland with an unforgettable mix of sharp humor, wide interrogation, and indelible tragedy. Jackson’s mesmerizing voice and style draws you into the survival calculations for millions of American kids and families, revealing a need-to-know reality for all of us. With ravenous curiosity Jackson explores what he’s had to learn—and sometimes unlearn—about what it means to be a man and what it means to be human, investigating why and how he survived when many have not.”
—Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black


“Mitchell Jackson’s Survival Math is riveted by his exacting and tender calculus of each subject’s depth and humanity. Each hustle, dodge and scramble we witness in these pages is anchored in the turbulent sea of American history. Jackson’s musings skillfully illuminate the bloodlines, both inherited and earned, that pulse through the body of America’s gang-graffitied carceral state.”
—Tyehimba Jess, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olio


“With the code-switching agility of Toni Cade Bambara and with the lyric intellect of Albert Murray, Survival Math exhibits Mitchell Jackson at his full power, shining a light on the path ahead—indeed, helping us to survive–in one of the most challenging times in recent American history. This is the salve we’ve all been searching for when we cover our faces with our hands after reading the latest headlines. Moving between lyric essays; centos; and even epistolary history lessons, personal histories and collective ones, too, there’s never been a more authentic chronicling of African American culture. Set in Portland, OR, Survival Math chronicles the history of our country from the vantage point of Northeast Portland, but this ain’t Portlandia. This is as real as it gets, and there’s more love stories—more romantic love, more mother to son love, more brother to brother love– than any book should be able to hold, and yet Jackson has figured out the equation to solve for the X on which our lives depend.”
—A. Van Jordan, award-winning author of The Cineaste


“If you’ve read Mitchell S. Jackson, you already know he writes with a poet’s ear. In Survival Math he foregrounds how powerfully he writes with a poet’s perception. His sentences radiate empathy. He perceives the lives of hustlers, prisoners, and ghosts. He speaks to and with and for his people– which is to say, your people and my people. Mitchell S. Jackson’s insights into how black men survive become insights of everyone’s survival. This book is beautiful and vital.”
—Terrance Hayes, MacArthur Fellow and National Book Award-winning author of To Float in the Space Between


“Survival Math should be praised for many reasons—its literary integrity, its cinematic pace, its creativity and candor. But what I find most striking about this work, what I think distinguishes it, is its heart. As a black man in America, I find that there is often pressure to use our stories as performance. To spin them into shaky pedestals where proof of life is professed for a fee. They are ours but often we do not own them. This story—this complex history of an American family that could be representative of many—Jackson, undoubtedly, proves is his. It beats like a part of him.”
—Jason Reynolds, author of Ghost and Sunny


“Mitchell Jackson’s Survival Math is telling the truth as you’ve never heard it. These essays are full of heart and doubt and aching wisdom and fierce beauty. They moved me deeply. This book is hard to read, and hard to put down. Its voice is voices, plural. It’s a dirge and a torch song and a family tree and a confessional booth transcript. It will stay with me for a long time, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
—Leslie Jamison, author of The Recovering


“In Survival Math, Mitchell S. Jackson, establishes himself as a master essayist. The complexity of “Notes” is pastoral yet poignant. Jackson tells an indisputable universal truth that will compel you to question everything you thought you knew about life and living in America. Bravo!”
—Sanderia Faye, author of Mourner’s Bench, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award


“After reading dozens of books on race, completing thousands of hours of research and attending countless conferences, I can confidentially say Mitch Jackson is one of the most important voices of our generation. You’ll agree after reading Survival Math, the follow up to his acclaimed Residue Years. Not only is Survival Math a deeply humanizing page turner, it’s a timely narrative that gives us a glimpse into the Black America we rarely encounter in mainstream. Jackson has a gift for crafting beautiful sentences, storytelling and has brilliantly constructed the type of book that reminds me of why I fell in love with language in the first place. I highly recommend!”
—D. Watkins, New York Times bestselling author of The Cook Up and The Beast Side


“This story is grit and gilded; a space where individual pasts collide with our collective hopres for America’s future.”
—Damaris B. Hill, author of A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing


“Some version of all my male kin were there alongside Jackson and his kin making me see them in a new way. Jackson allows us to see what it means to be a black man in American and to be at war with the past and accountable for the future.”
—Crystal Wilkinson, author of The Birds of Opulence

Purchase Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family by Mitchell S. Jackson






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