How We Fight for Our Lives, by Saeed Jones
generous—freely sharing or giving; open-handed
You know it when you hear it, the difference in tone between the way a generous and a begrudging person speaks. Open-handedness is evident in the opening of the soft palate, each word making room.
Generosity is what I heard in listening to the audiobook of Saeed Jones’ How We Fight for Our Lives. Jones is a poet, and this book is his memoir. It won the Kirkus Prize and the Stonewall Book Award. I was afraid to read it, knowing some parts would be hard as he describes growing up gay and Black in a Texas town where I once lived.
Memoir is hard to do well. How does a writer not just go from start to finish but select which scenes most matter?—which tell this story, not the seventeen other stories that could be told? Jones is masterful in his selectivity.
A good book—whether memoir or fiction or some version of non-fiction—makes me question myself and my version of my life. In How We Fight for Our Lives, it was Jones’ relationship with his grandmother that most affected me. There was love, but also hurt. How could a boy on the cusp of adolescence be generous toward a woman who prayed in public for God to bring every plague and hardship upon her own daughter? It didn’t happen all at once. It took years of Jones learning to be generous toward his own failings.
My own grandmother was legendary. She was loving but not always nice. I’ve had a hard time reconciling her love with her hurt. It’s taken seeing her through the eyes of non-family members to realize she was more than her worst moments. I can only hope that the same might be said of me.
After I finished Jones’ memoir, I looked up his poetry. In Daedalus, After Icarus, Jones imagines the man after his son’s fall. He is the object of ridicule, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
We don’t know his name or why he walks
along our beach, talking to the wind.
In the poem’s final two lines, something shifts for Daedalus. The mocking continues, but he has heard truth in the taunts. He “turns, and runs toward the water.” His way forward is not up but out into the deep. I picture the father’s hands, open, swimming.
Leavings, by Wendell Berry
Picture Books and Early Readers
Katy and the Big Snow, by Virginia Lee Burton (Join us for Children’s Book Club next Friday, January 15)
We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, by Ryan T. Higgins
The Happy Day, by Ruth Krauss, illus. Marc Simont
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelly (reread, but it’s been a while)
1. What memoirs have stuck with you?
2. What stories have helped you become more generous with someone?
3. Share your December pages. Sliced, started, and abandoned are all fair game.
Browse more reading roundups
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro