Saeed Jones has had an extraordinary life of adversity and achievement—and in his new memoir, he pulls no punches as he boldly brings it all to the page.
There’s a stock character cliche of the literary world: Future Famous Writer emerges from the teeming pools of creative ether commonly found in the Northeast. He is ferried off to a preparatory school for the gifted, where his talent is seized upon and honed like a Franzenian blade; there, sans distraction, he is free to create, while quietly setting his sights upon a life of novels and enigmatic interviews. An MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop follows, as do essays in obscure—but, rightfully, right of passage—publications, and the writer is then set upon the world to bestow his gifts as he sees fit.
But not everyone follows the path.
Saeed Jones grew up a “Fighting Farmer” in Lewisville, Texas, thanks to his school’s mascot.
“To say I wanted to escape my hometown is to downplay the bitterness I choked on every time I thought to myself, I've got to get out of here,” he has written.
Throughout his life, Jones has faced immense adversity, and his new memoir, How We Fight For Our Lives, chronicles his battles. They started early: “There should be a hundred words in our language for all the ways a black boy can lie awake at night.”
Libraries were his sanctuary. School clubs offered the prospect of scholarships—and thus a ticket out of Lewisville—and he became a star debate team member (and president). Jones dreamt of life in the Big Apple after a visit with his mother, and applied to New York University. He got accepted—but he and his mom weren’t able to figure out a way to financially swing it. Western Kentucky University offered him a full ride on a debate scholarship, though, so he headed for the rolling bluegrass hills.
While attending a writing conference in Atlanta, Jones looked out into the crowd, and saw no other writers like him (likely, he saw aforementioned Future Famous Writers). And then he came across writer and Rutgers educator Tayari Jones, who inspired him to earn his MFA at the school.
After a stint teaching at a Newark, New Jersey, high school, Jones took a job at Buzzfeed in 2013—becoming the site’s first LGBTQ+ editor—and his talents came into immediate focus with his writing on the site and others. While the “traditional” literary set tends to bemoan web outlets, Jones embraced them. After all, he has said, they’re where the public is actually reading today, versus the tiny gate-kept journals of yore. .
Coffee House Press published his brilliant poetry collection Prelude to Bruise in 2014, and it was a critical hit, winning a Pen Literary Award. How We Fight For Our Lives followed this year, and in it, his prose strikes the page in all of its lyrical power. In his writing, one gets the sense that Jones isn’t working off of a meticulously constructed persona, but that we’re really hearing his voice—in all of its honesty. No punch is pulled, and instead, we get the story of a life, in all its complexity, horror and beauty.
As he has said, “I wanted the reader to understand that I’m using the mode of memoir writing and my own life story to write about America, as best as I can. Why isn’t our work received as the great American story?”
If it’s not already, it will be. Thankfully, it’s not the stock characters of yesteryear that will be the future. It’s Jones and his peers.
After moving within a stones throw of New York when studying at Rutgers, and then landing his job at Buzzfeed, Jones indeed achieved his dream of living in the city. But he recently left for … Columbus, Ohio. He had been in a bit of a poetry drought back in the city. But since moving, his page is now brimming.
It’s something one of those Future Famous Writers might not understand.
But Jones does.
By Saeed Jones:
How We Fight For Our Lives
Say the critics: “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
Prelude to Bruise
"In his debut collection, Jones has crafted a fever dream, something akin to magic. … Solid from start to finish, possessing amazing energy and focus, a bold new voice in poetry has announced itself." ―Publishers Weekly