You could say that author Mitchell S. Jackson and I are very similar. We are from the same city, the same neighborhood and, even though we are separated by a few years, we share strikingly identical stories from our childhoods.
As Jackson and I walked to the South Park Blocks of Portland State University's downtown campus to conduct this interview about his collection of short stories called Oversoul, we talked about people and friends we both grew up with — some of whom are doing well and others of whom have been victims of tragedy and, in too many cases, death.
We also discussed our adolescent years in Northeast Portland neighborhoods, neighborhoods that were defined by senseless and random gang violence, requiring us to adopt an attitude of self-preservation. At that time, our neighborhoods weren't "bike friendly," nor were they home to co-op grocery stores and boutique coffee shops. The neighborhoods that Jackson and I knew then didn't offer that type of variety.
Though both of us could be considered among the lucky ones in terms of our lives today, the bumps in Jackson's path to adulthood manifested themselves in a different fashion from my own. Jackson describes his high school years using terms like "distracted" and "complicated."
"My high school days consisted of chasing girls and practicing and playing basketball," he says. "Somehow, I also found a way to maintain fairly strong grades."
Jackson says that he moved around quite a bit, living between his father's and his mother's homes, and eventually landing with his grandmother for a time.
"I was wild — sneaking girls in the house, coming home at all hours," recalls Jackson. "It was a time in my life when I could have easily got sucked into the underworld for good."
Like many young black males growing up in tough neighborhoods, Jackson believed his ticket out was an NCAA basketball scholarship. But when no schools recruited him, he changed plans and attended Portland Community College. From there, his talent with words earned him scholarships and led him to Portland State University. Despite his academic success, between his sophomore and junior years at PSU, he was arrested for dealing drugs and served more than a year in prison.
"Prison, as it does most people, gave me a lot of time to think," says Jackson. "I’ve always been a pensive guy, but I was a pensive young man on steroids for those months I was incarcerated. It also humbled me."
Jackson said it could have been much worse. With the amount of drugs he had in his possession when he was arrested, a sentence of 10-12 years was not out of the question.
"While I was incarcerated, though, I read some. There weren’t many books — Terry McMillian’s Waiting to Exhale was one of them — and I decided that my experience was worth writing about. I came home with 150 or so notebook pages of my life story."
Those pages would form the basis for many of the short stories in Jackson's e-book, Oversoul: Stories and Essays, which was released last year. The stories are his way of sharing his experiences of his life in Portland and the many relationships and circumstances that led him to become who he is today.
On a recent trip to Portland, Jackson was invited to speak to students at Self Enhancement, INC. (SEI). Talking about his experiences and encouraging young people to express themselves is very important to him. Jackson remembers when he was enrolled in one of SEI's summer programs and the messages he received as a young man.
In those early years, SEI's chief message was that "life has options," and to Jackson, writing as a form of expression is one of them.
Though Jackson now lives in Brooklyn, New York, he maintains a strong connection to Portland and still considers the city his home. Elaborate tattoos of roses and famous Portland icons and landmarks ornament his forearms, shoulders and torso. Though the markings are constant reminders of where he comes from, his link to the area is more than skin deep.
"I love coming home to Portland. I wish I could get back more often. I love visiting old friends," Jackson says. "I don't think I've ever written a story that is set in New York City. Without the experience of being in Portland, I would have never become a writer."