The advance buzz on Saeed Jones’ memoir has been rapturous. “Masterful,” wrote Kirkus Review. “A rhapsody,” said literary star Roxane Gay. But for Jones, the celebration is tinged with pain.
“I’m living a dream come true, but at what cost?” the award-winning poet said by phone. “Sometimes, it’s almost paralyzing.”
“How We Fight for Our Lives,” which comes out Tuesday and brings Jones to Minneapolis the following day for a Talking Volumes event, details his coming of age as a gay black man in suburban Dallas.
In candid and lyrical language, he relates how he struggled to come to terms with a world that wanted to put him in a box. He shares stories of poverty and ignorance and perilous scrapes that end in flashes of light, if not quite redemption. (Read an excerpt here.)
“By now, I knew the ins and outs of names that were not mine and how to wear them like bodies,” he writes about a particularly torrid chapter of his youth. “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.”
And he shares vignettes about his mother, who raised him as a single parent — and left him with an unexpected, life-transforming bequest. (Read a review here.)
A poet at heart
Jones, 33, broke into the public imagination through poetry.
His debut collection, 2014’s “Prelude to Bruise,” published by Minneapolis’ Coffee House Press, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Stonewall Book Award/Barbara Gittings Literature Award. (One of his mentors, poet Patricia Smith, introduced him to Coffee House.)
Turn to almost any page in the slender, 190-page memoir, and you get swept up in the language, even if the stories he tells are sometimes harrowing.
Much like a slave narrative, “How We Fight” is imbued with a sense of wonder that Jones somehow managed to survive all this. Along with the youthful naiveté and ignorance, there’s an undercurrent of grace.
Jones recounts an episode when he was 12 or 13. Two friends, Cody and Sam — both white and both homophobic — humiliated him.
Jones chased them through their apartment complex, waving a baseball bat. He had no idea how dangerous such an act might be for a young black male.
“I’m thinking of Tamir Rice, who was 12 years old and who did nothing wrong except to be black with a toy in his hand,” said Jones, invoking the name of the Cleveland boy shot to death by a police officer in 2014. “Kids deserve to be naive about the perils they face. They have to know what it is be young and innocent.”
Jones lives in Ohio now, in the state capital of Columbus, after years of living in New York. There he worked at the digital media company BuzzFeed for six years, rising to become executive culture editor.
Why Columbus? “I just want to try living someplace else for a little bit,” he said.
“Clearly, the idea of New York, not just as a place but as cultural center of ideas and an international crossroads — that’s always going to be part of my life. But as someone who’s a little older now and has seen more of the world, I’m less attached to the idea that if I’m not living in New York, I’m not fulfilling my destiny.”
Self-discovery in books
“How We Fight” starts in adolescence and ends in 2011, when Jones was in his mid-20s and his mother was succumbing to cancer. In between are trips to the library, spells at college and experiences that show a young man widening his knowledge of the world and himself.
The library became an early haven. Literature was “the one part of my life that never invited constant peril,” he said.
There he discovered touchstones of gay liberation, including James Baldwin’s 1956 novel “Giovanni’s Room” and the poems and essays of Audre Lorde. Later, he was drawn to Sarah Schulman’s “Ties That Bind,” a study of homophobia within families.
The world has changed since the tales he recounts in “How We Fight for Our Lives.”
“If I were 10 years younger, there’d probably be dating in high school in it,” Jones said. “But this is me capturing this in-between generation.”
That’s not to say things are hunky-dory for members of the LGBTQIA community, he said.
“The progression has been from being in the closet to tolerance to same-sex marriage. With tolerance, you are this thing that someone tolerates. With marriage equality, you are accepted into this space, but even then it’s about someone having the power to admit you.
“Now, I don’t know where we are, but when people talk about being allies, it sounds like we’re standing on the same plane.”
His own family has mirrored that progression. Jones is close to his mother’s relatives, who have been open and supportive. Still, “it’s not like everyone’s showing up with books on queer theory or want to take me to a drag show.”
Mother’s Day weekend is fraught for Jones because that’s the anniversary of the death of his mother, who worked for Delta Air Lines.
For years, Carol Sweet-Jones struggled to pay bills — all the while keeping up payments on a life insurance policy that Jones learned about only after her death.
“A few months before she died, I had agonized over whether I could afford to give my mother the $800 she had asked for to help her fix her car,” Jones writes. “I finally did after a co-worker reminded me, ‘You only have one mother.’ My mother was gone now and, in her stead, I had a check worth more money than either of us had seen in our lives. A cruel joke.”
This year’s holiday, though, was even more emotional because of a phone call from his mother’s sister.
Aunt Celia had read the memoir manuscript — Jones sent it to select family members — and was deeply moved. She zeroed in on a passage about his college years when he was involved with a sadistic bigot who almost killed him.
“We talked for a couple of hours, and at one point she said, ‘Saeed, I think that was a suicide attempt.’ I had never said that out loud, but I absolutely agreed.
“What a thing to have a family member say and so clearly honor what you feel.”