risk vs. reward

Saeed Jones on Memoir, Sacrifice, and the Balance of Joy

The How We Fight for Our Lives author gave a wide-ranging interview ahead of his Brazos Bookstore reading.

By Ryan Pait October 24, 2019

People may know about Saeed Jones for a lot of reasons: he’s a poet, a former co-host of Buzzfeed’s AM to DM, a Twitter bon vivant, and a recently settled citizen of (and advocate for) Columbus, Ohio.

With his new book How We Fight for Our Lives, people might just find themselves in the story of Jones’ life, as he recounts his time growing up in Lewisville, Texas, all the way through a life-changing trip to Barcelona. Jones said he initially had a more narrow timeline he wanted to cover, but his editor helped him realize that Jones’ mother was “the heart and soul” of the book, which helped Jones explode the book’s timeline and realize that where he needed to end the book was Spain.

“I wanted to end the book there,” Jones said. “He’s figured out a lot of things. He’s had some important revelations. But clearly he’s still got a lot to figure out. And that is just true. The book ends when I’m in my late 20s, and it felt essential to the project: we’re always going to be fighting for our lives. It doesn’t stop.”

Jones will read from his new memoir at Brazos Bookstore on Monday, October 28. We caught up with Jones to talk about being your whole self, sacrifices and gifts, and his refusal to dim his light before he comes to Houston.

I feel like it’s common for younger writers to write books of essays rather than memoirs because there’s some sort of unspoken age minimum for writing a memoir, and I love that you’ve been railing against that. What made you want to work in the memoir form rather than the essay form?

When I started out, I initially had that hesitance as well. When I started out, and knew that I wanted to write a book of nonfiction, initially I was like, “It’ll be linked essays!” Doing literally what you said. I think I had that same insecurity. But my agent, Charlotte Sheedy, who is just wonderful, talked me out of it. She was like, “Boy, you better stop playing.” (Laughs.) She said I had a holistic story that deserved to be told in full, and she was just really encouraging about that. 

So, yeah, I went for it, and I’m so glad I did. The insecurity [about writing memoir at a young age] comes from a misunderstanding of the genre. Memoir—as I see it—is using your personal experiences to write about a specific idea or specific time in your life. That can be anything. I personally think we are about to see a bunch of memoirs from young people who want to talk about what it means to be growing up in an American landscape overrun with gun violence. And many of those people are probably in their teens and 20s, and I don’t think any of us would argue that they don’t have anything to teach us. Right? 

With memoir, it’s about the need, it’s about the idea, and if someone is confident in it, I see no reason why they shouldn’t give it a shot. And hey! If I was biting off more than I could chew, if I, in fact, didn’t have enough material to really develop a memoir, it would’ve become apparent very quickly. It’s a very difficult type of book to write. So often in American culture, we have a tendency of shutting down new voices before we give them an opportunity to succeed—or fail.

You write that “People don’t just happen. We sacrifice former versions of ourselves.” I found that sentiment so striking and so true—can you walk me through how you got to that idea?

It had a very specific catalyst: that night in the car with my grandmother after a horribly traumatic incident at a church, where she tells an evangelical pastor that my mother was Buddhist and basically puts a curse on my mother. Knowing everything we know at that point in the book, it’s especially awful—there’s almost a double-consciousness in that moment of how terrible it is. So then I’m in the car with her afterward, and I think I was so upset and struggling to keep from falling apart in that moment. We didn’t talk about what happened, we didn’t have an argument, I wasn’t crying next to her—it was just silence. In my head, my brain was just spinning. To get through it, I was thinking that summer was almost over, I was about to go back to school, and no matter what my mom said, I was never coming back to stay with my grandmother for the summer. I was going to find a way to justify not going back. I never told my mom what happened. I never told her. It just became non-negotiable; it became a dealbreaker. I was so stern in it that my mom did respect it. That was the last summer I spent with my grandmother as a kid. 

I now see the cost of what happens when you’re trying to be your whole self with people who don’t know how to or don’t want to engage your whole self. I was like, “Forget that! I’m going to be myself!” Even if it means kind of destroying this part of my relationship. That’s what it is. To keep secrets from loved ones is to sever part of your relationship. It’s almost like if every healthy relationship is held together by 10 strings, to sever off parts of your life is to cut a few of those strings. Yes, you’re still connected, but now you’re working with five strings. That’s what it felt like. But I think that’s just what we do: We try to reinvent ourselves. We move to a new place, we show up on a college campus, we show up at a new job after years in a different dynamic. We tend to announce the parts of our identity that we want to be taken on. That’s what I mean by sacrificing ourselves. Part of that is rejecting the people who raise us, because they’re associated with those past selves.

Does writing the book and having it out in the world feel like a similar sort of sacrifice?

It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice—it feels like a gift. Writing a memoir in this way is a transformative experience. I feel very lucky—not only did I survive these circumstances, but I’ve been given the opportunity to turn that experience into an offering for other people. Which I think is moving from survival to thriving. I didn’t think of it as a sacrifice at all. I thought of it as doing my duty as a person.

I think so much about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testifying before Congress last year. There were a lot of things going on, but what stood out to me is that she was doing her civic duty. She made the decision that it was important enough for all of us—she was doing something for all of us—in offering up a part of her past and saying, “This is vital, national information. You need to know this.” And unfortunately, in my opinion, America or the powers that be chose to reject that offering. But I received it. I’m a better American because of what Dr. Christine Blasey Ford did. So in writing about our own experiences, that’s the opportunity we’re given. It’s not easy. (Laughs.) It takes work. But this was my intention. My mission was to encapsulate these experiences in a way where I could share them with other people and, hopefully, spare them from some of the pain I experienced.

You mention a line from Reginald Shepherd about why he writes: “My aim is to rescue some portion of the drowned and drowning, including always myself.” What did you feel like you were able to rescue by writing How We Fight for Our Lives?

Hmmm. That’s a beautiful question. As you can see in the book, I have not always been kind to myself, to put it diplomatically. (Laughs.) I’m a pretty intense person, I’m pretty blunt. Sometimes that gets me in trouble. But if this book is any indication, I always want to tell people, “Trust me, there is nothing I’ve said to you that’s anywhere near as intense as what I said to myself.” In some ways, the book is like a love letter, both to my mother—and a way to preserve that love— and a love letter to my younger self. It’s almost like a time machine, or time travel. The moment when my mother and I have just watched the news and heard about James Byrd, Jr., for example. The book is an attempt to go up to young Saeed, who’s just reeling from what he’s learned about America, and be like, “I get you. Someone in this world gets you. And it’s going to be OK.” I was trying to rescue myself, love my past self, and give myself the love that I was denied and that I denied myself for years. 

I’m a week or so into my book tour, I’m in St. Louis right now, I was in Nashville before then, Dallas before then—already at book signings, in my Instagram DMs, in my Twitter DMs, young queer people are coming up to me who live in Kentucky, who live in Texas, who live in Tennessee. And they have tears in their eyes, or more often, they can’t even speak. They walk up to me, and their hands are shaking, they can barely contain themselves. And I hear it all. Obviously, I’m well-versed in silence, as you see in the book. But I hear it all. People are going through these same dynamics, right now, in 2019. People are drowning. People are drowning. And if the book is in any way useful, I’m glad to say, “Here you go.” (Laughs.) It breaks my heart that it resonates so well.

I wish people were like, “Oh, Saeed! That’s terrible! I’ve never felt that way!” But it’s not the case. Many people feel this way. And I think we have to honor that. One of the cruelest things I could do is disregard how people feel.

You write about “the sweetness we deny ourselves because the world is wailing” in How We Fight for Our Lives. I wanted to ask about your newsletter The Intelligence of Honey, where you highlight what brings you joy. Why is that important work for you to share?

My work is often down at the marrow. (Laughs.) I spend a lot of time in the darkness and really going there with these intense issues. And I’m fine with it! I can laugh while talking about trauma—that’s just where I am, I’m comfortable. But I don’t want to give off the mistaken impression that only trauma is worth our attention and our art. Our joy is worth our attention and our art. And I’ve actually found joy and happiness are  harder to write about. It’s a little more difficult. How do I do this in a way that is not like a Hallmark card, a way that’s not cheesy?

In one way that’s an artistic challenge for me, and that’s always good. Give me a minute and I can write you a sad essay—that’s no problem. But let me try to write an essay that makes you smile, makes you laugh—whew, that’s a challenge. So that’s good. But I also think as someone who tends to write things that make people cry, I want people to smile, too! (Laughs.) Writing about The Intelligence of Honey—or at least my intention in doing so—is not to pretend that the world isn’t on fire. It is. It is. But I think the light, the joy, those moments when you’re happy and realize it, and learning something about why you’re happy in that moment: I think that’s an important lesson and an important tool to help us navigate this burning landscape. It makes it easier for us to access that dynamic the next time. Why is the bad news so heavy? Like when you get a rejection or something? It outsizes the good book review. You can get three instances of praise, and then you get one passive-aggressive comment about your writing, and it can send you reeling. That’s how a lot of our brains work. So I’m trying to offset that and create a sense of balance.

You’ve gotten raves from the likes of Roxane Gay, Marlon James, Kiese Laymon, and Jacqueline Woodson, and you were just named as a Kirkus Prize finalist. What has this moment felt like for you? I loved your tweet the other day about it all: “Mute me if you must. I ain’t dimming a goddamn thing. LOL.”

(Laughs.) I mean, yeah! Dammit, I worked so hard on this book. It was such a challenging book to write. Writing is always a challenge, but usually for me it’s a joyful challenge. Writing a memoir was like a triathlon. I was like, “Is it over yet?” And they were like, “The running is over; now it’s time to swim.” Oh my goodness! It was really hard. So to get to the finish line, and to see people cheering is just such a good feeling. And then that feeling is doubled because it’s both about the book and about the book’s heart. I spent so much of my life thinking that I would never be truly welcome, that my whole self would never truly be honored—and the book interrogates every aspect of the dark jewel of that idea. So, here I am: It’s all there! (Laughs.) You can read about it, you can hold that dark jewel in your hand and look at every aspect of it. To know that it’s resonating with people… oh my goodness, there’s no greater honor. There’s no greater honor.

Saeed Jones, Oct. 28 at 6:30 p.m. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonett Street. More information at brazosbookstore.com.

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