How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir
Simon & Schuster, 2019
Reviewed by Isabel Ibáñez de la Calle
Growing up in the South of the United States. Growing up an only child of a single mother. Growing up black. Growing up gay. Growing up with the task of being the perfect son, citizen, student, of keeping quiet or being invisible, and then with the intention of defying that ‘perfection.’ The memoir written by the author of the poetry collection Prelude to Bruise (2014), Saeed Jones’s How We Fight for Our Lives works as a question to an entire nation: “If America was going to hate me for being black and gay, then [why not] make a weapon out of myself[?]” Perhaps that weapon is forged by a burning desire to no longer be appeased. And later, memories resurrected and sharpened into new words, stronger than before, are a way of saying this is my truth, this is my life, this is how I fight now. How a human being builds an identity is a long story—Jones knows it when he claims “People don’t just happen. We sacrifice former versions of ourselves.”
Winner of the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction in 2019, How We Fight for Our Lives is a chronological and geographical narration. Each of the twenty-one chapters starts with a date and the place something important happened in his youth, then proceeds with an anecdote that generated a realization or something that changed the course of the events. Although Jones was born in Memphis, Tennessee, where his family is from, he grew up in the warm summer heat of Lewisville, Texas with a Buddhist mother, Kingsley, their dog, and the constant threat of death for being black and gay. The first part of the book focuses on his childhood and Jones becoming a man, raising awareness of his sexuality, religiosity, the conflicts with his Christian grandmother, the impossibility to communicate deeply with his beloved mother, and being able to finally say “I am gay.” The next four parts focus on his step towards university, his move to the East Coast, and finally the road to independence.
In Chapter Three, it’s June 1998, and Jones recalls being eight years old hearing the local news from his couch with his mother: three white supremacists beat and killed a man named James Byrd, Jr. just four hours from his home. Soon after that, Jones finds a photograph of his mother with a man he does not recognize. In asking, his mother responds with deep melancholy, informing him that the man was a friend from her past who killed himself when he found out he had AIDS. Jones visits the public library to find any texts related to gay people—something he could not find anywhere else in his childhood—only to realize that being gay and having AIDS were considered almost synonymous in the nineties. When your notion of becoming yourself is a martial movement, finding your truth sometimes can be accompanied by a lack of compassion, feeling depressed or very lonely.
Sadness and loneliness are part of Jones’s college time at Western Kentucky University, the institution he attended after receiving a full scholarship, and after rejecting an opportunity to go to NYU, the dream of all his life, because he could not afford it. The tone of the book, however, is never one of a lost young man with no friends. On the contrary, it is the story of a legitimate search for eroticism, desire, sex, and a narrative about enjoying and embracing it all at the same time:
I hungered for the power of the all-American man, the Marlboro Man and the Marlboro Man’s firstborn son, the high-school quarterback, the company’s future CEO, Ernest Hemingway, John Wayne, Odysseus, Hercules, Achilles, the shield itself, the stone-cut archetype, the goddamned Everyman, the golden boy, the one.
This quote is an allusion from the text’s fifteen chapter to a guy Jones sees at a party in Phoenix, Arizona in 2007. In this same chapter, Jones shares an experience he had with a straight white man who invited him into his home to have sex and told him three times, “You are already dead” before beating him, crying, and after being very drunk, falling asleep and letting Jones escape. “Did this really happen?” Jones asks himself on his way back home. It was not only the threat of dying but the impotence, the certainty of knowing that if any man treated him that way again, he would kill him. True, in that moment he felt helpless, but he confesses that he would never want to feel that way again; he would not allow anyone to harm him and would fight back, at least with the power of being himself. Jones also recognizes the power in unveiling the myths American society built itself on and acknowledging the weak foundations that held those myths together.
Jones’s memories not only navigate the intricate roads of sex, eroticism, racism, and violence, but also how poetry becomes the something he just could not stop doing, the activity to which he decides to dedicate the rest of his life, and the way becoming a writer felt like the space of genuine freedom. However, the most touching aspect, beyond all these discoveries and awakenings, is how the vulnerable human being appears in all its splendor, and with all its contradictions. The book also tells the story of a deep, not always easy, not always pristine, relationship between a son and a single mother with a heart condition. Jones dedicates his most beautiful words to his origins, to describing a woman he remembers as beautiful, strong, sometimes very far away from him—whose death allowed Jones to transform into the writer he always wanted to be.