Mitchell Jackson, True to the Selves

29 Jun

Who is the best storyteller you know?

Answer:  _______________ . 

Some of the best storytellers I know don’t hold no MFA’s or yearn for their government names on the jackets of deckled-edged hard covers. In fact—and this probably isn’t best place to say it, but I’m going to say it anyhow—some of the best narrators I know probably haven’t read many books. To be true, the denizens of what Junot Diaz calls my “chronotope” AKA “the time-spaces we [I] keep circling” in my writing are often slick-talking men who trade their governments for Lil something or Big something or Old Man this or that, dudes who on occasion might spent a weekend or two in the county or detox but don’t let it ruin the rest of their month; the residents of that space are also females who could end up living a lifetime as Ms instead of Mrs., Herculean women who, if you get out of line, might slice you shreds with a Ginsu tongue.

So why are those folks paragons? The simple answer is voice, youknowwhatimean, the acoustics of their sentences, the syntax, the repetition, recursion, symbolism, neologism, irony, metaphor, etc, etc, rhetoric they employ both on purpose and unbeknown. But, but, they are also engaging to the fulfillity for at least one other thing that’s always underneath their words: resistance. What I mean by this is that their speech is a testament to surviving whatever.

On the subject, one of my favorite James Baldwin essays is “If Black English Isn’t a Language Then Tell Me What is.” In the essay, Baldwin essentially argues that Black English should be respected by the dominant group. But there is this one line where Baldwin acquiesces to the very power he’s contending against: “To open your mouth in England is (if I may use Black English) to “put your business in the street”: You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and alas, your future.” There, there, do you see it? Baldwin in the parenthesis querying for permission? Let me go out on a limb and say this shows the pressure even a great writer such as he felt to find a legitimate voice—the one somewhere in the interstices of team dominant versus the others.

And here’s some real ish: I feel it too—the tension. When I’m writing, I’m always negotiating the influence of my sometime riven, all-the-time bifurcated self, the part of me that esteems those strong storytellers from my youth and young adulthood and the other part that has grown enamored of handful of inimitable scribes. Boy oh boy does your boy hear them: the whispering old heads and hustlers; the murmuring Ivy leaguers and McArthur winners: This here is the way you do it youngin. Please abide by these rules, dear sir. But peep: in my work I never mind all the way one side. I don’t think I should. My resistance is central to my prose. No, no, no, my resistance is paramount.

But maybe I’m in the minority. There’s no shortage of writers skewing to one side or the other, sentences or verses that read either like dry-ass textbooks or else like a slang dictionary on steroids, wannabes trapped in a single stifling persona. Okay, okay, those analogies were laced with hyperbole, but I used them to make this next point. As a writer of color especially (go ahead and call me black writer, I find it pejorative none) the only true voice is one that seeks to include all of our experience, which by necessity means a fair amount of resistance against the ones who make the rules.

And peoples, please don’t misconstrue this as me talking about sounding Black or telling a Black (whatever that means) story. This ain’t about color. It’s about experience and power and what it does to our words. This is about being true to self, but all of the selves. Cause guess what, get funny-duddy and see what happens. Don’t ever think your pass into any group is a lifetime guarantee. It can be revoked. Though if you don’t know what a pass is, then there’s the chance you never had one or never needed it. And if you’re from a place where you didn’t need one then I am not directing this directly at you—and furthermore, CON-GRAT-U-LATIONS! You should thank your saints for a life filled with no small bit of benevolence. But for the rest of us, the ones negotiating competing persons, those conflicted by at least two teams going head to head for shine, with voices imploring and beseeching us against turning our backs on them, for us, every time we open our mouths to speak or sit down to write, there will always, and I mean forever and ever till mass death do us all from this earth, be the questions: How much resistance is too much? How much is not enough?

Mitchell Jackson, OversoulMitchell S. Jackson is a Portland, Oregon native who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He 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 Urban Artist Initiative and The Center For Fiction. A former winner of the Hurston Wright Foundation’s award for college writers, he teaches writing at NYU. Oversoul an eBook collection of Jackson’s prose, will be published in the spring of 2012. His novel The Residue Years is forthcoming from Bloomsbury USA in the spring of 2013. 

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