As How We Fight for Our Lives is Saeed Jones' biography, it is a unique narrative of the events that shaped him.
However, it's also a story packed with elements that profoundly connect him to poetry, to every black person that came before him in this country, and to many of us who grew up dreaming of a chance at upward social mobility through education that we couldn't afford. Extremely personal, emotionally gritty, and unabashedly honest, How We Fight for Our Lives is an outstanding memoir that somehow manages a perfect balance between love and violence, hope and hostility, transformation and resentment.
Jones was born in Memphis, Tenn., and grew up in Lewisville, Texas. From there he moved to Kentucky to earn a BA at Western Kentucky University and then on to New Jersey to pursue an MFA at Rutgers University-Newark. Despite the changing backgrounds, the core of his life remained the same: his mother; his family; his passion for words; and his sexuality. Jones knew he was gay at an early age, but finding himself and developing the strength to show his true self to the world took years. His memoir highlights that he was painfully aware of how discrimination, homophobia, and racism work in this country, how they contaminate everything, and that made him cognizant of the possible consequences of being an openly gay black man. The struggles that he faced and the journey he embarked on to find and (re)define his identity after every major change are the heart of this book. And it's a wild heart full of need — and one desperate to communicate its humanity with the world.
While most biographies tend to focus on who a person is, Jones is equally concerned with the process we each go through when trying to find our self. He knows his story belongs only to him, but he recognizes it exists in a spectrum that stretches back into the past and is in communion with everything that preceded it. He also knows that certain events are almost inevitable and that finding the "I" in ourselves can be a painful, destructive activity:
"People don't just happen. We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us. The 'I' it seems doesn't exist until we are able to say, 'I am no longer yours.' My grandmother and I, without knowing it, were faithfully following a script that had already been written for us. A woman raises a boy into a man, loving him so intensely that her commitment finally repulses him."
In How We Fight for Our Lives Jones fights to survive a system known to keep single mothers down. He fights to be himself freely in a world where angry men attack gay men without reason. He fights to survive and , once he realizes survival isn't always up to him, he fights to thrive, to make everything he does count. Jones fights like death is breathing down his neck because he knows it is:
"Being black can get you killed.
Being gay can get you killed.
Being a black gay boy is a death wish."
This is a touching, heartfelt memoir that isn't afraid to delve deep into the darkest corners of familial drama and violent, racially charged sexual encounters. How We Fight for Our Lives, much like the man who wrote it, is full of fear but also brave enough to overcome that fear with sheer will. After starting college, Jones got his first taste of true freedom, and the occasion was the start of something new:
"The ferocity with which I seized upon my newfound sense of freedom occasionally baffled friends and classmates. And sometimes it seemed to grate on them, to push them away. Now and then, I got the sense that it was one thing on campus to be an out gay man and another to be an out gay man who liked to have sex..."
While there is a lot to unpack here, there is also a lot to celebrate. Jones writes with the confidence of a veteran novelist and the flare of an accomplished poet. In every event there is truth, which he chronicles and shares, but there is also the possibility of a beautiful phrase, and he always delivers:
"Every time I met a man for sex, a new name blossomed in my mouth like a flower I could pull out from between my parted lips and hand to the stranger standing in front of me."
How We Fight for Our Lives is about tenacity and strength. It is the story of a man who lost a mother who was a force of nature and whom readers will grow to love and respect. This is an important coming-of-age story that's also a collection of tiny but significant joys. More importantly, it's a narrative that cements Jones as a new literary star — and a book that will give many an injection of hope.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.