Authors who turn themselves inside out for their stories, who are the most vulnerable and giving in their writing, often matter to us the most. In Saeed Jones’ memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, he relates his experiences growing up black and gay in the American South, offering a level of vulnerability that, one might assume, is a signifier that his heart is meant to be shared.
How does such a vulnerable writer enter into the public space of a book event? Jones shares a look into his book tour, which includes a visit to Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books.
Your book discusses the difficulty you’ve had being vulnerable with others throughout your life. What’s the difference between being vulnerable with people in real life and being vulnerable on the page?
Something you see in the book is my tendency to self-bully. It started when I was a gay black kid growing up in the suburbs. I wasn’t bullied by individuals; kids weren’t shoving me into lockers or calling me slurs to my face. Shame—electrified by racism and homophobia—was enforced by the broader culture though, and in response, I started bullying myself. I started saying cruel things about myself to myself. While I’ve generally grown out of self-hate, an ease with being tough and candid about myself to myself is an integral aspect of my writing. People often tell me that I’m so “brave,” but I don’t know how else to be.
It’s easy for me to be incredibly vulnerable on the page, because the blank page is just an iteration of my ongoing internal discourse. In real life though, while I’m all about telling the truth, I struggle with the cost of vulnerability. If I’m upset about something, I’ll confide in my best friend, Isaac, and often say something like, “I’m going to tell you about something that’s upsetting me, but please don’t hug me because I will lose it.” It upsets me when I realize that my vulnerability has made someone I care about emotional. Anyway, I’m sure this book tour will be super chill.
You visited Nashville last year with Isaac Fitzgerald. Was there anything you didn’t get to see or experience then that you’re looking forward to this time?
Oh, goodness. We had such a great time. Hell, we had breakfast with Ann Patchett! How do you top that? I am excited about all of the food. As someone raised in Texas and Tennessee, Southern food is one of my great joys.
If you could sit in the audience for an event with any author, living or dead, who would you like to see read from and discuss their book?
People keep asking me different iterations of this question, and my answer is always the same: I’d want to go to an after-party with James Baldwin. We’ve got archival footage; in the end, a reading is a reading. Why listen to James Baldwin read, when you can dance with him?
Has a reader ever asked a question or made a comment at an event that made you see your work in a new light?
After doing an event for the memoir recently, a woman said that she was so deeply moved by hearing me talk about grief and losing my mother that she “just wanted to adopt me.” I arched my eyebrows in surprise, and she repeated herself. I smiled the nervous-polite smile that I summon in these kinds of moments, thanked her and walked away. That moment helped me understand that, in opening myself up to readers, they’re going to open themselves up, too, and often, that’s messy. Sometimes they’re going to try to comfort me in awkward ways, and I have to be prepared for that. I know she meant well, but also, folks: I had a mother; her name was Carol Sweet-Jones. She was wonderful. I am not looking for replacements.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of How We Fight for Our Lives.
Author photo by Jon Premosch