“How We Fight for Our Lives” (2019)
“How We Fight for Our Lives,” by New York based poet, Saeed Jones, is a memoir detailing Jones’ upbringing in Lewisville, Texas, with his single mother. Beginning in his childhood, Jones recounts his early realizations of being gay. Likewise, the memoir grapples with what it means to be a gay black man in the South, referencing the murders of James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard, two gay men who were murdered in the late 1990s. As Jones grows up and attends college, the memoir opens up to a vivid portrayal of Jones’ mental state while flitting between sexual partners. As an honest discussion of burgeoning sexuality in lieu of the racist and homophobic atmosphere of his surroundings, Jones punctuates the means we strive for when developing our identities. The latter portion of the memoir acts as an elegy to Jones’ mother, who passed away in 2011 to congestive heart failure. This ending, albeit a bittersweet sentiment, concludes with Jones’ acknowledgement to all his mother went through to raise him, send him to college, all the while fighting her own body.
I read Jones’ previous collection of poetry, “Prelude to Bruise,” the day after I read this memoir, which I felt gave me an extra gateway for insight with specific images of his poems. I recommend reading “How We Fight for Our Lives” first, not just for the visceral understanding of Jones’ minimal and unique poetic voice, but because his memoir stands alone as a stalwart voice in the archives of queer literature. Perhaps that’s Jones’ greatest strength, one that some memoirists seem to outdo themselves with: “How We Fight for Our Lives” is brief (it’s about 190 pages), doesn’t overstay its welcome, and although I could ask for more, Jones’ memoir is special in its brevity. Much like his poetry, the scenes are more poignant and lasting for me as a reader without any extra fluff or build-up to them. His prose is succinct, yet so transparent in his power to convey in so few words the honest, brutal truth of his upbringing. I wouldn’t call “How We Fight for Our Lives” a short, “quick” read, because that would seem to suggest its themes are easy to digest. Rather, Jones’ memoir is a seminal note that not all creative nonfiction books need to extend to the same page length as his peers. I would argue that such precision makes “How We Fight for Our Lives” more effective in its delivery, like a poem, where every single line matters, and every line must stand precipitously on its own.