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Survival Math

Notes on an All-American Family

ONE OF TIME’S 100 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
ONE OF NPR’S BEST BOOKS OF 2019
ONE OF BUZZFEED’S BEST BOOKS OF 2019

An electrifying, dazzlingly written reckoning and an essential addition to the national conversation about race and class, Survival Math takes its name from the calculations award-winning author Mitchell S. Jackson made to survive the Portland, Oregon of his youth.

This dynamic book explores gangs and guns, near-death experiences, sex work, masculinity, composite fathers, the concept of “hustle,” and the destructive power of addiction—all framed within the story of Jackson, his family, and his community. Lauded for its breathtaking pace, its tender portrayals, its stark candor, and its luminous style, Survival Math reveals on every page the searching intellect and originality of its author. The primary narrative, focused on understanding the antecedents of Jackson’s family’s experience, is complemented by poems composed from historical American documents as well as survivor files, which feature photographs and riveting short narratives of several of Jackson’s male relatives. The sum of Survival Math’s parts is a highly original whole, one that reflects on the exigencies—over generations—that have shaped the lives of so many disenfranchised Americans. As essential as it is beautiful, as real as it is artful, Mitchell S. Jackson’s nonfiction debut is a singular achievement, not to be missed.

This reading group guide for Survival Math includes an introduction, discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

“What’s the toughest thing you’ve survived?” author Mitchell S. Jackson asks his male family members. This is the framework around a collection of essays, both personal and topical, that dive into questions of race, class, masculinity, what a father is, and more. With Mitchell S. Jackson’s personal narrative providing intricate details to these stories, he reckons with the legacy of his family and his country. Survival Math takes its name from the calculations he made to survive the Portland, Oregon of his youth, including gangs and guns, near-death experiences, sex work, composite fathers, “hustle,” and the destructive power of addiction.

The primary narrative, focused on understanding the antecedents of Jackson’s family’s experience, is complemented by poems composed from historical American documents as well as survivor files, which feature photographs and riveting short narratives of several of Jackson’s male relatives. Part memoir, part social examination, Survival Math is unique in its structure and presents challenging questions in brilliant prose.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. After reading “Composite Pops” and “Matrimony” discuss what you think young Mitchell’s relationship to his mother is like.

2. After your book club does research on the history of Portland (see Enhance Your Book Club 1), reflect back on the Prologue. What makes more sense to you with the context of the history of Portland?

3. Identify the documents used as source texts for each of the centos. How do the documents speak to the question posed at the beginning of each poem? How does each poem contextualize the preceding section of essays?

4. The essay “Apples” begins on page 67. How do you understand this metaphor in your own words? Relate Jackson’s definition of apples to the supreme court confirmation hearings of justice Brett Kavanaugh, and in particular, to the women senators who cast affirmative votes for him.

5. On page 114, Mitchell makes the following statement: “I never had anyone in my life to tell me this is what a man is. This is what you should look for in a man. This is how a man should treat you.” And on page 119, in statement Three, Mitchell’s former lover says of her own dad “I think a lot of the stuff that he did to us was because he couldn’t do what a man was supposed to do.” How does a man in modern day America construct his masculinity? From the perspective of the first half of Survival Math, what does masculinity mean?

6. Discuss the chapter that begins on page 161, “American Blood.” Paraphrase Jackson’s definition of American Blood. How does this idea relate to the crisis of Mexican and Latinx immigration?

7. On page 184, Jackson makes this statement: “The White-Slave Act has been less about the protection of sex workers, or women’s suffrage, or even feminism than it’s been about punishing the men who compel those women.” Look into the history of the White-Slave Act, and decide how you align with that statement.

8. In the chapter “The Scale” Mitchell makes use of “math” or formulas several times. Find those instances and discuss how they work in the structure of the essay.

9. In “The Pose” Mitchell goes into detail about the practice of sex work in his family and larger community. He’s very open about his connection to the trade and his treatment of women. What does this do for you as the reader? Have you read other memoirists that are this vulnerable?

10. After you’ve read the epilogue, discuss how you see the reflections of who Mitchell is now in this essay. How has he changed in the lifetime he’s shown you in these pages? What does being a father mean to him?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. As you’re reading this book, research the history of Portland. Assign book club members to come with information about its founding, its socioeconomics over the past 100 years, and the diversity of the city from founding to present day.

2. As a group, watch Mitchell S. Jackson’s TED Talk “Should ‘blackness’ exist?” What do you think of the stories he tells here? How do the statistics land with your group? https://youtu.be/lpw9f8DbzPQ.

3. During your final meeting, ask everyone in your book club to reflect on which essay in this collection was the most challenging to read for them and why.

4. Read the Survivor Files and examine the accompanying photographs. Then ask yourself, which portrait belongs to a particular story? What is it that you see in the photograph that informs that decision? Why might you hold those perspectives?
Photograph by John Ricard

Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. His honors include a Whiting Award and fellowships from the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library, TED, the Lannan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, PEN, NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts), and the Center for Fiction. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, The Guardian, and elsewhere. The author of Survival Math, he is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Chicago.

Photograph by John Ricard

Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. His honors include a Whiting Award and fellowships from the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library, TED, the Lannan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, PEN, NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts), and the Center for Fiction. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, The Guardian, and elsewhere. The author of Survival Math, he is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Chicago.