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Saeed Jones' Eloquent Coming-Of-Age Is Hard To Read — And Harder To Put Down

Editor's note: This book review cites a passage containing a homophobic slur.

One could say that Saeed Jones' new memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, is a classic coming-of-age story. A boy grows up in Texas; he's black, gay and isolated; he's raised by a single mom; he struggles with identity, goes off to college and, eventually, achieves a wobbly sense of self-affirmation.

But Jones' voice and sensibility are so distinct that he turns one of the oldest of literary genres inside out and upside down. Take his intricate reflection on an incident when he was 12, where two sort-of friends brutally turn and ostracize him with one word:

How We Fight for Our Lives is at once explicitly raunchy, mean, nuanced, loving and melancholy. It's sometimes hard to read and harder to put down. Jones' memoir effectively deep-sixes any illusions I had that it must've been a little easier in recent decades to come of age as a queer black boy in Texas. Granted, Jones' public high school is open-minded enough to host a touring production of The Laramie Project, the play about the hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard; but what Jones takes away from that performance is that he'd better closet himself even more securely at school. Jones recalls his younger self realizing that, "Being a black gay boy is a death wish. And one day, if you're lucky, your life and death will become some artist's new 'project.'"

Throughout How We Fight for Our Lives, readers feel the tension of Jones' adolescent and college years, as he's trying to figure out how to be. By the time he gets a full scholarship to Western Kentucky University for his debate skills, Jones is a roiling vessel of shame, need and anger. He's explicit in his accounts of using sex to humiliate himself and his partners, especially the straight white men he seduces. Jones says:

All this time, Jones' mother remains a steady, loving presence in his life. She's out of the apartment a lot when he's growing up, working long hours at her job at the airport, but she always tries to be supportive — up to a point. She really doesn't want to talk about Jones' sexual identity. One evening, when he's in college, Jones casts his eyes downward and starts a conversation with his mom about a guy he dated. Here's how that goes:

How We Fight for Our Lives is a raw and eloquent memoir. I don't think I'm taking away from the particularity of Jones' experience when I say that, in passages like the one above, Jones also speaks to how difficult it is for nearly everybody to hold onto to that vulnerable construction we call our "selves." Jones reminds us that an Invisible Man, illuminated only with a bare bulb, is not only unseen by others — he is barely seen by himself.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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