“My mission has always been to help people understand that we are never alone in the world.”
Saeed Jones possesses the rare ability to see himself with uncompromising clarity. He also has the courage to put his insights down on paper, chronicling the shame, vulnerability, and self-destruction that marked his journey into adulthood in a fervent memoir that lingers like a bruise.
How We Fight for Our Lives tells the coming-of-age story of a gay black boy raised in the South, and his struggle to carve out a place for himself within his family, his community, and his tumultuous inner world. Jones’ story begins in the North Texas suburb of Lewisville. There, unrequited schoolboy crushes fester, grown men proposition him to illicit trysts, and he discovers black and queer literature, which affirms his experiences in a way his surroundings never could.
Jones draws readers into the love and estrangement of his familial ties—from the devotion of his compassionate, sometimes distant single mother to his evangelical Christian grandmother’s attempts to pray away the truth of his sexuality. As he embarks on his college career, he recalls relationships with lovers, flings, and friends that both make and break him. Above all, the memoir is his attempt “to excavate the reasons I’ve come to think of life as a fight.”
The Observer spoke with Jones, 33, about finding the confidence to tell his story, connecting personal narratives to a larger cultural experience, and the power of memoir to foster empathy and community.
Texas Observer: In your own words, what is this memoir about?
Saeed Jones: It’s the story of how I came into myself as a black gay man raised in the South. In America, it’s hard to develop an understanding of who we are when we are surrounded by a culture that tells us not to trust what we know about ourselves. You know, telling young women not to believe how they feel about their bodies or telling queer people that our desires are not normal. I wanted to connect my personal narrative to a broader cultural experience, because we’re all in this together.
Feeling invalidated by society can make people doubt themselves and their experiences. How did you respond to that challenge?
My mother was a huge influence on my life. She was so confident in the world, even as she was struggling to raise me, to develop financial stability, to navigate health problems. Our relationship was complicated, but I was always learning from how she asserted herself. My mom also [encouraged me to read] Tina Turner’s biography, Terry McMillan books, and works by Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. Hearing these powerful, confident voices telling their stories helped me develop an appreciation for my own.
In the book, you appear a very solitary person. Do you find community through reading and writing?
Reading and writing were a way of reminding myself that no matter how isolated I felt, there was a vibrant world inside of me. That’s what a book is—it’s proof of life. Talking about my book, I do connect with people. I’ve been getting Instagram messages from young queer people and young black people talking about how it’s connected with their own experiences.
What was the driving force for you to write this memoir?
Writing has always been how I process what happens to me. I have moved past the dynamics you see me working through in the book, but America keeps reminding me of them, whether it’s the Pulse nightclub shooting, or even Amber Guyger. I remember wondering whether people would care about [my writing about] Matthew Shephard or James Byrd Jr., and then I would check the news and America would be like, “Nope! These issues are still going on!” So in addition to trusting the inherent value of my story, I believed it would be useful.
There are a lot of people who need to figure out who they are. My mission has always been to help people understand that we are never alone in the world. One of the most dangerous, vulnerable places to be is where you think, “I’m the only one who’s ever felt this way.”
Did the process of writing your memoir illuminate anything about yourself?
When I was writing the book and talking to one of my best friends from college, he started opening up to me about how depressed he had been as a student. I began to realize I had been too. I remember struggling to write the college sections of the book; the character of Saeed, the decisions he’s making, and his reactions are very different there than in any other part of the book. But only in having the conversation inspired by the book was I able to realize, “Oh my god, I had chronic depression!”
This is a coming-of-age memoir, not your life story from beginning to end. Would you consider writing another memoir later in life?
I’ve definitely been saying I’m never doing this again. It’s so hard! If I could’ve written this book in a way that was just about me—where you don’t know about my mom, or my grandmother—that might’ve been a lot easier. When you’re writing a story that has other people pulled into it at intimate, vulnerable moments, you feel an ethical duty to do right by them, even while telling the painful truth. This was certainly the most difficult artistic challenge I’ve ever taken on.
You’ve discussed the value of memoir to let people know they aren’t alone. Are there any memoirs you’ve read that have been particularly eye-opening?
When I was in high school, my debate coach got me a copy of E. Lynn Harris’ novel What Becomes of the Brokenhearted. E. Lynn Harris was a very successful black gay fiction writer who lived in Arkansas with his family. The book opens with him really struggling; the depression, silence, and shame he grew up with have caught up with him. I remember feeling deeply grateful to my teacher for giving me that book. It meant a lot to have an adult’s experience validate that it’s tough to be a black, gay man in the South—but he still made it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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