How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones – a review

I first became aware of poet Saeed Jones a few years ago. April is National Poetry Month, and at work, I would send out poems to co-workers who had signed up for my daily poetry email to celebrate the month. I don’t know if it was 2015 or 2016 when I sent out his poem, “The Blue Dress.” I started following him on Twitter shortly after that, and then I would watch or check clips of AM to DM, the live morning news show that he and Isaac Fitzgerald hosted on Twitter for a couple years. Somewhere in that time, I read an essay of his – he had probably tweeted about it – called “How Men Fight for Their Lives.” It was something that stayed with me. And it turns out to figure prominently in his memoir, that was just released in October, called How We Fight for Our Lives.

In the Twitterverse, a like, a retweet, or even better, a reply to your tweet is like currency, especially with someone ‘famous’ whether only to you or to the subset of Twitter to which you ascribe. For instance, my sister is really into sports, particularly the Utah Jazz and University of Utah Utes football. When a sports figure, broadcaster, or player has liked or retweeted something of hers, she lets me know. I do the same thing, and for me, it’s usually Saeed. Not that we have had much interaction – but it was cool to me.

When I heard he would be in LA on his book tour, and in conversation with Roxane Gay, I bought a ticket to attend. Roxane Gay is truly a force. An incredible writer, a Twitter icon, and who seems to me to be an amazing person and friend. I have often shared some of her essays that respond to something topical because she articulates exactly what I’m thinking. I’ve only read two of her books so far, but I know I will get to the others. Part of my ticket price to attend his appearance was receiving a copy of his book. I stayed after their amazing talk to have it signed. It was very gracious of him to say he recognized me or at least my handle from Twitter. I asked him for a selfie, and he obliged. He was extremely nice.

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That night he read an excerpt from the book, and I was drawn in. I had read three chapters as I sat and waited for their conversation to begin. The opening of the book is a poem about his mother dancing to “I Wanna Be Your Lover” by Prince, and it is superb.

“Some songs take women places men cannot / follow.”

And it was on page 7 that I first had to stop because of the metaphor. He writes, “I had stepped into someone else’s house without their permission, but now that I was inside I couldn’t help looking around.” This description is about finding a picture tucked in one of his mother’s books and asking her questions about the picture, the man in the picture. And that’s how I felt reading this book, even though I was invited to come in.

There are parts of Saeed’s story that I cannot relate to. He is a black, gay man who grew up with a single mother in Texas. He writes about how he learned about what it meant to be gay (from books at the library) and about sexual encounters (his first one at the same library). And even though I don’t have the same life experiences, there is still something there that speaks to me: tenderness. Jones has the cushion of time to lean on that allows him to look back on his experiences with tenderness. That is not to say that these incidents are not painful or reinforced with self-loathing. Many of these passages are about difficult family dynamics, very real fears about being who he is in America when black men and gay men are killed on the regular, and how to be himself – how to have joy – even with these truths being as present as air. He says of Daniel, the man who could have killed him on that New Year’s Eve in Phoenix: “I didn’t see a gay basher; I saw a man who thought he was fighting for his life.” and “There was no part of Daniel left to hide from me. I’d seen how much he wanted another man; I’d seen the storm he’d been struggling his entire life to contain; I’d seen how much he feared and raged against himself…”

After that experience, he writes about how he tried to write the story out of him. How he tried to write the experience away to lessen its impact, to control the narrative, to resolve any conflicts it encouraged. This. Now this is something I understand too well. He knows there are questions he needs to answer not just on the page, but in his head, in his mind, in his body.

The last section of the book, but really, the whole book, is about his mother. In the beginning, it’s about them living in Texas – he a pre-teen, she a single mother working two jobs – never directly addressing his sexuality, their financial situation, her health. In the middle section, he is at college but she is there – in dropping him off, in phone conversations – he came out to her over the phone – and in the unspoken. And one summer during college he helped her move to Atlanta where the unspoken was given shape: she had to go to the hospital, but they didn’t really talk about it, and he tried to relate a story of a guy he had dated, but she didn’t respond. He writes, “I changed the subject; I changed myself; I erased everything I had just said; I erased myself so I could be her son again.” Uggh. How heart-wrenching. In his conversation with Roxane Gay, they commented on how some reviewers had described this book as “raw.” I wouldn’t call it that. Yes, it’s candid, graphic in some places, but for me the word again that comes to mind is tender. In all meanings of the word. It’s that soft spot of skin that is bruised, and the lightest brush reminds you it’s there. It’s full of deep emotion, and it aches and yearns for love and acceptance.

In the last section, we are witness to him experiencing his mother’s death, as much as we can see through the haze that surrounds him as he follows his uncle’s orders about what to do, “I couldn’t trust myself to stay myself so I tried my best to stay in step.” But before the call that sends him to Memphis where his mother was visiting her mother, we get a scene of him with his mom, his aunt, and his grandmother at a restaurant. It seems like a tough memory for him recalling the music of their laughter even though the day started with him being annoyed at even being there. But there is a line here that gutted me, that is so relevant to today’s climate – the political rancor, the racial tensions, the literal climate, the inequality, etc etc. He writes, in relation to a family story about how in 1968 they were getting ready to eat some coconut cake when they learned about Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination and then didn’t eat it, “The sweetness we deny ourselves because the world is wailing.” That line made me weep in my bed this morning. How true.

After the death of his mother, he received a check from her life insurance that was life-changing money. It was difficult to read about his conflicted feelings – how this money could have changed her life instead of his. How the life that she insured was his own. He quit his job as a high school teacher (“Trying to take care of those kids when I was barely taking care of myself just didn’t seem right.”) He moved to a 1-bedroom in Harlem from his studio in New Jersey. He devoted his time to writing. He writes, “I couldn’t separate the monstrous from the miraculous” knowing that all of this was possible because his mother was dead. He traveled. The last chapter takes place in Barcelona, my mother’s birthplace. It was a jolt of connection with the writer that was unexpected. He describes  places I am very familiar with. He writes about befriending an older white woman who is staying in the same hostel. He recounts swimming in the Mediterranean and how he almost decides to let the sea take him, but the sea returns him to the beach. He finally tells her that his mother died and that’s why he’s there. Her response and the last few lines of the book brought the tears again.

There’s even still more to this book that I didn’t really touch on in this review but that are equally poignant and beautifully written. I gave the book 5 stars on Goodreads like it matters. This book has already won the Kirkus Prize for non-fiction, and I assume it will top many lists for best book in 2019. He was interviewed on Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR and has had so many articles and reviews written praising this remarkable book.

I realized that I may have read “The Blue Dress,” but I didn’t own it, so I quickly bought the book that it’s in, Prelude to Bruise, so I can read more of this dynamic, unapologetic, talented writer.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Sandy Thompson says:

    Damn you’re good.

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