National Book Foundation's BookUp Instructors
This fall, we welcomed acclaimed author Mitchell Jackson into our faculty for BookUp, the National Book Foundation’s after school program in which middle-school students build their social, emotional, and literacy skills by chosing the books they want to read. Below, Mitchell shares his experience of the first semester:
How has your experience as a BookUp instructor at our CAMBA site been so far?
My experience at BookUp has been wonderful. It’s so heartening to see kids excited about reading. I also am enjoying reading the selections right along with them. Folks love to cite stats about how blacks don’t read, so I have the added joy of being in a school with a high population of students of color. And the field trip was amazing too. Allowing the kids to visit a campus is broadening them, and of course, you can’t beat free books! To me the program is much more than getting kids excited about reading. It’s about giving them something that will enrich their lives for all of their lives.
What role has reading played in your life? How has it changed or stayed the same since you were a kid?
I was unlike many of the kids in BookUp in that I never read for pleasure when I was young. I don’t remember reading a single novel in my childhood and youth. I did, however, read things I thought would help me in school. I got a set of Encyclopedias one summer and read from those. I didn’t start reading novels and other literature until I was in my twenties and didn’t start seriously reading until I was in a graduate writing program. At that point, the reading was once again instruction. So I guess, though I often experience joy while I read, I have seldom if ever read for pleasure. The BookUp kids are fortunate in that there’s emphasis put on the joy of reading. I think they are more likely to become lifelong readers. If I had never become a writer, there’s a great chance I wouldn’t have become a serious reader.
Your novel, The Residue Years, which has been lauded by The New York Times and O Magazine among many other publications, closely parallels your own experience as a young man trapped in the cycle of poverty, drug dealing, and eventual incarceration during the crack epidemic. Can you talk about the process of writing the book and how you were able to overcome the staggering obstacles of your childhood?
I don’t think I overcame my obstacles; it was more like outlasted my time with them. One of the things that helped me get through was believing that those troubles were terminal, that one day I would be on the other side of them. I also had a sense that I was destined for something more than what my circumstances seemed to be dictating. A part of that sense was having people in my family who were conventionally successful. I had a great grandmother who was a schoolteacher. My grandfather was a schoolteacher as well and studied English in college. While my stepfather was pimping and my mother was using drugs and while I was selling drugs and doing Gods-knows-what-else, I was also mindful that emblems of the power of education and conventional success existed very close to me.
What authors do you draw inspiration from both as a writer and as a teacher?
As a writer, I am inspired by James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Denis Johnson, Edward P Jones, Yusef Komunyakaa, Cornelius Eady, Jack Gilbert. As a teacher, I’m inspired by my time studying with Gordon Lish and also by working with my boss at NYU, Ruth Danon, who is an amazing teacher. I have also had the good fortune of working with Brenda Greene of the Center For Black Literature who was also an amazing educator. I’m always amazed by people who have been teaching for years and still maintain energy and enthusiasm in the classroom.
Mitchell S. Jackson received an M.A. in writing from Portland State University and an M.F.A in Creative Writing from New York University. He has been the recipient of fellowships from The Lannan Foundation, The Center For Fiction, and the Urban Artist Initiative and teaches writing at New York University. Jackson’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including the New York Times, Salon, and Tin House. His debut novel The Residue Years was a finalist for the Center For Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First novel prize, the PEN/ Hemingway award for first fiction, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and as well named an Honor Book by the BCALA. Find him here: www.mitchellsjackson.com
On Twitter: @MitchSJackson