In Saeed Jones' blunt and candid memoir, "How We Fight for Our Lives," violence surges and recedes like a chronic ache. As Jones progresses from childhood to adulthood, the violence he experiences is physical, emotional and spiritual. Sometimes the violence coexists with familial love or friendship or sex, and sometimes it is rooted in hate and arrives like a warning.
Jones recalls a moment in 2002, when he would have been around 16 years old. A play about Matthew Shepard came to his suburban Dallas high school, and thoughts of the hate that provoked Shepard's gruesome death exhumed the memory of James Byrd Jr., a black man who was killed by white supremacists the same year Shepard was killed. For Jones, who is black and gay, the Shepard play had specific urgency. He sat among his classmates, harboring a secret, emotionless, worried he'd out himself as gay if he showed any reaction. Jones felt completely alone as he realized, "Being black can get you killed. Being gay can get you killed. Being a black gay boy is a death wish."
"How We Fight for Our Lives," a finalist for the prestigious Kirkus Prize, is divided into four parts, and Part Three is devoted to Jones' college years. From suburban Dallas, he matriculated at Western Kentucky University, where he excelled in speech and debate and creative writing. In college, Jones' sexual orientation found comparative acceptance, and his sexual appetites immediately enjoyed ample opportunity for satiation. The chapters in Part Three are, by turns, titillating and sad, but Jones' presentation is always straightforward and unflinching.
Part Four is about the death of Jones' mother. He chronicles her death in a way that is specific and sincere. As he describes her last days, the book itself transforms into a conversation with his mother. In preparing to say goodbye, Jones remembers her fully — her beauty, her persistence, her sacrifices, their emotional toll, the aspects of their relationship that were wonderful and those that were difficult. Eventually, the title, "How We Fight for Our Lives," takes on additional layers of meaning. Readers who enter the last section understanding the "We" of the title to mean black people and queer people will realize who else is fighting and how and why.
Jones tends to avoid sentimentality and nostalgia in favor of a matter-of-fact approach, but the memoir is infused with an emotional energy that only authenticity can provide. Some dreams are deferred while others are realized. There are moments of devastating ugliness and moments of ecstatic joy. Readers may find themselves loving the fighters and hating that they're required to fight. In the final pages, as Jones holds hands with an unlikely dinner companion many miles from home, what remains is lovely and melancholy and, like the rest of the story, if not ideal, apt.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a St. Paul-based poet and essayist.