The World According to Saeed Jones

Emma Frankart Henterly
Saeed Jones in the Short North

Saeed Jones is many things, but perhaps above all he is an observer. He likes to sit at the desk in his Short North apartment and look out the window, examining the scenes below as he examined his own life in his memoir, “How We Fight for Our Lives,” which was released in paperback this summer after a wildly successful debut last year. “I’m a writer; I write,” Jones says. “I use language to hopefully make positive connections. And I think my goal is always to positively contribute.”

Over the past year, his contributions have been significant. His memoir—a searing tale of growing up as the gay, Black, only child of a single mother in Texas—earned a Kirkus Prize and a Stonewall Book Award and was named one of the best books of the year by The New York TimesThe New Yorker and several other national publications. Amid this hoopla, Jones surprised the East Coast literary world by moving to Columbus, a decision he explained in an online essay in October 2019 and elaborated on in interviews with The Washington Post, NPR and other media outlets, praising Columbus for its welcoming environment and literary culture. “When I say ‘this is my home,’ my home says ‘you’re damn right,’” he wrote.

In his memoir, Jones touches on universal themes of self-preservation, internalized hatred, grief and survivorship. Any reader, regardless of race or class or gender or sexual identity, can find something in Jones’ carefully, achingly rendered story that resonates.

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Speaking with Jones is an equally intimate and engaging experience. Unlike some writers, Jones, who first made his mark as a poet, is just as eloquent in person as he is on paper. He speaks quickly, often talking over himself or interrupting a thought to make an adjacent point. Then he stops, pauses and speaks slowly, choosing each word with precision and care. Jones laughs often, too, even as he shifts between otherwise somber topics. There’s a self-deprecation to his cadence that seems born from a lifetime of living among the marginalized populations of society.

The dangers of being Black or gay—or in his case, both—are prominent throughout “How We Fight for Our Lives.” “It’s just too easy for a gay Black man to drown amid the names of dead Black gay men,” Jones writes. “It seemed that just as soon as I looked up the name of a gay Black poet whose work I aspired to one day see my own work read alongside, I’d learn that the poet had died of AIDS, or poverty, or some other tragedy that left him abandoned on the margins of literature’s memory.”

In spite of this specter, or perhaps because of it, Jones had a sense of grim optimism when he spoke to Columbus Monthly via Zoom from his home in early August, a year to the week after he visited Columbus from New York City on an apartment-hunting mission. A month later, in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake and the protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that followed, his tone had changed—though not his message. In the following excerpts of those conversations—edited for length and clarity—Jones discusses the extraordinary events of the past year, both globally and personally, as well as how his relationship with Columbus has deepened, even as its flaws have become more apparent.

You tweeted recently that moving to Columbus last year felt right then and has felt more right every day since then. What about the city gives you that assuredness?

I think it feels like a relationship. It feels like the beginning of a friendship or a romantic relationship, when you’ve only seen the person a couple of times, but when you’re with them you feel at ease, you feel like yourself. And that’s when we go, “Can we hang out again?” That is what I have felt every time I came to visit Columbus. There was just an ease that, as a writer, frees up my creativity. It frees up all of the daydreams and ideas and random things in my head, so I can spend time cultivating art. As opposed to cities like New York, for example, where it just feels like being on the street is war—you can’t daydream in that kind of environment. Here, I don’t feel the need to check out from my environment. I want to pay attention.

That was part of what I was drawn to, this kind of openness that I feel is possible for me here. I feel a little more grounded, a little calmer and a little more like a part of my neighborhood, rather than just a person who’s trying to get from point A to point B.

In a podcast, you described going to a McDonald’s while visiting Columbus, and seeing a group of Black men who seemed at ease and happy. Can you tell us more about that experience?

I know [Beyoncé’s] “Black Is King” just happened, but there was a kingliness to them. They were so comfortable. I think as a Black gay person, I’m always trying to feel at home. I’m always asking, can I be myself here? Those moments when you see people who feel at home, they feel like, yeah, I deserve to be welcome here. I noticed it immediately.

And one thing that I think has been cool is that the Midwest has a rich Black history. Toni Morrison, she’s a native of Ohio. Rita Dove, former poet laureate. Even Jackie Woodson was telling me that she has family here. So that was something I was drawn to. I need Black people to be part of my community. So often, vibrant, bustling, growing communities kind of push out the Black and brown people who make it real.

And honestly, in the year since, with the protests and the uprising, it’s made me love the city more, that Black people are being rightfully vocal here about that dynamic. You know, this is our city, too. We deserve to feel safe here as well, and you’re going to honor us as part of the way we think about Columbus. And I really appreciate that; I appreciate getting to be a part of it.

That’s something I wanted to ask about—how have your feelings about Columbus evolved since you moved here and with the protests against police brutality and racial injustice this summer?

My feelings are deeper. Going back to the relationship analogy, that’s what it is to get to know a person, right? When we say we love someone, when we say we want to be in someone’s life, we’re not just taking the laughter. I think we have to take the salt; we have to take the wounds. In the end, there is nowhere you can move to in America and not be in America. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, police brutality, gentrification: All of these issues are straight-up American issues.

I think it’s an important lesson; when we talk about abolishing or defunding the police—which is an idea that I have grown into understanding is important and something we need to do—it’s because it is about the system. When you’re trying to help people understand systemic violence, systemic racism, systemic police brutality, I think it’s helpful to see what’s going on in New York and then come to a city like Columbus—two very different places, communities and cultures—but look at this: So many of the same problems are still happening. It’s not about a specific police department or mayor; it’s about the system, and that’s what we have to dismantle.

In an essay you recently wrote for, you said, “I can promise you that when this country finally gets its hands on me, I will be calling out for her too,” referring to your mother, as George Floyd called out for his in his final moments. And that fatalism is present throughout your book, too—as a child and as an adult, you see Blackness and gayness as equaling death. Do you really think that’s inevitable for you—that America will one day get its hands on you?

Yeah, in some ways. It’s a fact that America is bad for Black people’s health—our hearts in particular, actually. I think that whatever gains I have made and, I hope, will continue to make—I’m going to keep trying, you know—will always exist in tension with the racism, the homophobia that my life is always going to be in conversation with. However far I get, it is not going to be a credit to America.

And I think it was important, in the GQ piece, to connect and remind us of George Floyd’s humanity. It makes me really sad the way we learn about people like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor in reverse. We learn about them in past tense. We learn how they died, usually, before we know their middle names; we don’t know what jobs they did before we understand the address of where they were gunned down. It’s almost immediately dehumanizing. George Floyd had siblings who loved him; he had a nickname; he had a mother that he cared about. I think so often, particularly victims of police brutality, they become hashtags and statistics. There’s a stack of names, and it’s harder and harder to remember them and their humanity.

That really resonates. I wonder sometimes why this is all boiling over now, when it goes all the way back to Rodney King. Or, why did the death of Tamir Rice not set us off?

In June, someone shared a clip of an interview with Toni Morrison from, I think, after the riots in the ’90s. And she said, what struck her was—I’m paraphrasing—was the patience. These people have watched all of this violence. They’ve seen it happen over and over again. She said, I’m impressed; I’m in awe of the patience.

We’ve seen this happen again, and again, and again, and again, and again. I’m only 34 years old, and I have a Rolodex that is far too rich. All of this has happened in every possible scenario, iteration, community, whatever. And it always shakes out the same. And that’s when you go, OK, we need to change the system, because the system doesn’t work.

I know that as a white person, I’ve felt a shift in myself this year. I don’t know why, but it’s suddenly dawned on me that this is my problem, too. It’s everybody’s problem.

Not to put you on the spot, but that is the question. It’s not on me. It’s on you; it’s on white people. It’s on anyone who has that moment. I think when we recognize that shift, it’s worth asking, what happened? And why did it take so long? Because I think our future as a country literally depends on us having those kinds of moments, all of us, more frequently.

Also I think, just morally, it’s important for us all to understand that police violence is state violence. That’s how I see it. And when I say that, I mean that when a cop kneels on someone’s neck for longer than seven minutes, that cop isn’t just doing it in the name of his police department. He’s doing it in all of our names, which is to say that cop was kneeling for Saeed Jones. I have to take action, because I don’t want that happening in my name. I don’t want anyone to think that in order for Saeed Jones to live happily in America, other people need to be suffering in America.

We had to reschedule our second meeting because just a few days prior, Jacob Blake was shot in the back by officers as he tried to get into his car. That was really difficult for you, wasn’t it?

It just feels like not much is substantively changing in terms of dealing with the systemic issue. But it also doesn’t feel like an addition; it feels like a multiplication. It’s not just that someone else—that we know of—has been shot in this awful way. It’s that militia people are showing up in places like Kenosha and harming people, and then being praised not just by talking heads and trolls, but by the president of the United States. It’s not just that it’s still happening—it’s that the worst elements of American culture are being intensified.

It makes me so sad, and it’s dispiriting to feel like, not only are you repeating yourself and watching other people repeat themselves—was it Jacob Blake’s sister who said, “This has been happening to my family for a long time”?—but also the response is becoming more violent, more brazen.

There’s such a lonesomeness, too, to being Black in America, where you feel like, does anyone else see what’s happening? I use this analogy a lot: It’s like drowning without water. Or you’re in a crowd of people and you’ve been hurt and you’re asking, waiting for someone to offer support, to reach out and show that they see what’s going on. And people are totally oblivious.

The other thing is, as someone who is still very committed to social distancing, so much of the last few months has been experienced and processed in isolation. The things we would typically do to reconnect, to ground ourselves—have an art experience, go sit at a bar with some friends—are not as easily accessible.

It’s a weird thing; I think when your grief feels righteous or moral, it feels like, in order to not feel this way, it requires an obliviousness or a callousness. Take the pandemic. There’s nowhere in the city of Columbus where there’s a memorial to our friends and neighbors and loved ones who have passed away in the last few months. There’s no daily moment of silence nationally. But I think, in different ways, we feel these snatches, these hiccups of grief and deep mourning that so much of American culture—politically, intentionally—is asking us to ignore. I don’t want to be part of that.

You mentioned your commitment to social distancing—what drives that even now, as everything is reopening?

It’s not over! There’s so much cognitive dissonance—bars full of people, I’m hearing neighbors have parties. I keep having moments where I’m like, am I antisocial? But it’s not over. I try to look at the updated Ohio numbers every week, and it’s scary.

And there’s something to the fact that so many people who are passing away in Ohio right now seem like they’re in nursing homes; they’re people you may not personally know. But those are people’s loved ones! Those are people who deserve to be here. Lives are valuable.

Isn’t that a tremendous failing? As someone who was in the 10th grade on 9/11, I remember not just what happened, but the way we responded to those 2,000 or 3,000-some lives. That was an ongoing public grief that was complicated. I think we all honored them—like, we owed it to them to honor that grief, by how we were behaving. And now we lose that many people every three days or so.

How have you been handling the isolation of social distancing?

I’m a writer, obviously, so already I work from home. I’m also, in a normal state of things, very much either a total homebody or I’m out traveling the world.

Of course, the first few months were hard, just adjusting to all of the change, all of the information, and frankly the grief. I feel like, even though personally I was doing OK the first few months of the pandemic, it was really hard. It was—depressing isn’t even the right word. I felt bereft.

And now, how do you think you’re coping with it?

I’m very fortunate that in a lot of ways, being home and being in this space is often what I seek out anyway, to do my work. I feel like my personal life here in Columbus is something I’m very grateful for. I love my home.

Saeed Jones' memoir