This reading group guide for How We Fight for Our Livesincludes 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.
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?
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.