book club: ‘how we fight for our lives’.

by Michael King

Despite what conventional wisdom might tell me, I have a tendency to judge a book by its cover. When I walked into Strand Books one afternoon, I did so with the intention of not buying any new books for myself. You have enough, Michael, I reasoned with myself. Then I noticed Saeed Jones’ How We Fight For Our Lives, like a novel on fire, propped up among the stacks. Intentions falling to ash at my feet, I reached for a copy.

When I cracked it open, intending to peruse a page or make a decision, I was pulled immediately into the story: a young gay man at the library, solicited by an older man to join him in the restroom, facing the dilemma between asking for help or allowing his feet to carry him where he wanted to go. I read three or four pages, immersed, before I remembered I was standing in a crowded bookstore. Sighing, I bought the book.

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How We Fight For Our Lives is a memoir, the author’s retelling of his discovery of the world as a son, a grandson, a black man, a gay man, and the intersection of all of these. Shared chronologically, stories from Jones’ life feel simultaneously realistic and raw. There is trauma, humor, loss, and horror. There is danger, hope, joy, and despair. All of it is shared unflinchingly, with refreshing honesty and humanity. My hands couldn’t set it down.

I was walking through a dusty, fluorescent-lit hallway––halfway to the assembly hall, trying with every filament of my body to look cool––when the two truths finally collided:

Being black can get you killed.

Being gay can get you killed.

Being a black gay boy is a death wish.

If you’re a black man in the United States, there is an inherent sense of danger in the world around you. In a different way, if you’re a gay man, the threat of violence looms around you. Carrying both identities, with the knowledge that there are certainly strangers in the world concealing hatred for both or either, intensifies that isolation. The experience of navigating that danger, walking the world with the keen awareness that it could show up and bring the story to a brutal, sudden end, often goes unacknowledged. As a reader, it hurt to navigate some of these moments alongside Saeed’s storytelling. He doesn’t flinch away from those moments, doesn’t pull away before exposing the nerves.

‘Deserved.’ I started circling that word like dirty water whirling down a drain. As I saw it, I had pursued him for much of that night ,hoping that he would invite me back to his place. I had seen him as a sexual object, or rather, I had built a metaphor around his body. And then, once we were alone in that room, he broke out of it, and almost broke me. Did I deserve what had happened to me? Had I been asking for it? Had I pushed too far? Or was this simply the risk I accepted, and would have to continue to accept, any time I went back to a guy’s place?

Much of the story in How We Fight For Our Lives revolves around the narrator’s relationship with his mother. Early in the story, Saeed alludes to the idea that his mother’s heart will not carry her beyond the pages of the story, that he will lose her before we are done reading. Still, there are stories that capture her humanity, her hope and heartbreak. As so often happens in the retelling of our stories of loss, there is a sense of hope that the ending will be different this time, that the very threads of reality, in the retelling, will work themselves into new knots.

‘Sedrick Saeed Jones, quit playing. I made you.’ She laughed then hung up. I wanted to laugh too, but I felt swept along, swept past. It annoyed me, how easily she was able to pry me away from myself. When I put down the phone, though, my frustration curdled into shame. How could I begrudge the woman who raised me on her own? How dare I, when she had found it in herself to keep loving her own mother through decades of ups and downs?

How We Fight For Our Lives is a provocative title for a memoir, sounding something like an instruction manual, promising answers to what is undoubtedly an impossible question. Who, I wondered, holding it in my hands, is the ‘we?’ Gay men? Black people in the United States? Sons raised by single mothers with ailing hearts? Mothers showing up to work in between orange pill bottles? Having finished the memoir, consumed it voraciously and let its stories echo over me a bit, I think the answer is yes. To all of those, each of them individually and sometimes all of them at once. Another question, what is it to fight for a life, rises naturally. The answer, I think, is both impossible and simple, found somewhere in the swell of hope among heartbreak, in the keeping on amidst falling apart. We’ve got to keep searching.