Saeed Jones on growing up Black and gay in the South | Xtra

Saeed Jones on growing up Black and gay in the South | Xtra

January 18, 2020 0 By Luis Garrison


I’m not gonna pull punches, as you see. I
never pull punches in my writing for other people or myself, you know what I
mean? Like, there’s a younger version of Saeed out there somewhere who’s like, ‘Damn, girl, did you really have to put me on blast like that?’ I’m like, ‘Yes I did.’ Saeed Jones is a former BuzzFeed LGBT
editor and author of the award-winning poetry book “Prelude to Bruise.” His
memoir “How We Fight for Our Lives” is about growing up as a gay Black man in
Texas and navigating his relationships with his family, partners and his own
identity. I sat down with Jones to talk about the memoir, writing about trauma
and how we can all fight for our lives. You have this great line – another great
line – that says “if America was going to hate me for being Black and gay, then I
might as well make a weapon of myself.” And I think there’s a lot to be said for
how we use our bodies and our identities as weapons today –
and our hearts – and our hearts – How
do you think we can weaponize ourselves for good, for change, for love – and against
what? Right, I mean I definitely think my writing is weaponized, or
rather, I think of my writing I guess as a kind of tool. I think at that point in the book I was – I don’t know – 21, 22, which is
to say, a mess, and was so unhappy. The context that I observed, I was right
about that, but my response was really still rooted in toxic masculinity, and I think it’s important for gay men, for queer people, to think about
those moments or those spaces in which we find ourselves inadvertently leaning
on these traditional toxic structures for strength. And so I think I
was really trying to project strength. I’m tough. You hate me America? Well, I hate
you. You know what I mean? And I feel like that – it’s like, that’s kind of fuel,
maybe, but it burns out really quickly. You can’t live like that. And you see in
the book I realized really quickly why I can’t. But yeah for me, I think that energy though does go somewhere, and it’s in my writing, it’s in
my public communication – you know, Twitter, doing public speaking events.
For me, the weapon with time became ‘Oh, I can use my my art, I can
use my craft to do that, and isn’t that better than literally trying to use my
own body to do so? I think it is. I think it is. There’s a scene in your book which
I found very powerful, which was when you are looking at the names of all the
Black poets in your notebook and you get emotional and you basically say that you
know these these these poets have either died of something tragic – AIDS, poverty,
something tragic – and then you think about your own experience and you say
something that really gave me goosebumps, which is that Black
boys, they never really get away from death – they just have more time. They can buy themselves more time, more poems, more breaths. And I found that to
be one of the most hard-hitting themes in the book. This theme that being a
Black gay boy is a death wish. Yeah, so at one point I say, witnessing what happened to Matthew Shepard, I’m like, okay, so being gay can get you killed. Witnessing what happened to James Byrd Jr, a Black man who was killed by three
white supremacists four hours from where I grew up in 1998 – okay, so being Black
can get you killed. And then here I am. Uh-oh. And so, the death wish is –
that’s what I perceived at the time. And I don’t feel that it is a death wish, but
that’s how America made me feel. That is what I intuited based on what I was
reading in the culture. We have trans and non-binary loved ones and friends and
co-workers who, it’s like a constant litany of names. I don’t know a
genderqueer or trans person who doesn’t have the name of someone who has died
and been killed for living their truth. It’s just – my God, you know. And so
that is a heaviness that for different ways and different reasons we shoulder
and I’m not going to tell anyone not to be afraid. I’m not going to tell anyone
that stakes aren’t high, because they are. That’s a fact. And all I can
do as an artist is say, well, I have felt that way too. I don’t feel that way now. Things have changed – the community, the
self-care. Hopefully it helps people go, ‘Hah, Saeed was there and now he’s here and
I’m kind of there too, so maybe I can get there as well,’ you
know? That seems more useful than saying then trying to dissuade people of what
they intuitively feel, you know? Because we have so much work to do
and of course progress takes time, I understand that – everything doesn’t
happen overnight, but my God, people are dying overnight. So it’s like, that’s what we’re always struggling with. I want to talk a bit about healing
and you know, healing is a nonlinear process and I feel like when
you write memoir it’s even more so a nonlinear process, because you are – and
I think you mentioned it later on in the book when you’re talking about Daniel
– you write characters or you write scenarios to get over them, to
control them, to resolve them but then when you actually write memoir all of
this stuff comes back to the surface, right? So, did you feel like you had any support around you to deal with it? Like what did you do for self
care while you’re writing? Yeah, yeah this is a great question. I mean often I would
travel. I would say about half of the book I wrote outside of New York City
where I was living at the time. I actually came here – and I came here and I wrote
the coming out chapter, my freshman year, that I actually wrote in Queen
West, that neighbourhood here, so I would travel a lot and find places where I
could get away from the noise of New York City and spend time with myself. I
don’t know, my friends were very supportive, my therapist was incredibly
supportive. We do need to have people in our lives who have known us through
various iterations of ourselves and can tell us the truth. And then just, you know,
I think self-care as a writer is reading. So I studied the form
tremendously. I didn’t read a lot while I was writing it but before I felt I
really had to prepare myself from reading other – Mary Karr is a writer I’ve
been thinking about a lot today – in terms of seeing how they navigated that
difficulty, so I would like read her books and then reread them and then
study interviews where she would talk about – 10, 20 years after she’s written Liars’ Club, how she feels about it and
that was helpful. And now you have recently won the Kirkus Prize for non-fiction for your book – 
What a time! Yes, what a time! And that’s exactly what I was going to ask you next – you wrote this great piece for BuzzFeed in 2015
about what it was like to be a Black writer in the publishing industry and
basically how racism is not – you don’t get rid of racism by going to these
soirées and dressing up and looking real cute, and so now it’s been about four
years since that article was published and you have two books under your belt. So
do you feel like the publishing industry has genuinely made room for
writers like us? Not really. Statistically it hasn’t changed that much in terms of
the demographics of people who are in publishing, and the reason not much has
changed is because an outsized portion of a conversation about diversity of
representation is on writers. It took me 10 years basically to write this book. None of us can single-handedly diversify the industry if we’re depending on
writers because we move at the pace we do. So I feel that it has not changed
substantively enough because I’m still – when I sold this book, for
example, eight publishers bid on it and that was great – that’s very impressive
and very exciting, but it also meant that I spent time in the offices of eight New
York City-based publishers, which is to say, I was usually the only Black person
in the room and if there was another Black person in the room it was an
intern sitting in the back taking notes. You know what I mean? And they weren’t a black queer person empowered to spend money, so I think we need more editors, we need Black people in sales and
marketing. We need queer people. Publishing is a lot more straight than I
realized initially as well, so yeah, it’s the behind-the-scenes aspect, where the
power is – who are the publishers? Who’s the head of
sales, head of marketing? Who’s coming up with these book covers cutting off the
faces of Black people, lightening characters’ skin? That’s not the writers
making those decisions, so that’s the issue and it’s getting
better but I find generally applauding people when it comes
to race and sexuality and gender stuff doesn’t help. You applaud
people, you say ‘Good job,’ and they immediately slow down.
It’s true.
And you’re just like, no, keep on, keep on. On a similar note
I feel like we’re having this huge moment for queer trans writers, for
writers of colour – anyone really with an intersecting identity ,whether it’s in
publishing or TV or film – we’ve got Lena Waithe for president, hopefully – I feel
like I’m kind of torn because I’m like the gates are open, let’s charge
these gates, let’s get this money – and on the other hand, I’m like, well, do I want
to contribute to the stereotype that they think that our lives are tragic and
and traumatic, and it feels like when our stores are being told they always want
the trauma. And you know, even in the editing process – ‘Tell me more
about this.’ And it feels like it’s just very – it’s crossing that line of
exploitation. Do you kind of deal with that in your own writing? Sure, sure. I came to this book having worked as an editor, whether
I was personally editing or assigning personal essays for
example – that was something – and what am I asking of people? I still
think about election night 2016 in New York City and around 10:00 p.m.
I grabbed my Macbook and started reaching out to people saying, ‘Do you
want to write about what’s happened to you,’ in real time. And, listen, that
perspective was important – we did need to hear from – it was like, we were all kind of
like, ‘What is happening?’ and that essay form is a way to get insight. It is a powerful form but yeah you have to be thoughtful. So yeah, I
think if you feel that you were ready and if you feel that
you have found your professional team of collaborators then that’s the
conversation: how do we do this in a way that helps me sleep at night. Yeah, I
think any writer and certainly editor, that needs to be an ongoing dialogue. How
do you feel? Do you feel I’m taking more than I’m giving? You know what I mean? In terms of support. Or do you feel like you are talking about these often
painful or transformative experiences for a reason, and that’s why
with this book it was like, how we fight for our lives. I did a lot of things – I
try to use a lot of narrative strategies to make it clear
that I wasn’t just trying to set myself on fire for readers’ emotional
entertainment or education. I’m not gonna sacrifice my life, but I am
going to show you what I’ve learned about my life, so that you can learn
about your own, and that I think is a more empowered position.
I agree, I think even in earlier drafts you think everything needs to be on the page
and then you – it is respect, it’s respect for yourself and the people who raised
you and your experiences. Is it out there too just for shock or is it
out there because you want someone to learn? And so there’s a lot of difficult stuff
in the book – a lot of personal stuff, still, told in a very
respectful, masterful way but what was it like to have this book now with
your life in it and share it with the people around you? Because in the
book you talk about your uncle, you talk about your grandma, so what was that like?
Funny. My grandma read the book, and for example, I told her, I sent a note with it – I sent galleys to my family, because I was like
well, they never told me not to read it, they never were
like, ‘What’s going on with it?’ They were patient and trusted
me and so – but I sent a note, that I was like, you don’t have to read the middle
basically, because the middle, I’m in college and a lot of sex – like you don’t have to go there, I get it. And they all did. They all read it
and my grandma was like, ‘It was kind of raunchy.’ And Mildred, as you see in the book, she’s not a practical joker, she’s not like a funny, funny lady, but we laughed. I
know the book is a lot about my past and you certainly – you do get really
familiar with a part of my story but it’s just a part. I think other people
feel more intensely of knowing so much about me. I think other people have a
more – and because, I’m like, it’s me. Yeah. I’m like, welcome. You know what I mean? It kind of feels like welcome to the party – I’ve been here the whole time. And maybe people, you know, friends or acquaintances – friends know, but maybe acquaintances are like, ‘Oh, that’s why Saeed is not here for
slut-shaming at all,’ – because I’m not I don’t play. We do not do slut-shaming, you
know what I mean? That’s why masculinity every – Me Too came along, I was like, ‘Let’s go.’ You know what I mean? Because obviously
it’s rooted in experiences and I’ve been thinking about them for a long time. So I guess people have a context, but I’m like welcome to the party. Join me.
I feel that. Well, that is it for all my questions, Saeed. “How We Fight for Our
Lives” is available everywhere now so please get a copy. It is phenomenal.
And thank you again for joining us. Buy it for people you love. Buy it for people
you hate. Be like, ‘You’re trash. You need this book.’