Live Mic: Best of TPL Conversations

Saeed Jones: How We Fight for Our Lives

Episode Summary

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. Tajja Isen has written for BuzzFeed, Longreads, Literary Hub and various other publications. She is a co-editor of the forthcoming essay anthology House on Fire: Dispatches from a Climate-Changed World and a contributing editor at Catapult. She has also provided voices for dozens of cartoon characters. This conversation took place on November 21, 2019 at the Toronto Reference Library’s Bram & Bluma Appel Salon.

Episode Notes

*Note: given the current temporary closure of TPL due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have made our best efforts to offer suggestions below for materials which are part our online collections, and available at home to anyone with a current Toronto Public Library card.

Why are wait time for ebooks or audiobooks sometimes so long? Learn more about limits on the number of eBook copies and the length of time they can be borrowed.


Books by Saeed Jones

How We Fight for Our Lives

Prelude to Bruise


Referenced in this interview and other related material

The Works of Toni Morrison (Toni Morrison)

Saeed Jones's Sensual Memoir of Race, Sex and Self-Invention   (article from the New Yorker)

The Works of Yusef Komunyakaa  (Yusuf Komunyakaa)

Live Mic: Best of TPL Conversations features curated discussions and interviews with some of today's best-known and yet-to-be-known writers, thinkers and artists, recorded on stage at one of Toronto Public Library's 100 branches.

Episodes are produced by Natalie Kertes, Jorge Amigo, and Gregory McCormick. Technical support by Michelle De Marco and George Panayotou. AV support by Jennifer Kasper and Mesfin Bayssassew. Marketing support by Tanya Oleksuik.

Music is by The Worst Pop Band Ever.

Episode Transcription

Live Mic: Best of TPL Conversations

Saeed Jones: How We Fight For Our Lives


Gregory McCormick (GM): Welcome to Live Mic: Best of TPL Conversations, our regular Toronto Public Library podcast series featuring curated discussions and interviews with some of today’s best-known and yet-to-be-known writers, thinkers and artists, recorded on stage at one of Toronto Public Library’s 100 branches.



Tajja Isen (TI): I've been interested in how you've been sort of talking about the tour itself as an opportunity for exchange of stories with your readers and how that has a lot to do with how you thought of the book itself. In an interview, you described it as a conversation, as wanting to kind of welcome the reader into it rather than, I think the phrase you used yesterday in the social was "an identity or trauma vacation."

Saeed Jones (SJ): Right.

TI: So when you're talking about and sharing such personal material, how do you help shape the conversation around your work to make sure that it stays in exchange and doesn't just turn into that?

SJ: Well, I think every project is different. But with this, the title, "How We Fight for Our Lives," before you have opened the book, I've said something to you about my intention that this is about you, too. And I do think we're all fighting for our lives, whether we know it or not. You know, Daniel? The man that... He's fighting for his life as well, right? And his denial of that is what creates the danger actually, as well as my denial, I am delusional. Oh, my gosh. You know what I mean? I think I'm so in control. So yeah. So I wanted... I'm willing to go there about myself, but I think one thing was setting the terms from the beginning that everything you hear or read, I want you to go either, I identify with that or I don't, and then I want you to think about why. Yeah. And I think that's one of the ways we can do it because yeah, with memoir, I don't know. I think sometimes, it can feel like people are just trying on different people's skin, different people's identity and just like, "Oh, let me see what it's like to... " And it's like, "No," that was not my intention. I wanted to make an artful, compelling, offering to an existing conversation."

TI: Yeah. And I think you've absolutely succeeded in that. I feel like it's fitting to start by asking you about the tour and travel because one of the things that we talked about and that comes across really strongly to me in your work is this tremendously vivid sense of place.

SJ: Yes.

TI: It is a really tight organizational principle of this book. Every chapter is like a key to a specific city and certain locales like the forest or even the library where we find ourselves now. They are just... It's a very deliberately scene-driven sense of the way that this book is constructed. So, I wanted to ask how this close and careful attention to place helped you build the story?

SJ: Yeah, one place that's just really important to me, even with poems. I personally do not like the experience of reading a poem when it looks like just letters floating in white space, and that's how it feels. You're like, "When is this taking in place? What is the atmosphere or... " You know what I mean? Are we hot? Are we cold? Are we dirty? Are we sweating? So everything I write, I try to make it clear that we're grounded somewhere. So even a college party is in someplace the most generic, but I want you to have a sense of what it's like to be in that space, that particular party in 19 or 2007. And then the other thing I found is, memory is so deceptive. I think we rest a lot of our lives on false memories, the stories we tell about ourselves.

SJ: And so for me, place I found to be one of the tools to check myself. So you see it based on what I read tonight. It's like, "Okay, what would you be doing if you were at the kitchen in the party?" Okay, well, I'd be getting a drink? Oh, there were jello shots. Oh, okay, from standing at that point at the counter, I could see the DJ. Okay, so what would you do? I would be shouting songs. That's where the details are coming from. Where did you do... What would you do if you got tired of that? Oh, I would weave through and end up on the porch. What did you do out on the porch? You know what I mean? And so that's how within reason, I tried to control the details because as a poet, I'm like, "Ooh... This is... " Poetry is just follow the sound, follow the image. And you know, but that's a dangerous impulse if you're writing the memoir. So for me, it was really about what would you be doing in this room? Where would you go next? If you were in the living room in Louisville, Texas and your mom was in her bedroom watching the TV, what would... And so that's how I kind of kept myself on track.

TI: Yeah. I feel it in your poetry as well though.

SJ: Thank you.

TI: And I think a lot of the same in reading the two books, I felt like a lot of the same locales resurfaced. There's the forest in Prelude to Bruise.

SJ: Yes, that is very intentional. The forest... If you've read the book, thank you. The forest that you see with me and Cody and Sam is the forest that appears in Prelude to Bruise...

TI: Yeah. And there's a lot of sweating in the book, too.

SJ: That is hot, it's hot.

TI: It is always.

SJ: And I come from... On my mom's side, we just sweat. Sometimes, I'm just... My grandmother Mildred and I, we would joke, sometimes we felt like that was the only thing we had in common.


SJ: We just sweat a lot, but I love that. You know what I mean? That's a detail I look for in movies, in TV shows and I love when they get it right, if it's set in the South. And in the South I grew up in, I like seeing if they're catching the way we sweat there in Texas or in Tennessee because it's different from how you would sweat elsewhere.

TI: Right.

SJ: Yeah.

TI: I feel like it's unusual in just personal writing, too, to have that kind of granular attention to scene. It's something I associate with the work of... It really hit me when I was reading Alex Chee's essay collection.

SJ: Very good, very good at that. Thank you.

TI: In your work as well, just an uncommon sense of place. So thank you for that. The book also has, it has... I'm glad we brought up the poetry collection because the book has a poet's affinity for economy of language.

SJ: Thank you [chuckle]

TI: It's told in 21 chapters, very... It's a slim volume overall. And I'm interested in a comment that you made in an interview where you said, "I think there's something special about having a book that is a tight jewel. It becomes something that people can experience and then pass on and get a great conversation going." So what role did that idea of sort of a compact conversational object play in the  and structuring of the book?

SJ: I think, maybe more broadly part of it is rooted in that, if you're not a straight, rich, cisgender man, everybody else is we're all more aware of earning our space and our time, and our real estate. We just are slightly more... However you go along that continuum, you know what I mean? But coming from a tradition in poetry, I don't... I just... I'm always having to earn a reader's time and attention, and I tried to... I think, I'm not judging, I'm not saying this to anyone here, you're all special, we're all special. But I think for a lot of people and a lot of good, smart people, probably, only read two books a year. And my sense is that chances are one of those books is gonna be a classic and the other one's probably gonna be like a non-fiction book about politics, lately, that's my sense. And I'm not gonna ask people to choose how they use their time, that's between them and their conscience. But listen, between events today, I've been like, "Should I be following this impeachment thing?" You know what I mean? So that is the culture in which books then come in and it's a book about me, [chuckle] right?

TI: Yeah.

SJ: So I just really tried to think about how to earn and respect readers' time. And part of that was like, "I'm not gonna write an overly... This is not gonna be a full... What is it? My struggle?"


SJ: Book 16. There's not gonna be like a Marvel Universe billboard of How We Fight. You're not gonna hear Scorsese and everybody arguing about the spin-offs about... I really wanted to keep the book tight and with purpose at every moment. And even to the point that... And I was nervous about it, but opening the book with a poem that literally lays out in many ways the entire trajectory of the book. I let you know at the very beginning, my mom was a lifelong smoker and she has a heart attack, and she's going to die in the book. You need to understand this. So that in the first chapter, when I mention every day she gets home from work, she doesn't even want to talk until she has that cigarette because this is how she dealt with stress as a single mom working two jobs. That's not just colour because you've read the poem you go, "Oh, this matters." And so I was just trying to do that and I just, I don't know. I think a lot more writers and it's not just men, but it's usually men and their editors, especially when they become famous, they start writing these big bloated books.

TI: Yeah.

SJ: Then I think you're wasting my time. And my time is valuable, it is and so is yours. So I just really tried to follow through on that.

TI: Cool.

SJ: Yeah.

TI: How did you decide on the size of the units by which the book would move? Was it...

SJ: That I didn't know.

TI: Yeah.

SJ: That was really organic. The book was gonna be even shorter by the way. [chuckle]

TI: Oh.

SJ: My editor, we decided to expand the book to follow through on the totality of my mom's story.

TI: Okay.

SJ: So the entire last act of the book was not going to be there.

TI: Wow.

SJ: But yeah, it would... It was just organic. And I'm like this with my poems. I know, I finished a poem when I write something that makes me go, "Oh, my."


SJ: Well, you know what I mean? So that I might as well make a weapon out of myself while I was like line break bitch, we done did that. You know what I mean? That was the end of my writing day that day. You know what I mean?

TI: Yeah.

SJ: That's what you... Because again, it's like you know when you did the damn thing. And to me, the response is the phew those moments you have when you're reading work. I think writers need to pay attention to that as well when they're creating it. And so, yeah. I try to pay attention to it. And like Yusef Komunyakaa said that the ear is a wonderful editor. And yeah, so I read everything out loud. As I was writing, I read every sentence of it out loud. Anytime I basically had more than two paragraphs, once I felt confident enough, I would start reading and then go back and revise.

TI: That's amazing. And I love the mic drop theory of editing yourself 'cause I feel like the common story is or common advice is sort of you write 'til you feel good and then you like push yourself into the next sentence, or the next paragraph. So you have somewhere to start the next day, you get a rolling start. But this...

SJ: One, you... That is why you find a good editor.

TI: Yeah.

SJ: And I was tremendously fortunate to find my editor in Simon & Schuster. He's now at Macmillan, John Cox. Oh, what a joke. My editor ended up being a blonde hair, blue-eyed, straight white man from Connecticut.


SJ: Go figure. A lesson for us all. But he's a good listener, which most of those men are not and he was great, so we developed trust. So that was the other thing that I could have my like, "Oh, I did it." And then send it to him and I would send... I sent the book in very small sections 'cause I was like, "I'm not gonna do this thing where you don't hear from me for six months and then I turn in 150 pages, and then wait six more months." No, no, no, no, I was texting him with that paragraph that leads to the goddamn every man. I texted it to him.

TI: Oh, my god.

SJ: And I was like, "We gonna be fighting for our lives if you try to take this out the book."


SJ: So it was a real collaborative dynamic. He's wonderful. I was texting him as recently as a few hours ago.

TI: Yeah.

SJ: Because I wanna now share the joy that he has helped me create. But I trusted that I could do what I do and he would let me know, and I would have another opportunity, so many opportunities to edit, and then copy-edit and then pre-proof the book, and he would always just, "Let me know if... " He was like, "I'll tell you when, when it's actually the last time."

TI: That is good.

SJ: Yeah, which would you probably be like tomorrow, I... We'll see.

TI: Yeah, that's okay. So this sort of, this exchange, this conversational communicative process is like in the DNA of the book.

SJ: Yeah, I mean... I think there's... I think sometimes, people are thrown by me understanding the fact of my value. I think sometimes people are thrown when I'm like, "I understand that I'm an excellent writer." And I don't think that's arrogance. I think it's factual because I'm a reader first and I understand what's going on. I don't think I'm the only one. I think I'm one of many, I think I'm one of a legion. But it's a balance between understanding your value and understanding the value of a brilliant creative partner. And that was true for my agent who was looking at the book before I submitted it. And then, your editor, you can't work with people if you don't trust them to tell you the truth.

TI: Yeah.

SJ: And I was really fortunate to find an editor that I felt that way, and then it was like, "Let's go."

TI: That's amazing.

SJ: Yeah.

TI: I feel like I've learned so much from just how good you are at knowing your own sense of value, even your website bio.

SJ: Oh [chuckle]

TI: Can I quote it from memory?

SJ: You've memorized it?

TI: It's just so memorable.

SJ: Go on.

TI: Saeed Jones is that bitch.

SJ: Hey. [laughter]

TI: He has written two books, both of which are excellent.


TI: And then says like, "Go read them?"

SJ: Yeah, yeah. Then there's the links. To be fair, I was stoned on the couch.


TI: But you kept it up.

SJ: With my best friend who was like a web designer and I was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." But yeah, I don't know. I stand on the shoulders of giants and I will forever remember the moment I saw Toni Morrison on a YouTube clip in conversation with Charlie Rose.


SJ: And he was just lucky to be there and he complimented her at one point. And then I saw Toni Morrison in person in New York three times, the fortune, tremendous fortune to see her three times while I was living in New York City. And people would compliment her and that was the first time I saw it, but it wasn't the last. And they would just like go on and on and on and on. And sometimes, she would say, "Thank you." But often, she would just like... And the way she could do that and hold her breath, and as someone who, I have these moments of bravado and then I feel myself rushing to try to like... But also thank you, you know, that she didn't do that, she just went, you know? It was like saying, "Toni Morrison, it's November." And she's just like...


SJ: And I think as a reader, as a future writer, as a gay Black boy in America, oh my God, to see an older Black woman fully own her brilliance and the significance of her brilliance. She didn't keep it to herself, she was sharing it with all of us. You know, what I mean? Mexico loves Toni Morrison. You don't know that? If you watched the documentary about her, watch pieces of... Mexico loves Toni Morrison. You know what I mean? So she made a global contribution and I think she understood that it was a disservice to shrink from that, to do this thing that we also often do, which is try to comfort people at cost to our self-respect.

TI: Yeah. And I feel like we don't see... It's tremendously and inspiring-ly political to be like, "Here I am. I'm a Black writer I am a fucking master craftsman."

SJ: I mean, look at... Listen, this will be... I probably not, but let's pretend that this is the only time I mentioned the 2020 presidential election in the United States. So let's just pretend. It is still radical for any of the women currently running for the Democratic nomination to get on stage and say, "I am qualified, period." That is a radical statement. They say that, they show...


SJ: Thank you. They show up and people are like, "How dare you. How dare you. How do you even think you should be in this space, much less just say it. How dare you read a line from your resume. Kamala or Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar or... You know, how dare you?"


SJ: So we see this, and I've been thinking a lot about what we can learn from joy and praise because it's not a space where I think we have a very vibrant public conversation about what we can learn from it.

TI: Not at all. Yeah, so thank you for contributing to that.

SJ: So yes, she was like...


TI: I'm now very sort of subconscious that I've been complimenting you a lot.

SJ: It's a journey. It's a journey. We'll get there together.

TI: I'm not gonna suddenly start hurling insults. Okay [chuckle]

SJ: Trash. [laughter]

TI: No. Okay, so we were talking about, we're talking about place, we're talking about how kind of intimately known and mapped the book is. In contrast to that, there are a lot of scenes of you in your youth trying to understand your own queerness without having the words to name it.

SJ: Right.

TI: And there are so many people around you who are, as you say hurling words at you, trying to name what is having its way with you. And there are so many instantiations of just failed naming. You're called this, you're called this, your grandmother calls you worldly, the boys you hang out with call you a homophobic slur. I'm just interested in this pattern of failed naming as it frustrated the process of coming to self-knowledge and why you chose to use that as a figure that kept coming out?

SJ: Yeah, I think one... I think Toni Morrison in part the way she uses names, and then throughout her work I think is interesting and drew my attention to it that the failing of names, and the way names become curses or burdens or destinies. Saeed, and it depends upon who you ask, depending on where in the world they're coming from. But Saeed in Arabic, it means happy and fortunate. Happy could mean gay. It means good news, it means the leader bringing, it has all of these but a very positive connotation. And when I've struggled with depression as I have, one of the insults that I hurled at myself is like I'm not living up to my own name. So I think about that a lot and the fact that we name kids often with great meaning before we've met them, right? We don't know anything about these children except they came from us. And here we are, here's the name I'm giving you. And then here's the blue or the pink blanket. It's just, it all just snowballs really quickly. And so, I wanted to capture the experience of that I think young people still have. I think young people often just feel like... We're just yelling at them constantly. I think young people, especially young people who are really curious about the world, often feel they're just surrounded by these tall people who were just like, dictating.

TI: It's like the Peanuts cartoon.

SJ: Yeah, yeah, totally. And that was a lot just any way, especially, from loved ones. And so, I'm interested in how we can try to love people and do loving things and it can still be hurtful. And certainly how strangers like a pastor emerges in the book and you see how little he knows about me. And then he just does something just life-changing for my grandmother and my mother and I knowing so little. So I think that's interesting, and maybe it's my way of engaging a conversation about stereotypes or whatever, but I didn't wanna do that in a didactic way, so I thought it was just helpful to kinda ground things in my own experiences.

TI: Yeah. A passage that is very powerful and comes up a lot in... That I've noticed comes up a lot in interviews and press for this book is the line about how there should be 100 words for the way that a Black boy can lie awake at night and there aren't. But what there are, instead, are just a kind of... There are 100 different things that you were called that you are not.

SJ: All kinds of slurs.

TI: Yeah. And I guess to... Like, why I was interested in that moment is because the people around you, the objects around you, like the Baldwin novel, like the photograph of your mother's friend, they seem to have a kind of knowledge that you can't quite access yet. And I just...

SJ: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, listen, when I say I did the best I could with what I was... I did feel I earned that line because you see, I'm like, "I'm definitely trying to fit," I'm going to the library, I'm... You know, it was like, holding on to the tail of my mom's dress like, asking her questions. I'm running into hookups and relationships because sex is fun and I deserve. But also because at the time that I was growing up, like 1998 was when I turned 12, and so all of this... Marriage equality doesn't exist, was never gonna happen. It was never gonna happen.

SJ: Sodomy, sex between two men was illegal technically in the state of Texas where I grew up until I was a junior in high school when it was shut down by a Supreme Court decision. That's Lawrence v Texas. And I knew that. So when you're seeing all of this... And there wasn't, you know, Pose and Moonlight and Lena Waithe and... All these things now, these people who have visibility that was not happening. Will & Grace premiered that year and then Queer as Folk. And again, shows about white, upper middle class men and people mostly in the East Coast and Will & Grace, I think about the racism that was a part of that show with Karen's Latina maid. Every time she's on screen, there's a racist joke about her. So even the show, where I was like, "Gay people." It was like, "Oh, I don't like that." And it was a big deal because in Texas, I understood racism through the context of hearing how everyone was talking about the Mexicans, plural. So it was deeply painful even in the show that was supposed to give me hope. So I say all this to say that even sex, even hooking up with the hot dad in the public restroom at the Louisville Public Library, multi-purpose space...


SJ: Was among all the other things it was, an attempt just to find someone else who knew something about me that I was trying to figure out. Yeah.

TI: Can we talk about the library?

SJ: Let us!

TI: Yeah. There are only so many locations in this book but the library comes up many times.

SJ: Twice? Two to three times?

TI: I think three... At least three times there's... It's where you go as a young man to try and find information about being gay. It is where you have the hook up with the hot dad and later when you're in college, it's a kind of refuge for you. Yeah.

SJ: Oh right. Oh my goodness. I didn't even think about that. Yeah, I start hiding in my college library in the stacks.

TI: Yeah. And doing like really deep formative reading. So what place does this space hold for you?

SJ: I mean, you know, I just... I think, and the reason I refuse to, as Toni Cade Bambara said, like, "Do not leave the arena to the fools." These public spaces are so important. Oh my God. You know, I... imperfect as my experience was, particularly early in the book, when you see me go and I find like sociological books about homosexuality, homosexuality and they were all about HIV AIDS. They were all out of date and they scared the hell out of me and put truly the fear of death in me, which was not fair and not deserved, but it was a place I could go. I went back. I spent so... You're right. I spent so much time at the library. I don't even include that usually in high school, I would get to school early for almost all four years of high school and about an hour early before the morning extra-curricular activities 'cause clubs would meet, just to be in the library. I just think for me it was a comforting space, no one ever asked, as a young Black man, no one ever said, "What are you doing here?" I never felt that, you know, I wasn't being followed around by a security guard which would happen at the mall.

TI: Yeah.

SJ: For example, where other teenagers felt comfortable killing time. The library was my space and there was just so much and so I loved it. And... Yeah, I just... We have to fight for these spaces you all. And I know you know that. And yeah, it's just important to me to the point that in some ways I take it for granted, but I just think an interesting thing about representation, we're really focused on TV and film, but there's such a radical tradition in book publishing. And I think another country was an example of me finding this book that was for it's time incredibly transgressive and just like light years ahead of every other form of media I found at the time. I mean, just to be a 12 year old boy in the suburbs in Texas in 1998 and read this book where Rufus is having sex with white women. I was like, "Oh my goodness. Oh my gosh." Where my grandmother, when I was a little kid, she would get mad at me even befriending white girls at school. Because she would say, "You've gotta be aware of their fathers."

TI: Oh gosh.

SJ: That's what I... Kindergarten by the way.

TI: Wow.

SJ: That's what I grew up. So seeing interracial relationships I was like, "Whoa. Wow." And then he has sex with men and I was like, "Whoa... " And then he was having sex with women again and I was like, "What is going on?" You know, 'cause I didn't know what bisexuality was, but it just... Just that, the... Forget the plot, forget the language, just the existence of people living lives that until then felt like were written in invisible ink or something. It was really powerful and libraries and my mom's home library are just really important to young people, especially to kids who I think were like me where... I was so afraid, like I said earlier of messing up.

TI: Yeah.

SJ: And I was afraid to go to talk to adults, and to ask for questions, but even my grandmother for all of her rigor, [chuckle] and how she raised me, she would just let me go at the library.

TI: Yeah.

SJ: She was just... We'd go in and she would go one way, when I would go the other. And I could pick up the Bearstein and all of that, I loved it. And that for kids I think is incredibly powerful. Those first few moments of, "I got this because I found it and I want it". You know, yeah.

TI: Yeah. You mentioned the sort of difficulty of asking questions of open communication.

SJ: Mm-hmm.

TI: There was a line in your NPR Fresh Air interview which was a great interview.

SJ: Thank you. Shout out to my girl Terri. [chuckle]

TI: You guys have such great chemistry. But you describe the kinds of moments that you're interested in as a writer. And I thought this is really fascinating, moments when people are making their best effort, but there's still miscommunication. And I feel like we see a lot of really moving instances of that in this book, between you and your mom.

SJ: Mm-hmm.

TI: And I'm wondering if you could speak to that a little bit.

SJ: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I'm always... For six years, I worked at BuzzFeed news as an editor, LGBT editor, executive culture editor, and then I was hosting a morning show. So I was just seeing books, but also just narratives and getting a sense of what is well covered and what isn't. And what I realize is that we don't have enough. There certainly are examples, but we don't have enough of examples of books that spend time with the more subtle spaces in our relationships, like loving, generally healthy relationships. This isn't a book where I come out to my mom and I'm kicked out of my house. For example, that's huge. This isn't a family of physical violence, that kind of abuse, you know what I mean? It's generally really warm. My mom and I have a great relationship in many regards, except for this one thing.

SJ: And so what does it mean when there's a more subtle hurt? And really I used the metaphor of silence, this silence amidst all other wonderful music and noise of your relationship with the person, that silence kind of metastasizes. And so I was interested in that. What does it mean when people are doing their best? My mom, I think was a good mom, she was warm, she would ask me questions. One day, we were... And this just to underscore how open we were in many other regards. Once I was in high school, she was driving, we got to a red light stopped, and we were listening to music on the radio and she stopped at a red light, and she just turned to me, and we were silent, and she just said, "Do you masturbate?" [chuckle] "You should". And then the light turned green, and she just drove off. And I mean, she might as well have kicked me out of the car, I was like, "What?"

TI: A legend.

SJ: That was it a legend. So that was... That's just an example of kind of our candor. And I would kind of, contemporary but queerness, my being gay, even when I came out to her, she just couldn't do it, right? And so what does it mean when the same woman who can have that kind of moment, can't handle her son, who's, I don't know, a sophomore or a junior in college... At university, sorry. [chuckle] And she freezes up when I try to bring up my boyfriend's brother. I didn't even bring up my boyfriend, just his brother to try to bring and... And she just... It was like a deer in the headlights.

TI: Yeah.

SJ: And so I was just interested in that, because I think that's something, thanksgiving is coming up in the US, and the holiday's right, and I think we do this a lot, we deal with these silences where we go home for the holidays or for whatever, and I think we all know, there's like a checklist in our head, of like "Don't talk about that, don't talk about that one, or that or that". And what happens when that checklist are like, it's like parts of your identity? And I think we're made to what would be rude to? Don't saddle your grandmother with X or your old uncle with, "You know how he gets." But I think the cost of that polite silence, I think it's too high.

TI: Yeah.

SJ: Because we see that the dynamics, the questions, the harm that we are often experiencing in real time. That doesn't pause for the holidays. So, why should we?

TI: Yeah. I'm just listening to you now, I'm so struck by the... When you said that there were sort of gaps in loving relationships, that you felt weren't addressed or when you were talking about how people have so many demands on their time. So their... This is the kind of story I'm going to tell about myself, to put into the world, just like depth of... Like ethical thought that went into putting this book into the world.

SJ: Thank you. I tried. [chuckle]

TI: That's tremendous. Yeah, I suspect that that is uncommon. [chuckle]

SJ: What? [chuckle] I mean. Maybe it's an uncommon time, right? It's really not for nothing that the entire time I was writing this book, from the time I was editing the early drafts that became proposal and then sold it, and then was writing to it's completion. I was in a news room.

TI: Mm-hmm.

SJ: Surrounded by what I'm editing and working with other editors and wonderful reporters, that was just always happening. And then 2016 happened. And I mean we're seeing the destabilization of people's... And is it the truth? And faking all of this, and I was just seeing even when you do your job, if people don't like it, many people will just assume it's fake or a lie. So I was like gosh, yikes. So, I felt just in that space, I'd rather... I don't know, rather than feeling scared, I don't know, I just wanted to really speak to it and really do the best I could to document the truth as I experienced it. And again, and that is why I say memory is such an unreliable narrator, it just is, right, those lies. And so that's why. Like with my grandmother for example, at the church, there's a tremendously important scene. Oh my gosh, so traumatic and life changing. And then I'm like, "I don't remember what happened next". And then I'm like... And then we're in the car, you know what I mean? And my goodness, as a writer, it drives me crazy that I can't remember what happened from the moment we walked off the pulpit in that church and into the parking lot, a minute... I don't know, 10 minutes maybe.

TI: Yeah.

SJ: I don't know what happened, and gosh, I sure would like to. 


TI: Yeah.

SJ: But I felt that it was more important to go... I don't know. And to tell that to the reader, so that they understand that what I am telling you, I am really confident in and I do that with my mom, a few times too. Yeah, so I don't know, it's just how I figured out how to tell this story, but I hope and I trust that I think any writer right now, worth their salt, is thoughtfully interrogating themselves because I say it's really easy to lie. You know, you could be writing just really quickly, trying to meet a deadline, and you just...


SJ: And you haven't given yourself time for memory to... As me often I'm asleep, you know what I mean. I'm in the shower and all of a sudden I'm like, "Oh my gosh, that happened there, not there." Or powerful. There's a moment where I remember years before my grandmother told me to stop holding my books like a girl, my library books, like a girl and I said something sarcastic to her, and she backhanded me and I'd forgot about it. I had written about it. I wrote about it in essay form for BuzzFeed years ago and forgot about it, and then only when I was writing the Memphis 1999 section did it come back to me because I had time and so write slow. My theory is James Frey is a real fast writer.


TI: I wanna ask you about Ohio. I know everybody asks you. You recently moved from New York to Columbus, Ohio, "the land of tall, big booty corn-fed men" as you put it.

SJ: They are so tall and so big bootied.


TI: I'm curious to ask about it as part of just your trajectory as a writer. You were working at BuzzFeed, you went from an MFA program to an NYC media job.

SJ: Taught high school in between then too.

TI: Right. Now that you've moved to Ohio, you've said that all you have to do is live and write.

SJ: Because I can afford that.

TI: How has that changed your identity as a writer?

SJ: Oh yeah, it's new. I moved there in September. I visited last October for work. I was doing a road trip series with the Morning Show I was hosting for BuzzFeed News. And I just went, and I think I don't... All I know, I went back and I was like, "What was going on?" And I realized right before that trip was Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's testimony shook me. Really did. I see the word indelible in print and my eyes start stinging. It was a moment where, for everything that has happened, I just think something broke. And I said, "What has been working until this point is no longer working." And because I've struggled with depression and really struggled with mental health, as so many of us are, and realizing that I could now afford financially, because of where my career is, I knew that it wasn't like people were gonna stop publishing my work because I wasn't living in New York City. I could afford to move. I've traveled. I've circled the globe. In 2012, after... It's like just you see at the end. But after my mom passed away, I traveled by myself for eight months and circled the globe because I was like, "I gotta re-introduce myself to this world without her."

SJ: So, having done all of that, I ended up in Columbus, Ohio and I didn't go there looking for a new home, but I found it and it was just everything lined up and so I don't know. So one, I think it is always powerful when you feel your intuition, you respond to your intuition and then you are given the gift of time to see, "Damn it, you were right." Isn't that a powerful moment and I know, right? People are nodding because you know what that's like and then you're like, "I'll do it again." So I think as a writer, which is all about risk taking, and poetry in particular, I think that dynamic, the intuition following through and being confirmed, it empowers everything, because I think I'm on to something. And so, yeah, it's the economics are great, it's nice, the guys are hot, grinders lit.


SJ: But just beyond that I feel so self-confident, in my ability to make decisions about what's working for me, and that's true for all kinds of things but of course, as I try to figure out what I wanna do next, I'm writing poems that is why I'm writing more than I have in years honestly.

TI: That's amazing. That is tremendously powerful.

SJ: Thank you.

TI: Thank you.

SJ: Thank you Tajja. Oh my god, great. I know you have questions, but can we applause her as well?




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