Saeed Jones’s first book, Prelude to Bruise, won several awards for poetry when it was published six years ago. Now he has published a memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, which tells the story of growing from a young, gay boy scared of what he was feeling into a man who accepts it. How We Fight won the Lambda Literary award for best gay memoir/biography in 2020.
The book covers 1998 through 2011, age 12 to 25, from when Saeed has his first real inkling that he is gay until his mother dies of a heart condition. As a child, Jones reads his mother’s books, including James Baldwin’s Another Country, with “men kissing men, then kissing women, then kissing men again.” He goes to the library in search of answers, concealing a book about being gay inside another title in case anyone should see him. He has a crush on his friend, who figures out what’s going on and calls him a faggot; he has sex with an older man in the library restroom.
In high school, he joins the debate team. He gets a debate scholarship to Western Kentucky University, where he oscillates between playing straight and “throwing shade.” He goes on his “first real date with a guy [his] age”; he has sex, sometimes violent, with various men; and eventually he comes out to his mother. All the while he is writing poetry, and he graduates from Kentucky to an MFA program at Rutgers to teaching ninth-grade English in Newark.
The facts, thus told, are often sad but not for the most part remarkable. What is remarkable is what Jones does with them, bringing a poet’s touch to prose in the tradition of Dylan Thomas, whose “Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street.”
Jones’s writing is less sensual and more psychoanalytical than Thomas’s. On going back into the closet in college: “It shouldn’t have been that easy to un-become myself. The lies and omissions started to roll off my tongue… I began meeting people’s eyes, shaking their hands confidently, and introducing a person who I wasn’t exactly, all while smiling.” As I know myself, it is that easy. How many times have I “un-become” myself from moment to moment, allowing my “lies and omissions” to portray me not the way I want to, but the way I think other people think I should?
But he is very capable of capturing the feel of an experience as well. In the car with his uncle, after witnessing his mother have a seizure in her hospital bed: “Back in his SUV, a city blurred on the other side of the window… Sitting in the backseat, I could feel it begin: the outlines of my silhouette beginning to crumble and come apart, the color of my skin and then the flesh itself pooling out like ink dropped into clear water, all swirls and eddies. I was turning into fog.” Most of us have experienced this state of mind, too, in one form or other: Not the city, but a city—any city; the fog is placeless and timeless, things happen, decisions are made, all in a blur.
Perhaps How We Fight drew me in so deeply because some features of Jones’s story remind me so much of my own: look for answers in books, collecting rocks, stuttering and mumbling. Not that I can pretend to know what it is like to grow up in Jones’s world—African-American, single mother, Texas—any more than I can Bryan Washington’s in Lot. But Lot is at heart about what happened to Nicolás and the others, whereas How We Fight is much more about what Saeed was thinking and feeling as things happened. And I’ve spent many hours thinking about similar things.
Saeed Jones: How We Fight for Our Lives (Simon & Schuster, 2019) · Dylan Thomas: A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1952) · Illustration cropped from Walter Shirlaw (1838–1909), “Studies of Bathers,” Metropolitan Museum of Art/public domain