Visiting Writers Series welcomes Mitchell S. Jackson

By Emily Bergman

The University of Massachusetts kicked off the start of a campus custom on Thursday, celebrating 51 seasons of the Visiting Writers Series.

In the first part of this series, author Mitchell S. Jackson spoke to members of the public about his debut novel, “The Residue Years.” Jackson showed clips from a documentary of the same title and read two excerpts from his novel.

When Jackson was 15, he began to sell crack cocaine in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, but he made light of the situation during his presentation.

“I wasn’t very good at hustling,” he said.

Jackson eventually found himself doing time in prison. He explained that prison was the motivation he needed to say goodbye to the drug trafficking life, although he had been aware all along that lifestyle had a short lifespan.

In “The Residue Years,” Jackson explores this lifestyle through the eyes of fictional characters Grace and Champ, a mother and son who greatly resemble Jackson and his own mother. In the novel, the narrative switches between Grace and Champ’s perspectives. Grace is a recovering drug addict and Champ is her eldest son, who is now a crack cocaine dealer. The novel explores their relationship and their journey to bring their family back together.

Jackson explained that the story of Grace and Champ is not meant to be unique.

“I think the story is cliché,” he said. “You can see this on every TV special, book, reading the newspaper. … I’m not special in that sense. Everybody that I grew up with had a parent that was on drugs, ended up doing some kind of time, did bad in school. There’s nothing special about that, but I think for them to explore the emotions of their parents or their siblings or for them to really ask questions about how and why, that’s what makes this different. I hope that’s what makes this different.”

Throughout his presentation, Jackson gave true accounts of his experiences in Portland, including stories about an old friend who is now in prison for murder.

“Why me? How me? I look at a lot of people that I grew up with and am like, ‘What was different? Why are you here?’” he said. “Why are the dudes that I grew up with, in the same circumstances, with parents that I know, in this position, and I’m here?”

The Visiting Writers Series is sponsored by the Master of Fine Arts program in the UMass graduate school. Some MFA graduate students read “The Residue Years” last semester with Professor Edie Meidav of the English department. Writers are selected by MFA faculty and Meidav sponsored Jackson.

MFA candidate Molly McArdle introduced Jackson to the crowd that gathered Thursday night. She described the book as, “A gale of language. A storm of voice. Relentlessly and vividly alive.”

Because the event was open to the public, not all of the attendees were MFA candidates.

Sabin Dhakal, a junior finance major, said, “I really liked the fact that he was himself. He didn’t try to speak a certain way, or be a certain way. He didn’t even come here suited up. He was just himself. That was the takeaway point for me – be authentic.”

“I thought (Jackson) was really well spoken and I thought he did a great job presenting,” junior English major Brendan Hamel said. “It was really entertaining.”

The Visiting Writers Series program invites four writers per semester to speak to the public. The public can attend the next Visiting Writers Series event with author Kent Wascom on Oct. 9.

 Emily Bergman can be reached at [email protected]