NOVEMBER 24, 2019
THE QUEER COMING-OF-AGE MEMOIR is a weapon against erasure. The best of these memoirs move us by daring to be profoundly specific, providing a necessary consolation to readers who might have believed until then that they were alone in the dark. That their suffering would have no choice but to absorb into their bodies without a scar to show the world. Thus the text itself becomes the scar, if scars were to be understood as evidence that a battle has been fought and won.
Acclaimed queer black poet Saeed Jones begins his memoir How We Fight for Our Lives as a 12-year-old boy facing down a hot Texas summer. While his single mother is away at work during the day, Jones spends his time at home alone alternating between covetously spying on the sweaty white boys playing in the street outside his apartment window, and slowly making his way through his mother’s old paperback books. At first, he casts about without much success, dipping into and then casually rejecting Toni Morrison’s murky sentences in Tar Baby and being turned off by Alice Walker’s overly detailed descriptions of the female body in The Color Purple. But then he lands on James Baldwin’s Another Country, and he revels in its unapologetic descriptions of queer desire and romantic love between men. It’s like he’s discovered a new language — something about himself that he can finally name.
“I felt that the book was actually holding me,” writes Jones. “Sad, sexy, and reeking of jazz, the story had its arm around my waist. I could walk right into the scene, take off my clothes, and join one of the couples in bed. I could taste their tongues.” The physicality represented by Baldwin’s words enters Jones’s own body as a young reader looking for himself on the page. The sensations described and the desires enacted by the novel’s disparate characters come alive in a body that has yet to taste what it already knows it craves.
A body and a self are separate entities for Jones, and he makes clear the obvious privilege of those who believe that they’re one and the same. “However many masks we invent and deploy, in the end, we cannot control what other people see when they look at us,” he writes. “A man might still decide that when he looks at you, all he sees is a nigger, a faggot, or both.” And many of the experiences narrated in his memoir — especially the various fraught sexual experiences — are described almost as if the body and the self are at odds with one another, perhaps wanting different things, or wanting the same things but in different ways. He describes standing at a mirror and realizing that “my reflection and I were like rival animals, just moments away from tearing each other limb from limb.”
Among the many narrative tropes that the queer coming-of-age memoir usually navigates is the first time the subject names desire in the form of an identity. In his mother’s copy of Baldwin’s novel, Jones finds pressed between its pages an old Polaroid of a man who’s “dressed like an extra in a Michael Jackson video.” His mother confirms later that he was a friend of hers from school who killed himself after being diagnosed with AIDS. The young Jones understands intuitively that the man in the photograph was gay — although his mother never utters that word aloud in his presence — and that being gay was inevitably what had led to his early death. This moment begins to build an invisible wall between him and his mother that Jones explores throughout his memoir. Understanding the risks inherent in being different becomes a through-line that snakes its way through How We Fight for Our Lives as its narrator moves through childhood and adolescence, and then into young adulthood marked by violence and tragedy.
Dedicated to Jones’s mother, How We Fight for Our Lives is both a tribute to their love for one another and a promise that he will find a way to survive without her. But survival in the world Jones maps isn’t to be taken for granted, at least not for someone like him. In the wake of the brutal murders of James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard, both of which he learns about as a child while watching the news with his mother, Jones describes the collision of two truths in his mind — “being black can get you killed” and “being gay can you get you killed” — forming a harrowing awareness that can alter the course of a life: “Being a black gay boy is a death wish.” Jones writes about the traumatic formation of his identity with a sharpness that cuts through stereotype and convention, eventually concluding that “[j]ust as some cultures have a hundred words for ‘snow,’ there should be a hundred words in our language for all the ways a black boy can lie awake at night.”
Jones grapples constantly with the complexities of identity categories and the sometimes hollow nature of the words we use to name what we are. His growing awareness of the precarity of his place in his country becomes a guiding principle as he navigates his teenage and college years, fumbling through encounters with men, including white men whose dehumanizing fetishization often proves quite dangerous. The first fantasies that he remembers of a single boy in particular are about Cody, one of the white boys outside his apartment the summer he discovered Baldwin’s writings, who had been the first person to ever call him a faggot. Violence and desire are invariably connected for him thereafter, most glaringly during an almost impossibly harrowing experience when a blowjob in a dark room suddenly becomes a brutal beating in a scene that concludes with Jones narrowly escaping what could easily have been his death. As he leaves, he’s not even surprised when he notices that he still has an erection.
Jones displays a poet’s knack for the searing detail, and the pages of his memoir are full of beautiful and surprising images that buoy us through the pain and heartache and often seething rage that fuel its propulsive, precise narration. How We Fight for Our Lives is structured chronologically, each chapter accompanied by a date and a place name in a deliberate march toward a fixed point in Jones’s future when everything will change. Readers are told, in a prelude that takes the form of a poem, that Jones’s mother will die from a chronic cardiovascular condition just a decade after he watches her dancing in the living room of their apartment — “your mother’s / heart won’t know the difference between beat / and attack.” The sometimes strained, always deeply loving relationship between the two form the memoir’s emotional core.
The syntax of human connection that Jones narrates so precisely is always heavy with the threat of obliteration, an entire language of possible expressions of love and desire erased in a flash. Perhaps that’s ultimately the impulse of memoir — to leave behind a language to explain our lives, or a map of the places from which we’ve escaped. When Jones interrogates his love of writing poetry, he says that it’s “not so much because of language and images but because I enjoyed the control,” referring to the spareness of the poetic project, the act of leaving only the absolute essentials on the page. This realization comes in a moment of total loss of control in his actual life when his mother falls into a coma that she will likely not survive. The memoir’s fourth and final section is a heartbreaking and unflinching journey into the experience of the loss of a parent, and then the slow process of grieving in the wake of her absence. And while Jones as poet goes to the page to regain a sense of control in the chaos, he shows us in these final pages that Jones as memoirist goes to the page for release.
In the days following his near-fatal sexual encounter, Jones writes down what happened to him and turns it in as an assignment for a creative writing workshop. But in telling his story, he changes the ending. In the version he shows to his classmates, the black gay narrator describes what happened to him while looking down at his bloodied body from above as the man who killed him casually leaves the room, not even bothering to run from the scene of the crime. Jones writes:
I believed that I could control any story I told. If something happened, I would write about it, own it, resolve it. Simple. You could afford to be interesting if you could pin everything to the page afterward. Perhaps just to prove just how tough I was, I had turned a nightmare of a near miss into a fatal one in my retelling.
But in order to write the truth — the whole truth, the absolute truth — he’s daringly relinquished that control in a memoir that rushes headlong through a collage of intensely rendered vignettes and arrives finally at a state of grace, a wisdom earned by fire.
Boys like us never really got away, it seemed. We just bought ourselves time. A few more gasps of air, a few more poems, a few more years. History hurt more than any weapon inflicted on us. It hit back harder than any weapon we could wield, any weapon we could turn ourselves into.
There’s a fierce heart beating wildly and urgently through these pages, filling them with blood — in anticipation of the beautiful scar that they ultimately come to form — and whatever else we might need in order to fight for our lives.