'We're All Struggling': Writer Saeed Jones Reflects On Identity And Acceptance
As a black gay kid growing up in Texas in the 1990s, poet Saeed Jones remembers getting negative messages about his identity from every aspect of his life. It was around the time of Matthew Shepard's murder in Wyoming, and Jones felt alone and unsafe.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Saeed Jones, has written a new memoir called "How We Fight For Our Lives." It's about growing up black, gay and closeted in Texas in the '90s when he thought gay meant AIDS, meant death. The book is a coming-of-age memoir. But our book critic Maureen Corrigan says Jones' voice and sensibility are so distinct that he turns one of the oldest literary genres inside out and upside down. Maureen also describes the memoir as raw and eloquent. The book includes descriptions of his early experiences hooking up with men and sometimes putting himself in risky situations. When he got to college, he came out and found other gay young men who were out. He went to the University of Western Kentucky on a debating scholarship. He had also gotten a scholarship to NYU, but it didn't cover all the tuition, and he and his single mother couldn't afford to pay the remainder. Saeed Jones' memoir won the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction. His collection of poems, "Prelude To Bruise," was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and received a PEN Award and a Stonewall Book Award. He's the former LGBT editor and culture editor of BuzzFeed.
Saeed Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start in the library, not just because you're a writer, but because the library is where you first went to get answers to your questions about homosexuality. So before you do the reading, I just want to set it up a little bit. You'd been reading James Baldwin's "Another Country," which had two significances for you. One was the content of the book, and the other was the photo in the book. So tell us a little bit about both, which will lead into the reading.
SAEED JONES: Sure. Yeah. My mom didn't graduate from college. She grew up in Memphis, Tenn. She went to, you know, a state school there for a few semesters, but she kept her books. And among them were, you know, copies of books by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, James Baldwin. And by the time I am 12, as you see in the opening chapter of my memoir, I start gravitating towards those books because they're in the middle of our living room. And I pick up her copy of "Another Country," and I'm immediately pulled in by the language, the setting in Harlem. It's sexy. It's invoking jazz, and it feels like jazz as I'm reading it. And, you know, there are interracial relationships. There's queerness. There's bisexuality, a lot of fluidity, a lot of back and forth with all of the characters.
But also I found a Polaroid photograph of my mom and this man, this young man, that I didn't know that was dated Jackson, Miss., 1982. And so I asked my mom about it when she got home from work that day and she - my mom was a bit terse. She held her cards close to her chest when it came to life stories. And she just eventually kind of admitted that, you know, that was a friend of hers. They were close when they were college students. They would take road trips. And then she just kind of went on and then quickly just threw off that, you know, and later he found out that he was sick and killed himself. And I'm like, wait, what? Huh? And then she just quickly said AIDS and walked out of the room. And my mom and I never actually talked about that man, that photograph or what we learned about each other that day ever again - ever.
GROSS: So what year are we talking about?
JONES: This is May, 1998. So, you know, Matthew Shepard is going to be killed that October, which also figures into the book.
GROSS: So I want you to read a short scene from the book in which you are in the library looking for some information about what it means to be gay because you've got nobody to talk to about it.
JONES: I've got no one to talk to, and I'm afraid to ask questions. Like, I'm afraid to even go to the librarian to ask for context, so I'm just figuring out on my own. (Reading) The first book that stopped me was for parents dealing with gay children. The introduction was worded like it was intended for readers coping with a late-stage cancer diagnosis. I put the book back on the shelf, wrong side out. Eventually, I gathered five or six books and sat down on the floor with them in my lap. Like any teenage boy trained at reading things he should not be, I looked both ways before opening any, then got up and grabbed a decoy off the shelf. It was a book about the sociology of boys. I kept it open on the second chapter and within reach in case someone I knew came down the aisle and I needed a quick alibi.
All the books I found about being gay were also about AIDS - gay men dying of AIDS like it was a logical sequence of events, a mathematical formula or a life cycle. Caterpillar, cocoon, butterfly; gay boy, gay man, AIDS. It was certain. Mom's friend got AIDS because he was gay. Because he was gay, he killed himself because he knew he was dying anyway. I read about gay men who were abandoned by their families when they came out or worse who did not tell anyone that they were gay even when lesions started to blossom on their skin like awful flowers.
Either way, the men in those books always seemed to die alone. I took some comfort in the fact that Mom knew about her friend's illness. Maybe he had been able to tell the people close to him. Maybe Mom was the kind of person you could tell. When I stood up to put the books back on the shelf, I realized my hands were shaking. I felt like I had made the mistake of asking a fortuneteller to look into my future, and now I was being punished for trying to look too far ahead.
GROSS: And that's Saeed Jones reading from his new memoir. So was sex and death equated in your mind?
JONES: Absolutely. And I think, you know, this is true for my generation. I'm 33 years old. I was born in 1985. And I would say until, frankly, the last - what? - two or three years with the introduction of PrEP TRUVADA, most gay men - a defining aspect of our sexual experiences has been, you know, an awareness of not just, you know, STIs, STDs, you know, that we all need to be aware of and thoughtful about, but am I going to get HIV/AIDS, right? Which, you know, is no longer a death sentence, as I understood it at the time. But certainly, I mean, that is a lifelong condition that's going to require treatment and support, you know. And that - there's a heaviness to that.
There is, you know, just a deep sense of foreboding that I think often turns into shame with time because it feels like you're risking punishment, you know? And that's why that idea that it's a life cycle, as I perceived it in reading those books as a 12-year-old in 1998, it was just so deeply heartbreaking because, you know, I had so many questions about my life and my future, you know, that idea of trying to look too far ahead. But the one question I never had was, like, am I attracted to men? You know, I knew. I knew that this attraction was sincere and reasonable and just a part of who I am, you know. So the questions that I was trying to figure out were like, am I doomed because of who I am?
GROSS: Well, you know, you're right. Being black can get you killed. Being gay can get you killed. Being a black gay boy is a death wish.
JONES: Yeah, yeah. So, you know, 1998 is so pivotal. You know, James Byrd Jr., a black man who lived just four hours from where we were living at the time in Lewisville, he accepted a ride home from three men who were - who turned out to be white supremacists. He just needed a ride home. He couldn't afford it. And they ended up beating him up and chaining him to the back of their truck and dragging him for miles until his body was literally dismembered. It just came apart. And I remember this summer, you know, being 12 years old and sitting on the couch with my mom, a black single parent, and watching this. And then that fall, that October, you know, again watching the news, hearing the kind of public conversation, you know, I learn about the name Matthew Shepard, who was killed in Laramie, Wyo., by two men he meets at a bar one night.
And so, yeah, I mean, growing up, I was seeing these cautionary tales connected to identity. And, of course, being gay isn't a choice just like being black isn't a choice. And neither of those things should be cause for shame. And yet, it was just so clear that it was perilous to be a black gay boy in America.
GROSS: Well, we're going to take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Saeed Jones, and his new memoir is called "How We Fight For Our Lives." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Saeed Jones. His new memoir is called "How We Fight For Our Lives." It's about growing up black and gay in Texas, his early sexual life and hooking up with men. This part of the interview is an adult conversation about sexuality. It's candid, but not explicit.
So we're talking about how you went to the library to look for books about homosexuality because there was no one you could talk to. It was also in the library that you had your first sexual encounter, in the bathroom of the library. So tell us about the man who you went with that day and how you first connected, how you first knew that this could be an encounter.
JONES: Sure, yeah. This is a few years later. I'm in high school. I - you know, again, I'm back at the (laughter) library. I'm using the computers to, like, try to find - and I wasn't very successful, like, trying to find porn because, of course, there's all this, like, content blockers. But I was making a persistent effort.
And this guy, this kind of, you know, very Texas - I would say Texas A&M dad, if you can imagine, like, the maroon, you know, collared shirt and the jeans and the boots, you know, sits down next to me. And he just looks at my screen and says, are you into that? And it freaks me out. I think I'm about to get in trouble. But he very quickly is just like, I'm into that too, and tells me to meet him in the restroom outside the actual library because it's like - in Lewisville, the library and the city council and the police department are all in one big complex.
So I go out, and I eventually find him. I decide I want to do this. And we start hooking up. And it all falls apart basically when I try to kiss him, and he moves his face away.
GROSS: And what did that say to you?
JONES: It was deeply embarrassing. You know, it's - it was - he - you know, it felt like, here I am. I've finally (laughter) - I have finally found the golden ticket, which is to say another person who has desire that I have, you know. And then, you know, just being as a kid and, you know, I'm watching movies and stuff, and, you know, when you're having sex, it's romantic, right? And that's what we're doing, so shouldn't we kiss? - is how I felt very naively. And he was like, oh, absolutely not (laughter). And so I felt embarrassed. And I think the only thing more painful than not getting what you want is, like, almost getting it and then, you know, being shamed right at the last minute.
GROSS: So how did it change you and how you thought of yourself to have had a sexual encounter? I mean, it wasn't, like, the best one. The guy...
GROSS: ...Was not willing to meet you as a person...
GROSS: ...You know? It was, like, too intimate. But still, like, you'd had something that you wanted. And I'm sure that changed you. I'm sure it put you in a different place than you - there was a before-and-after line that was drawn there.
JONES: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I went into that room feeling one way about myself, and I walked out of it feeling a different way. I think it mostly felt like a win. You know, I think because I had this understanding of the peril of being black and gay, I think it was like, well, at least I got this, you know what I mean? Like, it - you know, I kind of assumed that I would never - you know, that the question of, like, me getting, like, love, you know, a soulmate or marriage, eh, I don't know. But I was like, you know, I did get to hook up. He was handsome, you know? And that's got to count for something right, is kind of how I felt.
GROSS: Did you have a way to meet men in a more open setting? Like, could you have gone to - how old are you when this happened?
JONES: Fifteen, 16.
GROSS: OK. So that rules out gay bars.
JONES: Uh-huh. Yeah, there wasn't a way. There was no way. This was it. I mean, there was no way, you know, that - the image of kids going to prom or homecoming with someone of the same gender, that doesn't happen. You don't see that at all in terms of media, you know? Until I'm in college or graduate school, I start seeing that, like, oh, that's incredible. Dating - how would you even find (laughter) - you know, I - at the time, there was literally no other way to find this kind of connection except through cruising.
GROSS: So there was also the internet. And so you start going on chat - in chat rooms. And you come home one day...
GROSS: ...And your mother says, come to the computer screen.
JONES: Oh, my gosh (laughter).
GROSS: I - so I - do you want to - why don't you read the email that she had written...
GROSS: ...And wanted you to read and then hit send. Yes, OK.
JONES: Totally, totally. She wrote, (reading) dear pervert, your profile says that you are in your mid-30s. I'm informing you that you have been communicating illegally - in all caps - with my son, who is a minor. I am his mother. If you ever try to contact him again, I will report you to the police. You are sick. Stay away from my child.
GROSS: So she had you read it, and then she she made you press send. What was your reaction to reading your mother's email? What did it say to you about what she thought you were up to, what she thought of you, what she thought of him, what she thought - you know, I'm not even sure what pervert means. Is she...
GROSS: Is she saying he's a pervert because he's communicating with a minor, or because he's gay or both?
GROSS: So tell me your interpretation of this email.
JONES: Yeah. That's why I think that that moment is so interesting because, yeah, there are so many things (laughter) that could have been communicated and received, and I don't know. You know, I remember feeling deeply embarrassed. Like, oh, Mom, I don't get it. Like, it's not - you don't get it. It's not what you think. You know, I remember kind of trying to be like, I understand how this looks, but it's not what it is, you know?
JONES: (Laughter) But yeah, I - the ambiguity in you are sick, and you are a pervert, I remember - I just didn't know how to read. I mean, I hope that she meant you are a grown man, and he is a child. And even if he thinks, because he's a teenager, he wants to be doing this, it's too soon. I hope that's what she meant. But she didn't say that. And even when we talked about it afterwards - you know, we have a conversation that's a - close to one of the more honest conversations we ever have about sexuality. It's still very ambiguous because she just says, listen - you know, everyone has feelings like this sometime. And I'm like, well, what - but then she doesn't explain what the feelings are, you know? And so those are some of the moments I'm really interested in - when people are, like, making their best effort, but there's still so much miscommunication.
GROSS: So you keep getting all these, like, really bad messages, right? Like...
JONES: Really bad.
GROSS: You know - yeah. I mean, gay equals AIDS equals death. Sex equals a guy in a stall in the library who won't even kiss you. Chatrooms where there's - I don't think you were meeting anybody...
GROSS: ...Who you were chatting with, so that gets you a big slap on the wrist from your mother and a pervert email to the guy you were chatting with.
GROSS: So I don't know - it seems like you were really getting buried by a lot of incredibly negative messages.
JONES: Yeah, it just - and you know, my mom was a very confident...
GROSS: Oh, and it's not like your mother said to you, you know, look - you're gay. I get it.
JONES: Right (laughter).
GROSS: Let's find other ways of meeting gay boys.
JONES: Yeah, yeah, yeah. She wasn't like, listen - I'm going to talk to the other moms.
GROSS: That's right. Let's see if any of their sons are gay.
JONES: And we're going to - let's find someone, and I can meet him. Maybe we go out for, like, a group dinner. Yeah, there was...
JONES: You know, which is totally what I would do now. You know, I would totally be like, I am going to find - we're going to matchmake you, you know. No, there's not that. So - and yeah, so - but I don't stop, right? Like, I don't - you see, like, I do not give up. I do not take America's, like, no to my identity for an answer. And so I just - I keep trying, and I keep getting angrier. I think you begin to see, particularly in high school, this silence kind of making space for anger. And so by the time I was in college, I was, like, gay as hell and mad as hell.
GROSS: So you grew up in Texas with a single mother. She had two jobs, so you'd spend part of each summer in Memphis with your grandmother. Your mother was Buddhist and chanted nam-myoho-renge-kyo. And what's the name of the form of Buddhism that she practiced?
JONES: She practiced with the Soka Gakkai.
GROSS: Thank you. And so she taught you to chant nam-myoho-renge-kyo. So you were visiting your grandmother, who at this point was going to a different church than the one she used to take you to. And there was a visiting evangelical pastor who was preaching hell and damnation. And one day after the sermon, when people were invited down to the pulpit, your grandmother took you to the pulpit and told the preacher that your mother was Buddhist. Would you describe the preacher's reaction?
JONES: Sure. I'd never spoken to him. He certainly didn't know my mom. But he just, like, nodded, like that was all he needed to know. And he just started praying - really, cursing my mother. And it was basically like, you know, God make her suffer. You know, put all your ailments and plagues on her, so she suffers so much that she comes back to the church and brings her son with him. That was the prayer (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah, make her suffer. Put every ailment, every disease on her until she breaks under the weight of the Holy Spirit. Show her your plagues and save this child. And then your grandmother thanked him...
JONES: Yeah, it was awful.
GROSS: ...For wishing plagues on her daughter, your mother. How did you experience that moment?
JONES: So viscerally. I remember how hot I felt. I remember that I felt like I was going to faint because I was feeling so many things. My mind was racing. I was thinking about her. I was thinking about my mom. I was thinking about all the people watching us. Am I crying? Do they think I'm crying? It was just my mind was racing. And then when he said, her, at one point, and maybe, like, the make her suffer, I, like, snapped into focus because I was so distracted that in that moment I was like, wait - you're talking about my mom. Oh, my God. You know?
And it was just so sickening that he would do that, for so many reasons. And of course, deeply - even now, it just makes me so sad that I think my grandmother really believed she was doing the right thing. I think she thought she was saving her grandson's soul, which is, you know, an act of love. But even in that moment, I knew. I was like, this is wrong (laughter). This is insanely hurtful and just disturbing. And I couldn't even speak, neither of us. We didn't really talk, right? And it was like that for years.
GROSS: Did you ever talk to your grandmother or your mother about that?
JONES: I never told my mom about it because I couldn't - I just - I couldn't even imagine telling my mom that her mother had thanked a pastor for praying for her to get sick. I couldn't even. I told my mom that - I was like, I'm not going to Memphis by myself anymore, certainly not for the summer. But, like, you know, the holidays or whatever - if you can't go, like, I'm not going to go. And that stayed until she passed away, when I was in my 30s. I just wouldn't go by myself. And if I went with her, it was short.
My grandma - we didn't really talk about it. She has read the book. And so we've made up, and we talk about it in the context of the book, which is to say she read it and she said - about that section of the book, she just said it brought back a lot of memories. So, you know, I appreciate that she's never - she never was like, don't write about it. Or, you know, she's never tried to, like, control the story or say, well, you didn't really understand. Like, she's just - she just kind of owned it, which frankly, I really appreciate (laughter) because I think the only thing that could have made all of this more hurtful is that - if she'd tried to, like, gaslight me.
GROSS: My guest is Saeed Jones. His new memoir is called "How We Fight For Our Lives." We'll talk more after a break. And Lloyd Schwartz will review two contemporary operas, one based on a poem and one based on a fairy tale. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Saeed Jones, author of the new memoir "How We Fight For Our Lives." It's about growing up black, gay and closeted in Texas in the '90s when he thought gay meant AIDS, meant death. The book is also about discovering sex, hooking up with men and finding a gay community when he went to college on a debating scholarship.
You know, we talked about how it was hard to talk to your mother about being gay. So when you did try to, like, come out to her, she probably - I'm guessing she probably already knew - but you hadn't officially come out to her, so you tried to do it with a joke.
JONES: Right (laughter).
GROSS: A joke that she didn't really get.
JONES: Oh, God, so awkward.
GROSS: Tell us - tell us the joke and how that landed.
JONES: I'd gotten a little memento from my speech team to celebrate, you know, the year or whatever. And it was just - and everyone had a little motto. And my motto was like, Saeed's not in the - not even his clothes are in the closet anymore. That's what it was - not even his clothes are in the closet anymore, which I thought was very funny. And so I was talking to her about it and she was just like, what does that mean? And I was like, you know, my clothes aren't in the closet anymore, like, I'm not in the closet anymore. And it just - it did not - she didn't find it funny, she was confused, and she had a lot of follow-up questions. And that's how I ended up coming out to her.
GROSS: What were her follow-up questions?
JONES: She said, have you had a lot of experience? It's like she wouldn't - I don't think at first she would use the word gay. She'd just say, have you had a lot of experiences? And I was like, are you talking about being gay? And then she would just repeat the question. And I finally was like, yeah, fine, yes. And then I was like, are you always going to call it experiences? And she was just like, answer the question. And then she was like, are you using protection? And I said, yes. And then that was kind of it. She was kind of like, OK, bye, I got to go. She sounded tired. She sounded really tired. And that was it. And then she called me back later that day when I started freaking out like, oh, God. Because I felt like I'd been like - I'm such a Sagittarius. I am a practical joker. Like, I love to laugh. And - but I felt like I had messed up. Like, this was actually really significant to her and that I'd been cracking jokes on a moment that I had been wanting for years, right? And so I felt really bad. But then she just called me back and was just like, hey, I forgot to say I love you. And I love you, and you seem happy and that's all that matters, you know, and that meant the world to me. It was just really important for me to see that, yeah.
GROSS: So there's another time, and I guess this was earlier? You were on a long car drive with your mother and she brings up the war in Iraq, which is in the news. And you said you dated a guy whose brother was serving there.
GROSS: So you slipped in, you dated a guy.
JONES: Yeah. So that was actually later.
GROSS: That was later?
JONES: That was after I came out to her, yeah. Because we - it was like we went back in the closet. And I think this actually happens with a lot of people. Like, you kind of come out to your family members and they're like, OK, or not, and then sometimes people just try to go back and pretend that it didn't happen. And that's totally what happened with my mom, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, you write that you were silent and that she stared at you almost pleadingly. And you write, I did exactly what I thought all people who love each other do. I erased myself so I could be her son again.
JONES: Mmm hmm.
GROSS: And I think a lot of people will relate to this whether they're gay or not because I think we've all erased ourselves in some way with our parents...
GROSS: ...So that we could continue having a great relationship. But who were you when you erased yourself so you could be her son? Like, what was left that wasn't erased?
JONES: That's a beautiful question. I mean, we laughed a lot. We could talk about just about literally anything except my being gay, which began to feel more and more like a void. But, you know, we talked about the news, and we would laugh and, you know, she was so proud of how I was doing in school and as a student and in speech. We would talk about everything, but it was only about being gay that she just couldn't handle it.
And, you know, Terry, something I've noticed, I think you're right - we all do this. It's kind of like sometimes straight people or cisgender people act like gay or trans people are being mean by being ourselves. Like, why are you forcing us to have this - why are you having - why are you making me do this? You know, I feel like white people act this way when it's about racism. Like, when black people are like, black lives matter, I feel like the reaction sometimes is like, why are you being so mean to me, making me - you know?
And so we - it's this weird dynamic where you, again, you're struggling, and you end up prioritizing the other person's feelings over your own, you know? And I did it because I loved her. I did it because I felt like I was causing her pain by trying to talk about this, but she was still my mom. I still needed to have her wisdom in terms of love and relationships, you know, and I didn't get it and really struggled as a result.
GROSS: How did you know that you were a writer?
JONES: Because I was good at it (laughter). It was the thing that I could always count on to get praised in school was always my writing.
GROSS: Like, dating back to when - like, high school?
JONES: High school - middle school was probably the - middle school was when I started, like, really going for it. And then, like, asking for extra credit and, like, taking risks and doing more, you know. And then also, like, in discussions, like, in literature discussions about short stories and fiction or whatever, like, it all just made so much sense to me. Like, I remember learning the narrative arc, like, in - what? - maybe the eighth grade, you know? Resolution and climax, and it just made sense. I was like, oh, duh, duh. And I literally had never heard it before, but it just seemed like I was - kind of like with queerness. It felt like I was just being given language to explain something I already just understood. I just get it. It's just in me.
GROSS: You moved to Columbus, Ohio, just in September.
JONES: Mmm hmm.
GROSS: And you've said that before moving there, you were suffering with the worst depression you'd had in years and drinking to obliterate yourself. Was the depression connected to something or just the kind of depression that blooms on its own?
JONES: It's, you know, possible. I mean depression...
GROSS: Bloom is the wrong word, isn't it?
JONES: Yeah, right, right. It's just, you know, I think depression is just - it's chemical, right? It's something I'm always going to deal with in one way or another. Honestly, it's just - America's depressing, right? Like, if you're paying attention in any substantive capacity, America is really stressful and anxiety-inducing and depressing. And I now understand that as an adult, and it's not your fault. And then Trump became president, and you know, Terry, the truth is that on Inauguration Day - was that January 2017? - I had a total breakdown. I had an absolute breakdown. I knew it was coming because I took a personal day, so I was home. So I already knew on some level.
But I remember watching Barack Obama and Michelle Obama walking to the helicopter, and I absolutely fell apart. I could not stop crying. And I opened the knife drawer in my kitchen and I just was looking at those knives and I just started saying, I can't go back, I can't go back. Please don't make me go back. And the back was, you know, the months after my mom passed away. It was the worst, the most raw I had ever felt. And I'm glad that I, you know, talked to a friend, and I started therapy. And that helped tremendously. But, you know, the last few years working in media, it's just - it's required so much of all of us, really, you know, and certainly people who, like, this is our job to talk about these issues. We can't just turn off our phones and stop reading the news, unfortunately. That's a high demand. And I just was starting to feel really threadbare on an ongoing basis. And so I knew I wanted to change. And so I wanted to leave New York, and I wanted to leave media in the way I was working and to go back to the basics.
GROSS: Moving to Columbus, Ohio, you're still in America.
GROSS: Trump is still your president in Columbus, Ohio. So what was different for you?
JONES: It's about the quality of life, you know? It's a thing when you're, like - when you're working in media, you're working in news, like, you're working at like an 11, you know, on the 10-point scale already. And then New York, you know, just by the facts of the city, its expense and its energy, it's 11 on a 10-point scale too, you know? And then I was working on this book. And I was like, oh, my gosh. I was like, every facet of my life is just so intense right now. Columbus, it's just a little easier, you know? It's a little easier for me to do my errands, and it's easier for me to pay my rent, which - that matters a lot, right?
And also, it just resonates with me. I don't know. For whatever reason, it just does. And so, yeah, Trump is certainly still my president, and I am still living in the United States of America, which I think I always will. But I'm living in a place where it feels a little bit more manageable on the daily level, and I'm not in the loudest, most expensive, anxieties-inducing city in the world (laughter).
GROSS: Of all the places you could have moved to from New York, why Columbus?
JONES: Because it's close. It's an hour away. It's an hour flight. So, you know, I think sometimes it seems far, but it's not. Columbus is really gay, for reasons that I don't totally understand. But it is the gayest place I've ever lived. And I am talking - that includes San Francisco, Atlanta and New York. It's just really gay (laughter).
It has a great literary community. You know, Hanif Abdurraqib, Maggie Smith - I'm going to see Anis Mojgani and Sarah Kay, wonderful poets, tonight at Two Dollar Radio, one of the bookstores here. There's just a lot going on, you know? And I - there's a great bookstore down the street, and I can walk in there, and they know my name. And that's nice too. You know, I think I've lived a kind of life where I have learned, maybe because of getting so many nos, that I know what a yes looks like (laughter). And I came here last year for a work trip, and everything I saw just looked like a yes.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here.
GROSS: And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is poet Saeed Jones, who is now a memoirist as well. His new memoir is called "How We Fight For Our Lives." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Saeed Jones. He has a new memoir called "How We Fight For Our Lives," which is about growing up black and gay in Texas.
How long ago did your mother die?
JONES: My mom had a heart attack the night before Mother's Day. So that's May 2011. And she died - she was declared brain dead a week or so later.
GROSS: Right. She had had a heart condition when you were a child.
GROSS: So she was always in some jeopardy. Her life insurance check enabled you to change your life, and you write about how ambivalent you were about that, that you wished that she had had that kind of money when she was alive and all the things she could have done with it to better her life. How did you use the money to change your life?
JONES: Broadly speaking, I was able to grieve. You know, at the time when she passed away, I was teaching high school in Newark, N.J., which was cool but a - you know, an intense job. And so I was able to finish the school year and not return. And I was able to get an apartment in Harlem where I literally just cried and wrote and occasionally ate (laughter) for about a year. And that's all I needed to do. And that meant a lot because that was about all I was capable of. And then I traveled for a little while. And you see that at the end of the book. You see me in Spain.
And I just - it - that money, I still have complicated feelings about it, you know? Could have paid for her to have better health care. She might still be here. But it allowed me, empowered me to not - it helped me live. You know, I - you see - I really struggled after my mom passed away. It was just so hard. It was apocalyptic. And that money allowed me and the people who were supporting me - and that was a lot of people - to create the conditions kind of necessary for me to stay here because I really didn't want to, to be honest.
GROSS: You know, during most of our discussion about your mother, it's been about her not being able to talk to you about being gay. Obviously, you were both very attached to each other. It was - you say it was apocalyptic when she died. Tell us more about what made you feel so connected to her because that's not something that we've touched on, and I want to give more dimensionality...
JONES: Sure. Yeah, I...
GROSS: ...To that relationship.
JONES: I really appreciate that. Thank you, Terry. You know, my mother was so funny (laughter). We were always laughing and making each other laughed. And we loved to make each other laugh. You know, it was sometimes - it felt like a game, like you would make the other person laugh, and you would keep making a joke to see how far you can go, you know?
I loved that my mom - you know, she read, like, three newspapers a day. We were - she was always watching the news and always talking about it. And, you know, though this is all before Twitter and everything, I think I grew up in a household that always just had this passionate, ongoing conversation about news and culture, you know? And she just - she supported me. She supported my writing. She was - she never questioned my decision to become a writer, to become a poet (laughter). She was never like, what? How are you going to pay the bills? She trusted that I was going to figure it out, you know?
So, you know, I don't want to excuse, you know, the significance of us not being able to talk about my sexuality and me being gay. But I also really want to honor that she worked really hard. And things were paycheck to paycheck - hoo, boy (laughter). But there was a lot of joy, and there was always deep love. And I felt like, more so than I think I could understand in real time, I think my mom - I don't know. I have this sense that I don't think she thought she was going to have a very long life, to be honest. Why would she, right? Like, that - there's a reason she had that life insurance policy, you know? And I think she was just trying to, like, pass on as much as she could, which is why I feel like I've got to, like, pick up the baton and go as far as I can now.
GROSS: Mmm hmm. You think she saw the life insurance policy as her dying gift to you?
JONES: Yeah. I mean, because that's the thing about a life - and I was so angry about it - right? - that, like, what do you mean, like, all of this money? Like, we need to use that for you, you know, is how I would have felt if we talked about it. But I don't think she saw it that way. I think she - you know, listen; heart disease, you know, disproportionately impacts black women in America. That's just a fact. You know, and I think she made a decision that she wanted to ensure that I had a future.
And I was really ambivalent about it. I didn't like that. I don't - you know, I still sometimes get so angry. Like, my mom's purpose was not for my life to thrive. Her life is valuable. Her life is valuable, you know? I don't believe that mothers in particular should be expected to sacrifice themselves for their children, you know?
But I can't control what happened. I can only, I guess, as best I can, honor the intention. And it's ongoing. I'm not happy about it every day. I miss her so much. And I would so love to walk out of this, you know, radio studio and call her and talk to - you know, I talked to Terry Gross, you know? That's incredible. And I don't get to have that kind of conversation in the way I want. But I know a lot of people have struggled with grief in this way and will struggle with it. And so, you know, I feel like my mom would want me to make this experience of use to other people.
GROSS: Saeed Jones, thank you so much for joining us.
JONES: Thank you.
GROSS: Thank you for your book.
JONES: Thank you, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: Saeed Jones' new memoir is called "How We Fight For Our Lives." After we take a short break, Lloyd Schwartz will review two contemporary operas - one based on a poem and one based on a fairy tale. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "BRIGHT MISSISSIPPI")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Operas can be about almost anything. While the earliest operas were based on mythology, contemporary operas have been as timely as today's news. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz tells us about several new operas that have been based on a surprising variety of sources, including a poem by Frank Bidart called "Ellen West."
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "ELLEN WEST")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Ellen was obsessed with eating and the arbitrariness of gender and having to have a body.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: It took opera a couple of hundred years before Verdi's "La Traviata" in the middle of the 19th century shocked audiences by dealing directly with contemporary issues. In our own time, composer John Adams and poet Alice Goodman created a masterpiece out of director Peter Sellars' startling idea of making an opera out of President Nixon's visit to China, which took place only 15 years earlier. And less than five years passed between the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists in 1985 and the next Adams-Goodman-Sellars opera, "The Death Of Klinghoffer." That opera is still so controversial, protesters have forced performances, including the Met's Live in HD telecast, to be cancelled.
More recently, the Metropolitan Opera, which has relied so heavily on standard repertory, co-commissioned operas based on movies - Thomas Ades's intense version of Spanish director Luis Bunuel's chilling political satire "The Exterminating Angel" and Nico Muhly's rather milder take on the novel that was the source of Alfred Hitchcock's psychological mystery, "Marnie." More unusual than that, Opera Saratoga just presented a new one-act chamber opera by composer Ricky Ian Gordon. It's the first opera I'm aware of that's actually a setting of a poem - "Ellen West," a 16-page narrative by last year's Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Frank Bidart.
This tragic poem, first published in 1975, dramatizes the final days of a woman suffering from anorexia and is based on a classic case study even before anorexia had a name. But the poem is shattering not because it's a case history, it's Bidart's profound exploration of what it means to have a body, an identity, even a gender, and what sacrifices it takes to be an artist. In this gripping passage, Ellen West sings about soprano Maria Callas, famous for her drastic weight loss as Puccini's Tosca. Ellen says, I know that in the second act when humiliated, hounded by Scarpia, she sang "Vissi d'arte" - I lived for art - and in torment, bewilderment at the end she asks, with a voice reaching harrowingly for the notes, art has repaid me like this? I felt I was watching autobiography. And now, let's hear the hair-raising soprano Jennifer Zetlan. Also listen for Gordon's sly allusion to Puccini's aria.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA "ELLEN WEST")
JENNIFER ZETLAN: (As Ellen West, singing) I know that in the second act when humiliated, hounded by Scarpia, she sang "Vissi d'arte" and in torment, bewilderment at the end she asks, with a voice reaching harrowingly for the notes, art has repaid me like this? I felt I was watching autobiography.
SCHWARTZ: The death of Ellen West is one of the most heart-wrenching moments I know in contemporary opera. In most operas, words are secondary. When a composer chooses an extraordinary text for the music to live up to, that's news. The Danish composer Poul Ruders did that when he based his best-known opera on the scary dystopian world of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale."
His latest opera, "The Thirteenth Child," is a kind of throwback to earlier operas based on fables and fairy tales, but this opera is no less scary. The librettists, Becky and David Starobin, have fashioned a compelling libretto out of a relatively obscure Grimm fairy tale. It combines sexual jealousy, political intrigue and murder that, like the music itself, has a very modern ring to it with a touch of magic. This was the latest production in the Santa Fe Opera's notable series of world premieres. A recording on the Bridge label was released weeks before the first performance. That might have something to do with the librettist being the couple who started and run Bridge Records, a company I admire for its devotion to contemporary music.
One disappointment I have with a lot of contemporary operas is that composers seem more interested in complex orchestration than in beautiful writing for the voice. Ruders, at least, is not afraid to lapse into tonality, as in this haunting slow waltz the queen sings on her deathbed. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford is the only singer on the CD who was also in the stage production.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA "THE THIRTEENTH CHILD")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) If you can't return to me (unintelligible).
TAMARA MUMFORD: (As Queen Gertrude, singing) (Unintelligible).
SCHWARTZ: For American audiences, it's a gift that so many new operas are in English and that in the best of these, the English can be as powerful, surprising, eloquent and timely as the music.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches poetry in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and is the poet laureate of Somerville, Mass.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be journalist Emily Bazelon. She's been writing about the fight between Congress and the Trump administration over the House's legal right to enforce subpoenas requiring senior administration officials to testify in the impeachment inquiry. We'll also talk about Attorney General William Barr and his role in supporting an expansive view of Trump's executive power. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUILLERMO KLEIN'S "MELODIA DE ARRABAL")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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