In the midst of America’s identity reflecting itself through politics and pop culture, Saeed Jones’s new memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, illustrates an experience of American life that is rarely talked about yet commonly lived. The book focuses the life of a queer Black boy from the South, and how the lack of conversation in America shaped the experiences of his youth, personal development, education, and sexuality into a battle of survival.
How We Fight for Our Lives is influenced heavily by place, as the locations and setting Saeed finds himself in inform many of his decisions: his hometown of Lewisville, Texas; his time spent in Bowling Green, Kentucky during college; a beach in Barcelona, Spain. And then there’s the equally important influence of Jones’s mother.
Jones, a Pushcart Prize-winning author, grew up in Lewisville, Texas, attended college at Western Kentucky University, and later earned his MFA at Rutgers University. His accomplishments also include his debut poetry collection, When the Only Light Is Fire (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2011) and his second collection, Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House Press, 2014). Jones is a winner of The Joyce Osterwell Award for Poetry from the PEN Literary Awards, the Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Award for Literature, and was a nominee for the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry.
Recently, I spoke with Jones about his approach toward writing a memoir, silence in America, and how it affects queer identities.
The Rumpus: I’m going to start with the prelude of the book, which is a poem. It sets the tone for the entirety of your memoir. How did you decide to put such a powerful poem about your mother at the beginning?
Saeed Jones: Patricia Smith, who is a longtime mentor of mine, wanted to have a poetry reading and party in Minneapolis built around Prince. She asked people to write poems about Prince. I started writing consciously, the earliest iterations of the book, or chapters, I should say, about a year or so after my mom passed away. My relationship to Prince was totally through my mom, and it came together. It was one of those things that happened very quickly, and I think sometimes when that happens the poems are in some way even more candid—more honest in a way.
I had this poem with me that meant a lot, and it’s different than a lot of my other poetry. It was just minding its own business out in the world. Then I got further and further into working on the book, thinking about how to introduce it to the world. Every now and then I thought, Do I want to actually, explicitly, intentionally, introduce poems into the book? As my mom became an important part of the book, it suddenly felt right. It felt like a keyhole that came into formation, and the poem had always been the key.
Rumpus: It definitely sets the tone for sure.
Jones: It gets you ready for what you need to start paying attention to from the very beginning. There are cues and little moments that might not resonate in the same way if you don’t know where we’re going.
Rumpus: Typically in the genre of memoir, there’s the perception that one should be older. I feel that a lot of young people—and especially young queer people—have stories and experiences to share. What’s your idea of writing a memoir at “young” age?
Jones: This has come up a lot in the years that I’ve been writing the book. People have asked, What is the book? I say It’s a memoir, and they ask, Aren’t you a little young? That question—and that response—came from all types of people, and I thought that was interesting. I think it says a lot more about our culture and our understanding not just of the memoir form, but of our perception and understanding of the value of younger people to speak to the culture, to speak back to the culture. I think there’s a bit of this idea that the stories aren’t valuable unless they’re coming from some sort of authority. This authority is granted to us in different ways, and one of those ways is to be a certain age, or you have a certain kind of career, or whatever.
The kind of memoir that I’m very interested in is a memoir that exists to answer a question. The book is literally an answer to a question: How do we fight for our lives? This is how I learned to fight for mine. This is how my mother fought for hers. This is what I learned about us fighting alongside one another. If you feel passionately enough, and certainly at the point that you have mentors, colleagues, agents, and other people who also believe that you know how to engage the question you’re pursuing, you should be writing that book. If you can’t do it, it becomes apparent very quickly, as writing a memoir is very hard.
Rumpus: In memoir writing you have to take the full scope of your life and put it into defining moments. What patterns do you see now throughout your writing that you feel might be defining moments?
Jones: I love that as a question, I do. I’ve been thinking so much about Toni Morrison in the last week. I’m probably always thinking a great deal about Toni Morrision, but certainly since she passed away, it occured to me that Sula was a very influential character. There’s also reference in How We Fight for Our Lives to James Baldwin’s Another Country, and Rufus, its main character. Both Rufus and Sula are incredibly difficult, troubled, and troubling.
Rumpus: Like a lot of Toni Morrison’s characters.
Jones: Yes! Only last week, when I was asked what I’ve been thinking [about] Morrison’s characters, is when I realized how much I draw to both of them. They’re wonderful on the page, but would I want to be friends with Rufus? Hell no. But I love them. I was a college student on the verge of becoming one of those people myself; someone who is drowning and very difficult to rescue, and at that point he doesn’t necessarily want to be rescued. It’s not a tragedy because, of course, I survived.
I realize now, in retrospect, a lot of that influence comes from how strongly I feel drawn to characters like Sula Peace and Rufus in the books I was reading as a teenager because I had never seen that on the page before. I hadn’t seen them written. I hadn’t seen them written well by figures I knew, even as a preteen, who were regarded as literary giants. I think it’s still somewhat rare to see these kind of characters on the page. [For example] Annalise Keating on How to Get Away with Murder. Black, contemporary-for-their-time characters that are just as complicated as any white character we see.
Rumpus: Another theme I saw throughout your writing was silence. Do you recognize that as a recurring theme? Where can other writers grow in silence?
Jones: I think the power, and sometimes violence, of silence is an important theme in the book. It manifests in the book. It is at times very corrosive. When I got accepted into NYU, and was very excited, I immediately plunged into the turmoil of figuring out if [my mother and I could] afford this dream. It was really wearing us out. Especially my mother, who has always valued taking care of herself. There was one period where I began noticing her forgetting to get her hair done, or her nails starting to look chipped. This was unusual, but no one said anything. They didn’t talk about it, and there were so many instances of that.
What’s interesting is how that silence both reflects my own personal history but also the way our country works. How else can we explain our country’s ongoing relationship to guns, mass shootings, and then the inability, and unwillingness, to change except to our relationship to the silence. Shootings happen damn near every day—sometimes twice a day, in the same day. We know the cycles. I don’t even have to tell you, but I think an important part of that cycle is the cycle of silence, the silence it feels like we go back into either because we can’t wait for people to shut up, we’re exhausted, or just truly hurt and unable to keep doing this.
The silence is also such an important part of American culture as rape culture, which manifests in the book in different ways, as much as the relationship between masculinity, violence, and power. When I set out to write the book I didn’t think, I’m going to talk about silence. It was certainly one of those things that just kind of developed. I’m really grateful that I was able to spend more time thinking and writing about it.
Rumpus: How We Fight for Our Lives has a lot of sexual scenes, and instances of you exploring… other people’s hurt manifesting through sex. They were very cutting and poignant in a lot of ways that can be relatable as a queer person, or any kind of minority. I feel like this specifically stood out for me in the book, and is so well written. How do you make those realizations stand out as you’re writing them? What was your method in doing that?
Jones: All of those scenes have been revised something like a hundred times. At this point, they have gone through so many iterations trying to get it right. Every time I was writing about sex, the act was secondary to whatever the sex was being used to accomplish. Which is to say, particularly when we’re younger, and coming out. This is very true of my generation. In writing about particularly those earlier encounters, I think the reality is what was on my mind. More than wanting to have sex, I wanted to find someone who was like me. It was really important to find someone else who felt that way, even if it was just for a few moments, to forget the world and all of its troubles for just a few moments. Sex was a way to do that, so often it’s not about intercourse at all.
It’s really about using another person to do something, to figure out something, to trick ourselves out of something. Isn’t that about power? Isn’t that what we’re really talking about? Using another person to create a feeling, or an idea, or a perception—that’s a power dynamic. The sex becomes the means to do that, and I think that was important for me in the book because I believe in that idea. I think that is an important aspect of how sex works in this country, consensual or not. There’s a lot of sex in the book. There was even more [before editing]… There was so much, and there were intentional nods in that scene with the darkness. That’s why I paused the scene for a moment, and nod to the fact that it is a fucked-up dynamic. These moments are not especially unique, except that they exist in this landscape of people doing the same things. That’s why I talk about it.
Rumpus: I felt like this memoir read like fiction. It was also relatable in its self-exploration. Everybody has flaws. I feel like what How We Fight for Our Lives does is make the reader reflect, like, Hey, my stories aren’t as crazy as people would possibly shame me for. What do you expect or hope the reader will take away from How We Fight for Our Lives?
Jones: I tried as much as possible not to think about those kinds of questions when I was writing the book because it can begin to feel like you’re writing a book in the middle of a football stadium. All these people would look at you. I think now that I have finished it, something that is important to me—an idea that is important to me—is that people understand that our lives are a fight. That fight is not about violence. The fight is about our willingness to do what is necessary to keep living, and that of course manifests in so many ways. I think for me, looking at younger Saeed, there’s such ambivalence in different moments about the willingness to live. I think that comes from the arrogance of youth, of not fully appreciating the value of one’s own life. What do you have to lose if you don’t know what you’re losing?
Also, I think it’s coming from an intuitive understanding of the peril which I was born into. Which is to say this country, and feeling very lonely about it, because as you see in the book those moments, unfortunately, we aren’t able to say, “Let’s have this warm heart to heart conversation where I bear my soul, and you bear your soul, and we can talk through it together.” Sometimes we’re not able to do that. In the book there are more instances of that because of differences in my sexuality, or when I’m in college, differences in education. That difference comes into play and it becomes more and more difficult for me to be able to connect with other people and open up to them. I just felt like America is so lethal, and somewhat hopeless. I think when we feel that way, and we don’t feel like we can confide in someone we trust and talk about it… you see where it can lead, and where it has led me. How We Fight for Our Lives gets people to understand why loneliness—or rather isolation, either self-imposed, or culturally imposed—is so dangerous. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. We are not enough to make it in this life, whatever resources we have, we as individuals cannot get through this alone. At some point, we have to have a connection with other people that we can support and be supported by, and that’s really important. The idea is very clear that we’re not the only ones fighting. That’s why isolation is such a cruel joke. We’re never the only ones fighting for our lives. Everybody is. Whether it’s done in the soft sense or the generic way, we’re all fighting, every single one of us.
Rumpus: How do you feel like the South has informed your writing? The South has a very brutal history, but also a warmth in language, throughout How We Fight for Our Lives.
Jones: I think it’s very apparent in how I decided to open the book. My relationship to place when you read my work [is that] I always try to situate my writing in a place. I don’t especially like writing to exist in this vast white space that can be anywhere. I want to be grounded. I want to ground the language because I think it puts the reader into reality… To me, it begins with place, and I need to put your feet on the ground to do that. So many of my relationships are place. The most vivid place I have ever lived in the world is the American South, and the book takes you all over it. Constantly all over the South, and then later, all over the country, and then later the world. That relationship, the heat, the humidity, the greenness, the flora of the South, is really important to me and I was fortunate enough to spend time outside, to be out in the sun all day and then be back for dinner. You develop an appreciation for all that, and spending time with [neighborhood kids] Cody and Sam, for example.
There was a different expectation for how kids were supposed to use their free time. But also it’s pretty dangerous, walking into that beautiful forest and then very quickly realizing there were cacti hidden under the grass because sometimes cacti can grow flat, and you could just stand on it, or mesquite trees having these thorns, or foxgloves which are beautiful but poisonous. It seemed like a pretty spitting metaphor for the South, which is this beautiful, warm hospitable kind of culture, but there are so many thorns that are as much a part of it as the beauty. That metaphor isn’t just about the flora and fauna. It’s how I began to make sense of the culture itself. As writers, we’re not alone, or the only person that has written a damn book. You’re not the only person who has written a book about race or the South, and so it’s nice to be able to nod and gesture toward those ideas and understand that a reader will connect to that, and understand it.
Rumpus: I feel that’s another very human survival tactic—that even if we don’t know it, we’re attracted to other people who will help us along in our survival. It’s not like we look at people and we know, but we do know, unknowingly. That was one of the lessons in the book that stood out to me most. At the end of the day, even if we don’t know how we’re going to survive, we’re going to survive through other people. What do you have to say in general about How We Fight for Our Lives, as a statement to other writers, and to readers?
Jones: I am deeply grateful. It is a mindfuck to write about your own life in the memoir form… Hundred of pages about things that happened to you, and then actually write it to publish it… to have it become an artifact that you are discussing. You put yourself in the position of talking about yourself in third person. Although I love this form, we are our own unreliable narrator and I tried as best I could to point to that… I can’t pretend to be this omniscient narrator. [There is] arrogance, and narcissism, and self-delusion. There are so many traps that make the form very bizarre. I’m kind of overwhelmed to, in the end, be able to write a book that I’m very proud of. I’m proud of the book I wrote. It is a book I want to read. I wanted to write a book of literary merit, of cultural accuracy, and I think I’ve been able to do that. I’m grateful for the opportunity. I have an appreciation for all the people who were fighting alongside me, and appreciation for the people willing to reach out and support me, even strangers like Esther, and certainly loved ones like my mother. I have such deep appreciation for friends, colleagues, and peers, and the readers, and the booksellers, the people here who are all doing something together, which is making a place on the bookshelf for stories like mine. I am not the book. The book is not my physical self; you have a retelling of a very specific part of my life with a very specific intention. Had I had a different question to pursue, it would have been a different story… I’m grateful that I’ve been able to tell the story the way I’ve been wanting to tell it, and to be here with all of you.
Photograph of Saeed Jones by Jon Premosch.