JARED JACKSON ’10 can’t overestimate the value of writing. “I think it’s an essential skill, full stop,” he says. “Just on a basic level, being able to sit with your thoughts and express yourself is crucially important, and writing equips us with the ability to think critically and refine our ideas.” In his work as literary programs manager for the New York branch of PEN America, Jackson fosters thought- provoking conversations with some of today’s leading minds and works to promote free expression and effect social change.
Jackson joined PEN in fall 2019, while still in his final year in Columbia University’s MFA program, serving first as literary programs coordinator before being promoted to programs manager this past January. “I curate and produce events that aim to bring out nourishing reflections on literature, society, and what we’re reckoning with,” he explains. In this capacity, he oversees the weekly PEN Ten online interview series and PEN Out Loud, a conversation series that focuses on amplifying diverse voices by bringing authors, poets, journalists, artists, and activists into dialogue with each other.
He also leads the Emerging Voices Fellowship, an immersive five-month program that looks to cultivate promising writers and diversify the publishing and media landscapes. “I’ve always valued teaching and mentorship, and this role gives me the opportunity to almost administer my own creative writing program,” he says. “We pair our fellows with mentors and bring in publishing professionals to speak about their craft and their artistic life. But more than just focusing on the fellows’ writing, we want to provide them the foundations for the business of books and demystify the publishing industry.”
Jackson’s passion for writing stems from his time at Taft, where he found a home in the English Department. “I loved the minds that were in that department and just wanted to soak up as much as I could,” he says. “And outside of the class- room, I wrote poetry, loved reading, and formed a rap group called Split Second with my friends Doug Profenius ’11 and Louie Reed ’11. We even converted one of our closets into a makeshift studio.”
He carried this love of language with him when he enrolled at Trinity College, majoring in political science with a minor in English, and then on to Columbia. Jackson used his time in graduate school not only to hone his writing but also to think about the impact he wanted to have on the world. “I started looking into industries that aligned with the things that I’m interested in, particularly literature and publishing,” he says. “That’s how I landed at PEN America, which stands at the intersection of literature and human rights.”
Most recently, Jackson helped organize the 2021 World Voices Festival, PEN’s largest annual event, which typically encompasses 50 different events across New York City (though this year’s installment was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic). “We bring in writers and activists from around the world and put them together to try to find common ground while engaging in honest discussions,” he says. “After a year in which we experienced so much division, the festival tried to celebrate writers and thinkers who exemplify resilience, courage, and radical imagination—and to encourage the kinds of vital discussions that challenge us, make us think deeper, and maybe even reconsider our stances.”
Outside of his work with PEN, Jackson volunteers with a creative writing program, LiveWrite, teaching (virtually, because of the pandemic) in New York City jails on Rikers Island. Additionally, Jackson is gaining recognition as a writer in his own right, and is represented by Meredith Kaffel Simonoff of Manhattan’s DeFiore and Company. In September 2020, The Yale Review published his debut short story, “Blanca,” and in June, another of his works made its way into the pages of Guernica. Both pieces will appear in Locals, his forthcoming debut book. “It will be a collection of nine to 10 stories that follow adolescents in different neighborhoods throughout Hartford,” he explains. “I had some of the fondest moments of my life growing up in Hartford. It can be a rough city, but it’s also a beautiful city, and I wanted to reflect that on the page. I really wanted to be particular about the young people I was portraying, who experience life in a working-class way that’s both tragic and wonderous.”
For Jackson, writing has become much more than a pastime, or even a career: “Writing is really rewriting, and I try to do revision in my life every day,” he points out. “It provides me an opportunity to reevaluate my thoughts, my ideas, my convictions, and I think that is essential in our world today.”
—Christopher Browner ’12