Survival Math

Notes on an All-American Family

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Ships on or around March 5, 2019

About The Book

In a thrillingly alive, candid new work, award-winning author Mitchell S. Jackson takes us inside the drug-ravaged neighborhood and struggling family of his youth, while examining the cultural forces—large and small—that led him and his family to this place.

With a poet’s gifted ear, a novelist’s sense of narrative, and a journalist’s unsentimental eye, Mitchell S. Jackson candidly explores his tumultuous youth in the other America. Survival Math takes its name from the calculations Mitchell and his family made to keep safe—to stay alive—in their community, a small black neighborhood in Portland, Oregon blighted by drugs, violence, poverty, and governmental neglect.

Survival Math is both a personal reckoning and a vital addition to the national conversation about race. Mitchell explores the Portland of his childhood, tracing the ways in which his family managed their lives in and around drugs, prostitution, gangs, and imprisonment as members of a tiny black population in one of the country’s whitest cities. He discusses sex work and serial killers, gangs and guns, near-death experiences, composite fathers, the concept of “hustle,” and the destructive power of drugs and addiction on family.

In examining the conflicts within his family and community, Jackson presents a microcosm of struggle and survival in contemporary urban America—an exploration of the forces that shaped his life, his city, and the lives of so many black men like him. As Jackson charts his own path from drug dealer to published novelist, he gives us a heartbreaking, fascinating, lovingly rendered view of the injustices and victories, large and small, that defined his youth.

About The Author

Photograph © John Ricard

Mitchell S. Jackson is the author of Survival Math. His debut novel The Residue Years was praised by publications, including The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The Times (London). The novel won the Ernest Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence, and it was also 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. Jackson’s honors include fellowships from the Whiting Foundation, TED, the Lannan Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Center for Fiction. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Salon, and Tin House, among other publications. He serves on the faculty at New York University and Columbia University.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (March 2019)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501131707

Raves and Reviews

“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 review

“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 “Notesis 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

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