Reviewed by Ronnie K Stephens
Saeed Jones chronicles his path toward self-realization and self-acceptance with astonishing grace, proving once again that he is among the most talented and poignant writers in America. How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster, October 2019) does not flinch at vulnerability or polish the edges of Jones’ existence; it is gritty and harsh and, at times, self-loathing. Yet, Jones avoids fetishizing his pain. The result is a memoir as deftly lyrical and brilliantly nuanced as the poetry for which Jones has been so lauded. Within the first pages of the narrative, readers are reminded why Jones has already earned a Pushcart Prize and a PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry.
The memoir opens with a poem that serves, in a sense, as an outline of the story to come. Jones writes, “…you’re young and don’t know the difference/between abandoned and alone just like your mother’s/heart won’t know the difference between beat/and attack. She’ll be dead in a decade and maybe/you already know what you’re losing without knowing/how….” These lines set the tone for Jones’ poetic approach to prose, as well as contextualize the mindset of the narrator from the jump. As they suggest, the narrative is propelled by a storyteller keenly aware that, from every angle, survival would be its own act of resistance.
The reflective nature of the early pages pulls the reader in by layering a distinct universality to the story. Jones is speaking for and about himself, but he connects with the reader often through moments of clarity and wisdom. “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,’” he writes, emphasizing the weight of his realization that, as a black man and a gay man, there are always people in America who are trying to kill him. This must be a remarkably difficult understanding at any age, but Jones comes to the knowledge in 1998, a year marked by the horrific murders of James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepherd.
Just thirteen years old at the time, Jones faced an impossibly treacherous existence with strength and poise. At one point, he perfectly articulates his resilience, again employing the first-person plural to emphasize the shared trauma of so many in our country: “However many masks we invent and deploy, in the end, we cannot control what other people see when they look at us.”
One thing that makes the memoir so engaging, though, is that Jones does not write a story that moves directly from pain to self-acceptance. His strength wavers, and he is often forced to make hard choices about which parts of himself to express, especially with a mother whom he cherishes. Not long after he comes out to his mother, Jones attempts to revisit the conversation in an effort to tell her a more complete truth about who he is. This backfires, though, when Jones mentions a man he dated for a time.
“When I looked up, she was staring at me, wide-eyed, almost pleadingly—as if I’d led someone afraid of heights to the edge of a rusting bridge. And then I did exactly what I thought all people who love each other do: I changed the subject; I changed myself; I erased everything I had just said; I erased myself so I could be her son again.”
These moments are not just effective; they are essential. What resonates most in Jones’ coming-out story is that the author does not treat the moment of coming out as a singular event, and he does not treat coming out as the ultimate moment of self-acceptance. This sets How We Fight for Our Lives apart from many coming-out narratives in that Jones never implies that closeted people must declare their identities publicly, and he never intimates that coming out is a one-time decision. As with each moment in his own journey, Jones treats coming out with tremendous nuance and patience.
By layering in the thread about his relationship with his mother, Jones crafts a memoir that will appeal to a broad readership. The narrator is, after all, coming to terms with multiple parts of his identity at once, and in real-time.
After his mother’s death, he admits, “I can afford this now because my mother is dead. I’m a poet living in Harlem now because my mother is dead. My full-time job is writing now because my mother is dead…It felt cruel to mine personal meaning out of her death. I didn’t want to redefine her life and death as a journey toward sacrifice.” Jones does not apologize for his success, but he also does not trade on his pain for that success. In a publishing industry fraught with shock value and the exploitation of trauma, Jones’ resolve is refreshing.
Winner of the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, How We Fight for Our Lives is easily one of the most important and well-written memoirs in recent memory. Fans of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Heavy will be especially thrilled with Jones’ writing, which balances the quiet ferocity of Vuong’s novel with the complex juxtaposition of self-hate and healing in Laymon’s memoir. This book is, and will remain, a vital inclusion in conversations ranging from intersectionality to character development to lyrical prose. It is, quite simply, unparalleled.