In How We Fight for Our Lives (Simon Schuster, 2019), Saeed Jones reflects on being a young, gay black man in 1990s Lewisville, Texas, where he had urgent questions about his sexuality and scant resources. His search for answers was visceral and sometimes violent, leading him to conclude that “being a black gay boy is a death wish.” Jones, a prizewinning poet, won the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction for his fiery coming-of-age memoir, which Kirkus Reviews said “marks the emergence of a major literary voice.”
How We Fight for Our Lives depicts the profoundly troubled relationship some men have with their own masculinity and sexuality. What did the writing process of this book teach you about masculinity?
The world is on fire and we know why, so let’s be real: All men are trouble and are troubled by their own masculinity. I believe that angst is inherent because the power bestowed upon us by our identity is inherent. Any man who is repulsed or outraged by this idea is worse off than he is ready to admit. I used to be one of those men too. I hope this book finds its way to them and that it can be of use. The solution is not to reach the end of discomfort; it’s to reach a point where we can value what having a productive relationship with our discomfort can do for us. America being what it is, all of our lives are tied to men figuring out who they are. We are imperiled in the meantime.
Your relationship with your mother, Carol Sweet-Jones, a loving single mom and Buddhist, seems like it was a salvation. How did she shape your writing?
My mother often said, “Saeed, there are three sides to every story: his side, her side, and the truth.” I’d like to think that worldview manifests in my nonfiction writing. I aspire to honor what I remember and experienced, make space for why the other person might have done what they did or feel what they felt. And then, in the end, I try to leave breathing room for the bigger truth that we’re all living in.
Were you deliberately looking to fill the void of Lewisville, Texas, library stacks in 1998, when all of the books about being gay were tragic depictions of men dying of AIDS?
One of the minor tragedies of the first chapter of the memoir is that I have so many questions about sexual identity and don’t feel comfortable asking the adults around me about them. You see me try with my mom, but she basically runs away from the conversation and hides in her bedroom. At the library, you will notice I decided (without much evidence) that the librarians wouldn’t be able to help me. As an adult, I think I was wrong. I’ve met countless librarians, booksellers, and teachers who are constantly working to get the right books into the hands of the readers who need them. I know for a fact that books like Giovanni’s Room, for example, were shelved in that very same library, a few aisles over. I didn’t know to look for those books because I didn’t feel safe enough to find a guide that would lead me to them. So, yes, I hope that all of my books populate those shelves. But, more broadly, my goal is to change the culture in which all those books and readers live.
The Kirkus review says that your memoir is “written with masterful control of both style and material.” Did you feel in control when writing it, or was it all a glorious chaos that you wrestled into shape?
Honestly, most of the time I was working on the book, I thought the odds were 50-50 on whether I’d survive the process. I’m deeply grateful to have finished the book and to be proud of what I created. Even still, it feels like I did it by the skin of my teeth.
Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.