A Heartbreakingly Beautiful Memoir About Identity and Fighting for a Place in the World

September 4 2020

I read memoirs to get glimpses into others’ lives, peek into windows on houses I can never live in, and explore human truths and realities far removed from my own. To read a memoir is to increase my empathy and expand commonality, and to read How We Fight for Our Lives is to conjoin someone’s ferocious becoming with a bracing readerly imperative. It is to be invited into a gratifying narrative of reclaiming trauma and pain and creating security, control, and a sense of self. In his coming-of-age story, Saeed Jones shows us how he had to, how others forced him to, and how we are all constantly in a fight for existence.  

In four remarkable and well-crafted acts, Saeed examines his identity and shows us the ways in which society eliminates gay Black men’s experiences from predominately white spaces, especially in the South. As he attends college and starts to build his confidence, he shares the destructive choices that lead to an eruption of violence after an intimate encounter turns death-defying. Through the start of his career, he sheds pieces of himself along the way, learning how to meld and blend in to the detriment of his self-realization, which eventually comes with hard-won self-reliance and comfortable aloneness where painful isolation once lived. With daring subtext, this book firmly implicates readers to unpack our complicated relationships to power: how we give it up, how it gets taken away, and who gets to wield it. It’s the most constant of our battles.  

Looming large in the story are the women in Saeed’s life: his mother, hesitant to accept his sexuality, and his grandmother, who is even more reticent and religious. The familial dynamics are messy and honest, but also tender. As Saeed grows into adulthood and his mother becomes progressively sicker from a terminal illness, grief starts to permeate the book’s pages. At first it’s for their relationship, which is strained by his silenced sexual identity, and later for her death, which catapults Saeed into finally finding safety. There’s a heartbreaking beauty in How We Fight for Our Lives, a quest for radical acceptance, and an understanding that in order to become our true selves we may become burdened by our actions toward our parents and by those actions committed by them. We cannot extricate ourselves from our parents, nor them from us, and it is sometimes only in reference to them that we can know ourselves. Saeed generously constructs and builds a space out of words and emotions to articulate and relay this unfathomable feeling of betrayal.  

Read this book for its arresting language, as Saeed is a poet, but also read it for the joy his journey holds. It’s a necessary experience in today’s world, one that requires more compassion, care, and sensitivity. I had the pleasure of reading this book uninterrupted during a cross-country airplane ride. Captivated for a full six hours, and sitting very close to a stranger, I openly wept during the last few chapters. Alarmed by my shaking shoulders and loud sniffles, they looked over at my tear-streaked face as I closed Saeed’s book and managed to whisper out to no one in particular, “Wow.” 

How We Fight for Our Lives
by Saeed Jones

WINNER OF THE 2019 KIRKUS PRIZE IN NONFICTION

WINNER OF THE 2020 STONEWALL BOOK AWARD-ISRAEL FISHMAN NONFICTION AWARD

ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES’S 100 NOTABLE BOOKS OF 2019

One of the best books of the year as selected by The Washington Post; NPR; Time; The New Yorker; O, The Oprah Magazine; Harper’s Bazaar; Elle; Kirkus Reviews; Publishers Weekly; BuzzFeed; Goodreads; School Library Journal; and many more.

“A moving, bracingly honest memoir that reads like fevered poetry.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Jones’s voice and sensibility are so distinct that he turns one of the oldest of literary genres inside out and upside down.” —NPR’S Fresh Air

“People don’t just happen,” writes Saeed Jones. “We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us. The ‘I’ it seems doesn’t exist until we are able to say, ‘I am no longer yours.’”

Haunted and haunting, How We Fight for Our Lives is a stunning coming-of-age memoir. Jones tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his family, into passing flings with lovers, friends, and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.

An award-winning poet, Jones has developed a style that’s as beautiful as it is powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze. How We Fight for Our Lives is a one-of-a-kind memoir and a book that cements Saeed Jones as an essential writer for our time.

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How We Fight for Our Lives
Saeed Jones

WINNER OF THE 2019 KIRKUS PRIZE IN NONFICTION

WINNER OF THE 2020 STONEWALL BOOK AWARD-ISRAEL FISHMAN NONFICTION AWARD

ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES’S 100 NOTABLE BOOKS OF 2019

One of the best books of the year as selected by The Washington Post; NPR; Time; The New Yorker; O, The Oprah Magazine; Harper’s Bazaar; Elle; Kirkus Reviews; Publishers Weekly; BuzzFeed; Goodreads; School Library Journal; and many more.

“A moving, bracingly honest memoir that reads like fevered poetry.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Jones’s voice and sensibility are so distinct that he turns one of the oldest of literary genres inside out and upside down.” —NPR’S Fresh Air

“People don’t just happen,” writes Saeed Jones. “We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us. The ‘I’ it seems doesn’t exist until we are able to say, ‘I am no longer yours.’”

Haunted and haunting, How We Fight for Our Lives is a stunning coming-of-age memoir. Jones tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his family, into passing flings with lovers, friends, and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.

An award-winning poet, Jones has developed a style that’s as beautiful as it is powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze. How We Fight for Our Lives is a one-of-a-kind memoir and a book that cements Saeed Jones as an essential writer for our time.

Amazon logo Audible logo Barnes & Noble logo Books a Million logo Google Play logo iBooks logo Indiebound logo Bookshop logo
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