“How do you justify the need for another book? How do you earn someone’s time?” Poet, author, and prolific tweeter Saeed Jones is asking me these rhetorical questions while he sips on a hot toddy at Boxcar Social, a café overlooking an ice-skating rink in downtown Toronto. As carefree skaters float by, Jones is passionately explaining why his memoir, How We Fight For Our Lives, is worth being one of the “two, maybe three” books the average person reads in a year. It’s a visceral, lyrical, and unparalleled portrayal of life as a gay Black boy growing up in the South. Jones’s own apartment in Columbus, OH, is littered with books, he says, and he knows there are plenty of options for readers. “I wanted people to go, ‘Oh, this is essential,” he says between sips. “This is helping me live. This is helping me understand my life in real time.’”
Jones may be biased but he’s not wrong. How We Fight For Our Lives is essential reading. Since it was released in October, it won the Kirkus Prize for non-fiction and is on every respected book critic’s “Best of 2019” lists. It’s equal parts a love letter to Carol Sweet-Jones, the single mother who raised Jones and died while he was in his 20s — he’s now 34 — and a harrowing account of a queer person of colour navigating a relentless world of white supremacy and homophobia. It’s also packed with stunning sentences that will stick to your ribs like, “Every time I met a man for sex, a new name blossomed in my mouth like a flower I could pull out from between my parted lips and hand to the stranger standing in front of me.”
If you are one of the 130,000 people who follow Jones on Twitter, you know he has an uncanny ability to weave gut-wrenching emotion with laugh-out-loud levity. You know he can tweet about horny TV shows as well as he can recap a presidential debate. If you follow Jones, or if you watched his hosting stint on Buzzfeed’s live show AM to DM, you also know that his joy is unwavering, just like his newfound confidence. “I feel that I belong in the spaces that I am in,” he says as sits up straighter. When I point out to Jones that he physically perks up during his bouts of self-promotion, he laughs and invokes the memory of the late Toni Morrison. “You watch interviews when [Morrison] would get compliments, she would often just nod,” he says. “She would just be like, ‘yes, that is a fact.’ As a younger reader and writer and a Black kid, that was so powerful.”
It’s powerful to me that How We Fight For Our Lives exists because it is so good, but it’s also empowering that Jones knows how good it is and proclaims it proudly, without shame. It is just fact. Here, we talk about grief, the tweets Jones regrets, and how he hopes his memoir can save lives.
When I was reading your memoir, I kept thinking about the young, queer, Black boys who will have your words to turn to in the same way you turned to James Baldwin's words when you were younger. Were you thinking of them when you were writing it?
Oh, absolutely. The image I had in my mind was the opening chapter. You see me walk into the library and I’m just not getting what I needed or wanted. So, I held on to the image of, “What if this book was one of the books I pulled off the shelf? What would have happened?” I was writing to save a younger version of myself. In doing so, other people are going to relate. I’m thrilled that it’s just one more offering on the shelf — we need all of it. No one person can do all of the work. It’s me, it’s Jeremy O’Harris on Broadway. It’s Frank Ocean. It’s Billy Porter. It’s the women from Pose.
I want to talk about your coming out moment, which actually lasted a few years, right?
Yeah, it was like a coming out era. [Laughs.] These coming out narratives are so simplistic. It’s kind of like the queer version of “happily ever after.” That’s the end. No! Obviously, it’s the beginning of a story. There’s so much more you have to figure out as a family, as loved ones. I came out to my mom the spring semester of my freshman year of college. It just kind of stumbled out, which is what happens when you’ve been thinking about something for so long. My mom asked very reasonable questions like, “Have you had an experience?” and, “Did you use protection?" It was positive, she didn’t say anything negative; she didn’t say anything homophobic. In some ways, it was a conversation about sexual health. That’s a pretty good starting point. But then sure enough, as you see in the book, the couple of years that followed it was like we both went back into our closets.
What have you heard from readers about their coming out stories?
All kinds of stuff. I have open DMs on Twitter and IG. From parents and grandparents, I hear a lot of fear. They’re scared for their queer children and grandchildren. I see it in their eyes and it’s not the fear of bigotry. It’s not “I don’t want my son to be gay” or “I don’t want my daughter to be trans.” It’s "look at what’s happening.” Who can blame a parent wanting to protect their precious child from this world? I hear from a lot of queer people who are worn out. I guess the common thread, and this is true more generally as well, but people are just struggling. They’re really trying their best, but it is a mess.
What’s the one thing you say to them?
I get it. I’ve been there. I think it’s important for people to understand they’re not alone.
The book starts with this stunning poem, Elegy with Grown Folks’ Music, that paints this picture of your mom outside of just the woman who raised you. So, tell me about Carol Sweet-Jones, the woman.
She was funny, she was very opinionated. She loved her makeup. She loved style. She wore sunglasses a lot — sometimes inside. She eventually stopped doing it, but as a kid, it drove me nuts. Now, I’m like, “Oh, she was doing Mary J. Blige.” But at the time I thought it was horrible. She was also not afraid to cry or be joyful. Kelly Clarkson’s “Walkaway” came out my senior year of high school and I remember every time it came on my mom would just start singing. She was up with her mimosa at my graduation party singing. That was her: the laughter and the tears.
She passed away from a heart attack the day before Mother’s Day in 2011. I’ve heard you in countless interviews talking about your mother and your grief. How has that been for your mental health?
It’s fine. Grief isn’t always sad. It’s a celebration of her life. Heart disease in the United States is an epidemic for Black women. They are dying at a disproportionate rate. All of those people aren’t going to have books written to them and their names aren’t going to be written in gold. We’re going to remember Carol Jean Sweet-Jones. So, I don’t feel it’s a burden, I feel that it’s a tremendous honour. Unfortunately, this experience of losing a Black mother in this way is a very common experience that is ignored by the national conversation. It is not treated as an epidemic. It’s not treated as we are fighting for our lives. It’s they are.
What has grief taught you?
Grief is very queer, it is fluid, it is complicated. It’s not linear. For example, a man could walk by wearing the cologne of an uncle of yours who passed away and you’re back at square one. I could eat something, and it might remind me of something my mom cooked and, oh my gosh, we might as well be back in the hospital in Memphis, TN. It’s an ocean: It’s big and scary and deep. Grieving my mom was the most human thing I’ve ever done. I knew I loved her, but you can’t know the depths of your love. We take our loved ones for granted, that’s how it works. Otherwise we’d be sitting in their laps every day. We couldn’t function. Loss just makes it all clear. I had been like a contained explosion and developed this kind of tough “you can’t hurt me because I’ll hurt you first kind of relationship,” and [grief] just really helped me see how much I love people.
You’ve put out this memoir that shares so much but I already felt like I knew you because of your Twitter feed. How are you able to share so much of yourself on Twitter?
That’s interesting. People are like, “You’re so vulnerable,” and I’m like, “Am I?” I don’t know, what else was I supposed to do. If I’m good at Twitter, it’s because it’s literally been a part of my development and growth as a writer. One of my teachers in graduate school, she was on Twitter, so I joined. It just comes down to, “Do I believe in what I’m saying?” I think I’m starting to let things pass that I didn’t used to, though I was not really deeply invested in a conversation with Jameela Jamil. When it happened, I was like, “This is a lesson, Saeed.”
What was the lesson?
On my second or third stop on the book tour, I was in Minneapolis. I was busy and barely looking at Twitter and [Jamil] was talking about George W. Bush and how she did not know who he was [before the Ellen controversy]. Listen, I grew up in Texas. He was our state governor. I have very strong feelings about all of this, and I also I remember being aware of Tony Blair. The point is, she said something that felt a little off the mark. I threw shade at her for it. I was not deeply invested in that conversation, and I need to own that. Sure enough, I got thousands of replies and she replied to me. I was like this is a lesson: Be intentional.
Was it like “I shouldn’t have responded,” or “I should have responded in a different way?”
I believe everything I say when I say it, but it’s like “Is this the time? Is it that serious? Could this be a text to a friend? Does this need to be a tweet?” It’s as easy to tweet as it is to send a damn text message. I have a 130K followers. That actually is quite a reach. So, it’s something I’m learning.
This interview has been edited and condensed.