Like the sudden reminder of a like on an old Facebook picture, past versions of ourselves are often the hardest things to grapple with. Look in the mirror for too long, and you’ll start looking strangely, endlessly flawed. How much of that image is what we have created ourselves, and how much is due to the double binds society thrusts upon us?
Saeed Jones’s “How We Fight For Our Lives: A Memoir” takes an unflinching look back at a past version of himself, and in doing so examines the degrading, paradoxical situations thrust upon gay Black men. Jones, at an all-too-young age, was shown the contrast between who he wanted to be and what society had predetermined he would be:
“Being Black can get you killed.
Being gay can get you killed.
Being a Black gay boy is a death wish.”
From the start, Jones writes his youth as being defined by being pulled in multiple directions. A pull between his Buddhist, single-mother home in Texas and summers spent with his Christian grandmother in Memphis. Between his bookish nature and society’s expectations for Black men. Between the homophobia of his grandmother, the willful ignorance of his mother and his true sexuality.
Later, he’s pulled between his home and mother in Texas, an expensive education in New York City and a debate scholarship in Kentucky. Between being asked to simultaneously fulfill the role of a child, father and husband. And finally, between the life he’s built for himself and family tragedies that interrupt that growth.
“How We Fight For Our Lives” asks essential questions about what happens when people are ground down on opposite sides. Does their edge become pliable like clay, or sharp as a knife? Jones is uniquely unafraid to ask hard questions about who those people are who are grinding them down. If it’s the ones they hate, are they necessarily evil? What if it’s the ones they love?
As with other queer youth, he’s caught between who he is and who his family wants him to be. Jones’s ability to tackle these problematic issues is his most valuable asset. Even in trauma, like when his mother finds explicit instant messenger chats between him and older men, he has the understanding to ask how he’s affected his family.
As he works on updated versions of himself, Jones must constantly re-sync that self with his family. Calling back home from college is a reminder of the Saeed Jones his mother knows. The memoir’s third act is the final echo of this process: Tragedy strikes his family, and Jones must re-evaluate his professional, strenuously built life with the one he left behind.
Through his adolescence, Jones learned to address trauma by writing and reading poetry. His background as a poet lends itself immensely to “How We Fight.” Jones’s poetry background seeps into every crack he can carve out of the memoir genre. The prose is best when it embeds poetic devices in what could still be a late-night talk between old friends. If it is genuinely conversational prose, it’s the well-crafted version of yesterday’s argument you perfect in the shower the next day.
Jones’s imagery, phrases or deliberate use of particular words stick in your mind. Mark Twain describes history as not repeating but rhyming. Like his poems, this memoir rhymes similarly by repeating devices or odd word choices from previous chapters. In a particularly difficult passage about sexual assault, previously used diction and syntax come back like a ghost to haunt Jones.
Even while recounting the most jarring traumatic events, Jones omits no embarrassing or complicating details. The disturbing realities of the intersection of racism, sexuality, sexual assault and family life are laid out bare. Sometimes, one can’t help but re-read to confirm a detail was actually acknowledged. The reader’s feeling of seeing the genuine, messy reality of trauma shows why these themes are best presented in memoir form.
The mood is somehow both contradictory and cohesive. Jones has confidence, even while explaining his greatest insecurities. He’s understanding of his family’s actions while acknowledging the hurt they caused him. Many of these complexities could have been lost with a less expressive writer.
All these complexities are packed into a rather short memoir without feeling rushed. Unlike other books attempting to touch on various themes, the book in no way overstays its welcome.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that his writing tiptoes through contradictions and complications in mood and theme, given that Jones is forced to tiptoe through these contradictions in his own life. Ultimately, “How We Fight For Our Lives” is a concise, but a fully fleshed-out exploration of the complexities of growing up with the world stacked against you. Jones shows queer people can’t just sit back and watch their future selves unfold. They must fight to create a life for themselves, and then often fight for their life itself.