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How We Fight for Our Lives

A Memoir

LIST PRICE $17.00

From award-winning poet Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives—winner of the Kirkus Prize and the Stonewall Book Award—is a “moving, bracingly honest memoir” (The New York Times Book Review) written at the crossroads of sex, race, and power.

One of the best books of the year as selected by The New York Times; The Washington Post; NPR; Time; The New Yorker; O, The Oprah Magazine; Harper’s Bazaar; Elle; BuzzFeed; Goodreads; and many more.

“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 about 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.

This reading group guide for How We Fight for Our Lives includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

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.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Jones opens How We Fight for Our Lives with one of his poems, entitled “Elegy with Grown Folks’ Music” (Tin House, 2016). How does Jones see his mother in this poem? How does music change that view? Have you ever had a mundane experience that changed how you viewed your parents?

2. Why does Jones accompany Cody and Sam into the woods? What do we learn about Jones’s sexuality in this section, and how is that sexuality viewed by these neighbor boys? Do you think they understand the name they call him?

3. In the first few chapters, Jones learns that a friend of his mother’s committed suicide after being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and then he sits through a student performance of The Laramie Project. What does Jones take away from these portrayals of gay men in modern society?

4. Jones says that “just 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” (24). What does Jones worry about as he’s coming of age? What do young black men have to fear in America today?

5. Jones’s mother is Buddhist and his grandmother is a devout Christian. How does religion influence his family dynamics?

6. After spending the summer with his grandmother, Jones realizes that “people don’t just happen. 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.’” And he makes himself a promise: “Even if it meant becoming a stranger to my loved ones, even if it meant keeping secrets, I would have a life of my own (34–35).” Do you believe that you’ve had to sacrifice former versions of yourself? Have you ever felt like you were limited by your family’s impression of you? What did you have to do to change those impressions?

7. When Jones is deciding whether to meet a stranger in the library bathroom, he wonders about how the man views his body. Did the stranger mistake him for a grown man, “transformed, as the bodies of young black men are wont to do when stared at by white people in this country” (54)? Did he see him as the “exact body” that he wanted, or was he just “a body—no, a mouth” (55)? Later, he realizes that his body could be “a passport or a key, or maybe even a weapon” (68). Discuss the ways Jones views his body over the course of the book.

8. When he and his mother visit New York City during Pride Month and she points out a gay couple holding hands, Jones can’t tell if she’s being supportive or making fun of him—“In the absence of clarity, my worst anxieties reigned” (60). How well do you think you knew your parents when you were young? Are there parts of our parents we can’t know or access?

9. After Jones sees a drag show for the first time, he realizes that “that night was the first time in my life I felt like the words ‘gay’ and ‘alone’ weren’t synonyms for each other” (67). What do you think he means by this? Later, at a party in college, he notes that “my loneliness tended to drive me away from people like her [the only other black student at the party] and the gay couple, rather than toward them” (131). Why do you think Jones has trouble connecting with people who, on paper, are like him? Where are the places that Jones finds community in his adulthood?

10. When his mother is hospitalized for her heart condition, Jones says that “I could still see my mother fighting for her life” (74). In what ways is Jones’s mother fighting for her life? In what ways is she fighting for her son’s life? Jones uses this phrase later in the book when he recounts his experience with Daniel on New Year’s Eve (130; 134). What different meaning does this phrase take on when viewed in the context of male sexuality?

11. What does college represent to Jones? What promises did NYU hold for him, and what does WKU eventually provide?

12. As Jones is settling into his new life at WKU, he finds that he’s able to fit in with the boys on his floor and with his debate friends by accentuating different parts of his personality (86). How does he code-switch between these groups? What experiences did he have growing up that taught him how to do this effectively?

13. After Jones officially comes out to his mother, he writes that “I think I didn’t feel as if a burden had been lifted because my being gay was never actually the burden. There was still so much I hadn’t told my mother, so much I knew that I would probably never tell her. I had come out to my mother as a gay man, but within minutes, I realized I had not come out to her as myself” (97). What do you think he means by this? What’s the difference to Jones between coming out as gay and coming out as himself? Later he says that his mother and him are similar because they “both allowed too deep of a contrast between our interiors and our exteriors” (111). What is each hiding from the other?

14. Describe Jones’s relationship with the Botanist. Why do you think Jones and the Botanist are drawn to this arrangement? What does Jones learn from these encounters?

15. When Jones starts his teaching job after graduating from his master’s program, he writes that he was proud of his exhaustion because it was proof that he was “no longer just a son or grandson but an I,” separate from his family with his own life and career (148). When did you first feel like you were a grown-up? Did that change your relationship with your family?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Read Jones’s debut poetry collection, Prelude to Bruise.

2. Consider reading some of the fiction writers that Jones read when he was a kid —Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Baldwin—or some of the poets he mentions that inspired him as an adult: Reginald Shephard, Melvin Dixon, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, and Assotto Saint (4; 141).

3. When Jones is teaching in New Jersey, he recalls that his students were reading The Catcher in the Rye and that they loved Holden Caufield (148). Jones has said that How We Fight for Our Lives is the book he would’ve wanted to read when he was younger. Discuss with your book club what books spoke to you when you were younger. Are there any books you’ve read in your adult life that you wish you came across when you were younger?

4. For more information on Saeed Jones and How We Fight For Our Lives, visit https://www.readsaeedjones.com/.
Saeed Jones

Saeed Jones is the author of Prelude to Bruise, winner of the 2015 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry and the 2015 Stonewall Book Award/Barbara Gittings Literature Award. The poetry collection was also a finalist for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as awards from Lambda Literary and the Publishing Triangle in 2015. Jones was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and grew up in Lewisville, Texas. He earned a BA at Western Kentucky University and an MFA at Rutgers University-Newark. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, and tweets @TheFerocity.

“An unforgettable coming-of-age story, of a bookish, black, gay teen from Texas as he learns to see himself and his dreams—and as he learns how his world sees him…and throughout, he reflects his nation back on itself, writing profoundly…with a gorgeous, intimate style that’s half-prose and half-poetry. It’s a book that takes your breath away, that you race through in a single sitting and then flip right back to page one.” —Jon C., Editor, on How We Fight for Our Lives

PRAISE FOR HOW WE FIGHT FOR OUR LIVES BY SAEED JONES

“[A] devastating memoir….Jones is fascinated by power (who has it, how and why we deploy it), but he seems equally interested in tenderness and frailty. We wound and save one another, we try our best, we leave too much unsaid….A moving, bracingly honest memoir that reads like fevered poetry.”—THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

"A raw and eloquent memoir. One could say that Saeed Jones' new memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, is a classic coming-of-age story….But Jones' voice and sensibility are so distinct that he turns one of the oldest of literary genres inside out and upside down. 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." MAUREEN CORRIGAN, NPR'S "FRESH AIR"

"Extremely personal, emotionally gritty, and unabashedly honest, How We Fight for Our Lives is an outstanding memoir that somehow manages a perfect balance between love and violence, hope and hostility, transformation and resentment.....Jones writes with the confidence of a veteran novelist and the flare of an accomplished poet. This is an important coming-of-age story that's also a collection of tiny but significant joys. More importantly, it's a narrative that cements Jones as a new literary star — and a book that will give many an injection of hope."NPR

“Urgent, immediate, matter of fact….The prose in Saeed Jones’s memoir How We Fight for Our Lives shines with a poet’s desire to give intellections the force of sense impressions.”THE NEW YORKER 

"Jones’ explosive and poetic memoir traces his coming-of-age as a black, queer, and Southern man in vignettes that heartbreakingly and rigorously explore the beauty of love, the weight of trauma, and the power of resilience."ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY
 
"[Jones'] tenacious honesty compels us to be honest with ourselves. His experiences—negotiating grief, family dynamics, and a forthright identity—require our reckoning."—KIRKUS PRIZE 2019 CITATION

“[This] memoir marks the emergence of a major literary voice…written with masterful control of both style and material.” KIRKUS REVIEWS (STARRED REVIEW)

“Powerful…Jones is a remarkable, unflinching storyteller, and his book is a rewarding page-turner.”PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (STARRED REVIEW)

"An unforgettable memoir that pulls you in and doesn’t let go until the very last page."LIBRARY JOURNAL (STARRED REVIEW)

"A luminous, clear-eyed excavation of how we learn to define ourselves, “How We Fight for Our Lives” is both a coming-of-age story and a rumination on love and loss....a radiant memoir that meditates on the many ways we belong to each other and the many ways we are released."—SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

"There are moments of devastating ugliness and moments of ecstatic joy...infused with an emotional energy that only authenticity can provide."—MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE

"Phenomenal....In this profound, concise memoir, the 33-year-old writer isolates key moments from his youth and sharpens their points for maximum effect. We follow a young, searching Jones through his early years with his loving single mother, along a path of unrequited lust, furtive sexual experiences, and disapproving relatives, through his hard-won self-acceptance and into the grief of losing the person closest to him."—INTERVIEW MAGAZINE

"Jones’ evocative prose has a layered effect, immersing readers in his state of mind, where gorgeous turns of phrase create some distance from his more painful memories. Although its length is short (just 189 pages), How We Fight For Our Lives fairly pulses with pain and potency; there is enough turmoil and poetry and determination in it to fill whole bookshelves."—THE AV CLUB

"How We Fight for Our Lives is a primer in how to keep kicking, in how to stay afloat...Thank god we get to be part of that world with Saeed Jones’ writing in it."—LAMBDA LITERARY

"Jones' unabashed honesty and gift for self-aware humor will resonate with readers, especially those in search of a story that resembles their own."
BOOKLIST

“Scorching…a commentary not only on what it takes to become truly and wholly oneself, but on race and LGBTQ identity, power and vulnerability, and how relationships can make and break us along the way.”
GOOD HOUSEKEEPING 

“This memoir is a rhapsody in the truest sense of the word, fragments of epic poetry woven together so skillfully, so tenderly, so brutally, that you will find yourself aching in the way only masterful writing can make a person ache. How We Fight for Our Lives is that rare book that will show you what it means to be needful, to be strong, to be gloriously human and fighting for your life.”
ROXANE GAY, author of Hunger

“This book. Oh my goodness. It is everything everyone needs right now—both love song and battle cry, brilliant as fuck and at times, heartbreaking as hell. Every single living half-grown and grownup body needs to read this book. I’m shook. I’m changed.”
—JACQUELINE WOODSON, author of Another Brooklyn

“There will be little left to say, and so much left to make after the world experiences Saeed Jones's How We Fight for Our Lives. This is that rare piece of literary art that teaches us how to read and write on every page. It's so black. So queer. So subtextual, and amazingly so sincere. Saeed changes everything we thought we knew about memoir writing, narrative structure, and heart meat. All three are obliterated. All three are tended to over and over again. All three will never ever be the same after this book. It's really that good.”
KIESE LAYMON, author of Heavy