How We Fight for Our Lives
(Simon & Schuster, 2019)
In How We Fight for Our Lives Saeed Jones tells his gripping, deeply personal story of growing up Black and gay, raised by a single mother as they struggle to build their lives. I finished Jones’s memoir in two sittings, unable to put the work down, the poetic prose drawing me in right from the very first paragraph. Jones is the author of Prelude to Bruise (2014), a critically-acclaimed book of poetry, so it’s no surprise that his memoir would include some of that same lyricism. The memoir begins with a depiction of summer, detailed and evocative, as Jones writes, “Day after day of my t-shirt sticking to the sweat on my lower back, the smell of insect repellant gone slick with sunscreen, the air droning with the hum of cicadas, dead yellow grass cracking under every footstep, asphalt bubbling on the roads.”
Jones takes us through his childhood and adolescence, through feelings of shame and sadness, through incidents in which he learns he would never belong or find peace within certain groups and social circles. The story draws you in as he talks about his relationship with his evangelical grandmother and how her beliefs contrast with the Buddhist beliefs of his mother. Jones’s story becomes particularly heartbreaking in the ways he discusses his mother, her struggle to understand his sexuality, and the sacrifices she makes for him as a single mother. As the memoir progresses, we learn of his mother’s heart condition, which gets progressively worse as time goes on, and as readers, we can only hope for the best, knowing the worst is on its way.
One thing Jones also does fabulously is show readers the contrasting sides of himself. At home, he is son to a sick mother. Although he eventually comes out to her, he keeps his sexuality somewhat hidden. While his mother accepts him, expressing her love and adding, “If you’re happy, I’m happy,” she never really knows him, and Jones adds, “I had come out to my mother as a gay man, but within minutes, I realized I had not come out to her as myself.” As readers, we understand this sentiment immediately, for away from home, Jones is a different person—someone his mother never gets to really see.
Jones describes the secret life he was leading, floating from one sexual encounter to the next, and the details and stories contrast sharply with his life as a devoted son and diligent student. He seeks out often dangerous, debasing encounters—one with a man that nearly kills him and another recurring encounter with a white man he calls “the Botanist,” who fetishizes and debases him for his Blackness. Jones writes, “It wasn’t enough to hate myself, I wanted to hear it. On all fours with this awful man was the only way I could sever the divide between how wrecked I felt on the inside and how put together and dependable I appeared.” Jones brings the reader into these intimate encounters with a stunning sense of visualization, and he reflects on those incidents with surprising clarity and self-awareness.
Scenes of sex and violence contrast heavily with scenes of family love and polite conversation, and the chapters appear back to back before we even have a chance to process certain events. Jones hides parts of himself so well, and the way the events take place in this memoir, he shows us that he had become a fully divided person. When his mother asks him what he did on New Year’s, he doesn’t tell her about his sexual encounter with the man who subsequently tries to kill him. Instead, he simply says, “I went to a house party … A lot of people came.” He hangs up and tells the reader, “I could see a dark blue crescent-moon bruise rising under the skin where Daniel had bit me. I went to the bathroom three times to throw up … The memory started in my kneecaps then raced through me, lighting up every single ache, scrape, and bruise my body had endured.” Jones keeps those memories locked away, hiding that part of himself entirely.
How We Fight for Our Lives is a lyrically beautiful work, deeply personal and honest in its storytelling. Jones does a remarkable job of drawing the reader in and showing us what it means to fight for one’s life. It’s also an important book in its centering of both queerness and Blackness and is just what we need in today’s society.