The survival of Saeed Jones

Andy Downing
Saeed Jones

Saeed Jones wanted his family to read his debut memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives. Or most of it, at least.

“I sent the book to my grandmother, my Uncle Albert and my Aunt Celia before it went to galley phase. I wanted to make sure that before it was with booksellers or librarians or whoever that my family … could read the book and we could have a conversation if they wanted to have a conversation,” said Jones, whose unflinching memoir traces his formative years growing up a young, gay black man through to the 2011 death of his mother. “I tried to be very tactical, so I included a note that said, ‘The sections involving the family and mom are at the beginning and end of the book. You do not have to read the middle section. Don’t waste your time. I know you’re busy people.’ But of course everybody read the whole damn book.

“My grandma, she liked it. … She was like, ‘The way you wrote about your mother at the end was very beautiful.’ And I was I like, ‘OK, we did it.’ Then she was like, ‘The beginning brought back a lot of memories,’ and that was it, which is the world for us. Then she was like, ‘I don’t know if this is the word, but the middle is kind of… raunchy.’ It was funny and fine, but, still, to be like, ‘My grandma read the Botanist section? Oh, noooo.’”

Even Jones had some reservation about detailing his initial college-era sexual encounter with an older white man introduced only as the Botanist, going so far as to try and erase the experience as he puts pen to paper years after the fact, writing in How We Fight, “As I write, I want to pull myself out of him and out of that room.”

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Ultimately, though, Jones decided that excising some of the more inelegant details of his biography could be viewed as lies of omission. “And because so much of my identity was a lie of omission during the years I’m writing about,” he said, “I think it was important for me … to try as best I could to show the full compass.”

How We Fight, released today, Oct. 8, opens in Lewisville, Texas, in May 1998, and closes in Barcelona, Spain, in September 2011. But more recently, Jones, a Memphis-born poet and the former LGBT editor and Culture editor for BuzzFeed, moved to Columbus, settling in the Short North in early September. Jones had visited Columbus on two previous occasions, first in 2012 for a poetry reading, and then again in October 2018 on assignment for BuzzFeed, a trip that sparked his decision to relocate.

“I just felt like America was loud and New York was loud — and expensive — and working in media was really, really loud,” Jones said. “It was becoming hard for me to think, and I know that because when I moved here poetry came back to me, and now I’m writing poems again.”

Early in How We Fight, Jones recounts first telling his mother that he was gay in the spring of 2005, going on to describe the conversation as halted, stopping just short of where it needed to go. “I realized I had not come out to her as myself,” he writes. As the years pass and the geographical miles pile up, Jones gradually allows this fuller coming out to take place within the memoir.  

The book largely unfolds in chronological order, though sometimes events send Jones spinning backward through his childhood, particularly after his mother is hospitalized, which the writer described as a natural function of memory, where recollections arrive in uncontrollable waves.

“When my mom goes into the hospital you really see time collapse, and it’s the past and the present and everything kind of going at once,” Jones said. “The book is doing that throughout in a more subtle way. That’s how we think, and although the book is a memoir, and it’s obviously prose, that’s where my mind is as a poet, on all these unexpected associations and the emotions that can rise up. You don’t just have a memory randomly. We react to it. It acts upon us. And I wanted to capture the way our memories and desires and anxieties — a lot of anxieties — the way they’re always with us. They’re that passenger with us as we’re making our way across the landscape.”

At times, these anxieties reveal themselves in Jones’ awareness of death, which he traces back through adolescence. From a young age, the writer knew he was gay, a word that, at the time to Jones, was synonymous with AIDS, which was synonymous with death. These fears were deepened by events such as the 1998 murders of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming, and James Byrd, Jr., a black man murdered by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, roughly 400 miles from where Jones grew up. “Just as some cultures have a hundred words for ‘snow,’” Jones writes, “there should be a hundred words in our language for all the ways a black boy can lie awake at night.”

As the book progresses, Jones experiences his own brushes with death, first in a car accident, and then, in one of the book’s more harrowing sections, at the hands of a random man he meets at a New Year’s Eve house party in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2007. As the evening winds down, Jones returns to the home of the man, dubbed Daniel, where the sexual encounter rapidly takes a more violent turn, Daniel slamming Jones’ head into the ground and pummeling him so ferociously that the writer is initially unable to do little more than “watch the storm.”

In the aftermath, Jones set to writing as a means of survival, attacking the page with a ferocity reminiscent of his Twitter handle (@theferocity), often working until the crescent-moon bruise Daniel’s bite left on his thumb started to throb and then continuing on until eventually it subsided.

“Writing is how I process trauma — even as I was like, ‘It’s not trauma. I’m OK,’” Jones said. “I think I have this flawed idea that if I can write about something then I’m OK. … It was somewhat similar when my mom passed away. One, I think it just gave me something to do, but it also helps me organize my thoughts and create a sense of order, and, yeah, a sense of recording.”

The essays and poems and journal entries that emerged in the aftermath of his mother’s 2011 death gradually became the seed for a larger memoir exploring Jones’ upbringing and the complexities of his relationship with the various women who raised and shaped him, particularly the things that tended to be left unsaid. Around that time, Jones quit his job teaching, abetted by money from his mom’s life insurance policy (in the memoir he describes his discomfort at receiving the large sum “bought and paid for with her life”), unable to do anything but linger in his grief and write.

“Writing was really the only thing I could do well,” he said. “I would forget to eat, or I would sleep until two o’ clock and then just sit on the living room couch. But if I had a writing goal in mind, whether a poem or very vague iterations of these chapters, that was something I was able to be very cogent and present for at a time when everything else felt very up for grabs.”

There were various points in time when Jones thought the memoir was complete. The first time occurred in August a few years ago when he was living in New York. Jones wrote the book’s last line and then walked in celebration from 151st Street to Columbus Circle, which is at 59th Street, forgoing headphones to take in all the sights and sounds, which, in that moment, had never felt quite so alive. Ultimately, he’d spend another two years writing, editing and finessing the material for publication.

As Jones worked, he considered issues of identity, what it meant to embrace his full self and the question of whether that was even possible within our society.

“Throughout the book, what you often see … is me intuiting from the culture which parts of myself I’m allowed to take into a room,” he said. “I’m one way with my mom, one way in school, one way with my grandmother, one way with these men. … Obviously there’s a queer aspect to that that’s unique to my sexuality and identity, but I think it’s also something that’s true for a lot of us. I think we, for a lot of different reasons, sever ourselves to make it through spaces and situations that we don’t feel we can totally be ourselves in. And sometimes that’s been made explicit. There are moments in American history where Jim Crow signs would literally tell you, or if you’re sitting in a room and you see a MAGA cap, that might influence how you behave in that space. But I think more often we come to these conclusions accurately or inaccurately ourselves and decide, ‘This part of me won’t be loved here.’"

"And you see, over the course of the book, that there’s a cost to [those decisions] that accumulates with interest," Jones continued. “So, yes, I wanted to write about Saeed Jones from this year to this year, but also the broader cultural idea of ‘this is what oppression does to us.’ It’s not really about how I fought for my life. It’s about how we fight for our lives.”