Book of the Month: How We Fight for Our Lives (2019) by Saeed Jones

Critical Evaluation

How We Fight for Our Lives is a new memoir by 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.

Katy Waldman, “Saeed Jones’s Sensual Memoir of Race, Sex, and Self-Invention.” The New Yorker. October 10, 2019.

 

First Excerpt

I drifted out into waves the color of peacock feathers. They pulled me away from shore, and into a dream I’d had about my mother earlier that summer. We had been driving across one of the old bridges in Bowling Green, me at the wheel and Mom in the passenger seat. It was a bright, cloudless afternoon. Music played on the radio and we had our windows rolled down, so my mother kept waving her hair out of her face. We laughed, or at least I heard laughter. We had been driving across the bridge all day, but my mother didn’t seem to notice. She kept waving strands of hair out of her eyes and switching radio stations. The bridge just kept going, mile after mile. It irritated me that Mom hadn’t realized. With one hand still on the wheel, I reached over and touched her hand.

I put my hand back on the wheel but the skin where I had touched her turned an iridescent blue, tinged with green. A peacock stain soon marked her hand and we stared at each other. Somehow, this was how we knew she was dying. She tried to apologize, but I only looked back at the road ahead and pressed down on the gas. The bridge stretched out and out.

 

Second Excerpt

About a third of the way into the novel, I found a Polaroid tucked between the pages like a bookmark. It was a picture of a man I had never seen before. He didn’t resemble anyone in my family, but, for all I knew, he could have been a distant cousin or uncle. He was leaning against a sedan with his arms crossed and an odd smile on his face, as if the person holding the camera had just told him an inside joke .Or maybe this man was doing the telling. The smile felt intimate, inappropriate, like a hand sliding down where it should not be.

Someone had written “Jackson, Mississippi, 1982” on the back, but I could’ve figured that out on my own. The man was dressed like an extra in a Michael Jackson video. He had on a knit sweater and black, acid-washed jeans that were way too tight. I could see the whites of his socks. And I knew he was in Mississippi because of the rest dust all over his sneakers. On a trip to Mississippi with my aunt once, I’d seen that dirty redness on every car, lapping at the sides of houses like flood tides, and all over the loafers I was wearing. “That’s what Mississippi does to you,” my aunt had said when she saw my shoes. I kept on trying to use one foot to brush red first off the other, only making things worse.