“How We Fight for Our Lives” is a new memoir from Saeed Jones, an award-winning poet and a former BuzzFeed editor, who grew up black, gay, and Southern in the nineties and early two-thousands. The title previews the book’s tone and also its content: urgent, immediate, matter of fact. Jones writes of his mother and her heart condition, and of physical assault, economic hardship, and the floating threat of violence that men like him face. His title carries an edge of social critique. To be black, gay, and American, the book suggests, is to fight for one’s life.
But it becomes apparent that Jones also means these six words in a less literal sense. “People don’t just happen,” he asserts. In a way, people do just happen, at least to themselves; no one asks to be born. Coherent “I”s, though, don’t just happen. Like most memoirs, Jones’s is concerned with the construction of identity—with how its narrator resolves or at least reconciles himself to his own contradictions, and with the masks he wears and sets aside. Again, race and sexual orientation shade this auto-creation. Jones is fighting to become himself in a haunted house, thick with cultural expectation and the words of other black, gay authors, most of them dead. He often feels doomed and spectral, and yet his writing activates the body, an irony he acknowledges in the poem that opens the book: a description of his mother dancing to Prince, “fingers snapping and snakes in her blood.” One gets the impression that Jones relates to an artist formerly known as himself.
Jones’s single mother looms large in “How We Fight for Our Lives.” She is beautiful, reads “three newspapers every day,” and can make “everyone in a room light up with laughter.” She conceived her son and continues to conceive him: when she falls ill, Jones writes that his body “was turning into fog.” Jones’s mother once had a friend who died of AIDS; at twelve, Jones finds a photograph of the man in her volume of “Another Country,” by James Baldwin. “Gay wasn’t a word I could imagine actually hearing my mom say out loud,” he writes. “If I pictured her moving her lips, ‘AIDS’ came out instead.”
This is childhood experienced as a horror movie’s precariously golden first scene. Jones feels pursued by a peril that will not speak its name. He remembers watching news coverage of James Byrd, Jr., who was beaten and dragged behind a truck for being black, and seeing his high school’s reënactment of a play, “The Laramie Project,” about the murder of Matthew Shepard. “There should be a hundred words in our language for all the ways a black boy can lie awake at night,” he writes. Later: “Being a black gay boy is a death wish.” This fatalism, which exists in contrast to Jones’s uncommon openness and aesthetic ravening, is wrenching. The narrator’s fear and desire swirl into a power fantasy, a vision of subjugating those who would subjugate him. “I wanted to devour the world,” Jones thinks, after his Baptist grandmother attempts to pray away his “worldliness.” “I sat there ablaze, struggling to apprehend a new, darkly radiant sense of self. I felt dangerous, evil even.”
Those lines—the hunger for experience, the resentment vitrifying into potency—could have flown out of “Paradise Lost.” As a teen-ager, Jones reveals, he wrote poetry in the voices of legendary women: Penelope, Eurydice, Medusa. But “How We Fight for Our Lives” doesn’t belabor Jones’s learning, or his love of language, even as biographical details (he was a speech champion and a star student; he went to graduate school in creative writing) hint at what literature means to him. There is a confidence in refusing to reach for mythic analogues. Jones’s book, rooted in the lived and the real, takes little interest in other books, or in its own construction.“I loved poetry then,” he writes, “not so much because of language and images but because I enjoyed the control.”
It is not surprising that imposing narrative order on his past feels, to Jones, like a matter of survival rather than pleasure. In an early passage, he drifts into a reverie about his first crush, who is also the first kid to call him a “faggot.”
I still dreamed about Cody every so often, even though I hadn’t seen
him for two or three years. My dreams usually started with his mouth
and the way it must have looked when he said the
word. . . . He’s on the other side of that locked door,
saying “faggot” over and over again, taking off an item of clothing
each time he says it. Cody in a pit-stained wife beater, cargo shorts
unzipped and at his ankles, red plaid boxer shorts sliding down his
legs, the faint happy trail revealing more and more of itself, the
base of his dick, a pale pink root.
The description is a skein of competing instincts. Jones seems turned on and humiliated. He dominates Cody with language, Cody’s weapon of choice; he strips him and ravishes him. The passage, which begins in vulnerability and ends in triumph, foreshadows the relationships that Jones pursues, in college, with all-American jocks who despise him for seducing them, and whom he, in turn, despises. “If America was going to hate me for being black and gay,” he thinks, “then I might as well make a weapon out of myself.”
The memoir enacts this martial self-invention on a formal level. Its first few vignettes are full of sentences that cast Jones as a grammatical object. His body is “mangled by puberty.” He doesn’t just hold “Another Country”; the book holds him. The language of rape, when it appears, feels almost inevitable. “What were boys like Matthew Shepard and me supposed to do with ourselves,” Jones asks, “before America had its way with us?” But, as the narrator collects erotic experiences, his imagery evolves. He realizes “that my body could be a passport or a key . . . a brick thrown through a sleeping house’s window.” And then the formulation becomes entirely active. “I got hard,” Jones recounts, “just thinking about all the things I would be able to do with myself.” For Jones, agency means fashioning the right personas: the good son, the successful student, the interesting slut. Yet one of the ironies of “How We Fight for Our Lives” is that one can spend years defining and curating and perfecting a self only to be reduced, at a glance, to one’s specific marginalizations. “Lower your voice, change your posture . . . dress differently if you want to,” Jones writes. “A man might still decide that when he looks at you, all he sees is a nigger, a faggot, or both.”
What happens to this looked-upon boy could be called erasure. But the book makes the startling choice to frame it also as a loss of innocence. There is a sweetness, Jones suggests, to romantic playacting, to the masks we wear while we hunt for love. That social prejudices might warp this play, force us instead into defensive maneuvers, is a variation on the way that language affords Jones control before it offers him joy. Prose often receives the label “poetic” when it is musical or flowery, or when it seems overcareful. Jones’s prose, though, shines with a poet’s desire to give intellections the force of sense impressions. “His body became an idea I dragged into bed with me at night,” he writes. Or: “I walked through the memory of that laughter.” “Sensuous” seems more accurate a description than “poetic,” and especially evocative of a theme running through Jones’s work: that most things are felt before they are understood. One might draw a connection between this notion and the memoir’s focus on masks—the world touches the skin first.
When Jones claims that “people don’t just happen,” he perhaps means that his life has been a long grappling with notions of agency and control. But he also means something more concrete: that “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.’ ” Jones has a point: a memoir like his—or like Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” which likewise centers the author’s mom—cannot help revoking a parent’s authorship of her son even as it affirms it. “How We Fight for Our Lives,” the two main concerns of which are Jones’s coming of age and his mother’s death, often feels like a complicated working-through of this guilt. But there’s a way in which the book also refutes its own premise. It is a tale of self-making that gives its last pages to Jones’s mom, and spends its most beautiful language on his love for her. That the “I” cannot exist until it rejects a “you” seems like an adolescent understanding of identity, one that Jones transcends without realizing that he has done so. His book belongs to both of them, and so does he.