I’d seen a couple reviews for this memoir that said it was very powerful, and I was interested in reading it, but I can’t necessarily say it was super high on my TBR, objectively. However, it was one of the books I managed to grab in my last library haul before the closures for COVID-19. I basically grabbed any books that I had heard good things about, and figured better to have them and not read them than not have them and wish I had grabbed them. I was very right.
“However many masks me invent and deploy, in the end, we cannot control what other people see when they look at us.”
Jones’s short memoir covers time in his youth as he realized and grew into his own sexuality, as well as his time working through exactly what that meant for him as he went through college and became an adult. In addition, it speaks to his reliance on poetry for grounding him and providing hope and connection. And there is quite a bit of this book dedicated to his mother, his relationship with her and his experiences with her illness and grief during/after her passing.
The first thing I want to address in this memoir is the language. And bottom line, it’s wonderful. Piercing and precise, as I have come to find is common for poet’s who shift into prose. (Ocean Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, has a very similar writing style and flow.) In any case, the writing itself was definitely a highlight for me. It was visceral and evocative, cutting to the quick with immediacy and conciseness. Also, it moved very fast. Every time I picked up this volume, I found that I had read a larger chunk than I had thought, in less time that it would normally take me. The words were urgent and compelling and I was amazed at how quickly and easily it pulled me forwards without me even noticing.
As far as the topics covered, there are two main essences that leapt out at me. One is the way that Jones talks about his experiences, the way he moves through the world, in his body…his black, gay, man’s body. There were a number of descriptions of these experiences that were incredibly graphic and emotionally fraught, but the intensity of the words Jones uses are important, because they convey to the reader the level of intensity in his experiences. And it’s true, as a reader, I really felt the many layers of questions and trauma and exploration and acceptance and stereotyping that Jones faced and had to process. His willingness to show the full messiness and fear in that process was so brave.
The other primary essence of this memoir is Jones’ relationship with his mother. And in the same way, he shows a lot of strength in his honesty in talking about it. It is so clear, on every page, that the love and respect he has for his mother is paramount. In fact, so many small moments and phrases he uses in these sections melted my heart in ways I am not sure I have words for. And yet, he was also willing to show the cracks they had, the ways they avoided talking about certain topics, and the skirting of major issues in their lives. It’s a very recognizable combination of emotions and actions in mother-child relationships and it was just beautiful in its simultaneous uniqueness and recognizability. Also, his portrayal of how his grief was felt and manifested during her final days and after her death was one of the best overall insights into the process of grief that I have ever read.
The only small issue I had, and that’s not really the right word, but I can’t think of a better one, is that I finished the memoir feeling like I had, almost, read two different things. There was a bit of a lack of cohesiveness for me between those two main themes, of Jones’ physical bodily experiences and his relationship with his mother. I objectively understand that it’s all tied together because it’s all his life. And I also want to say that both pieces separately were so well conveyed and presented, so there’s no issue there. I just felt a general sense of separateness when I finished. Maybe that was purposeful, as his mother died before there was too much of a chance for him to fully define his body for himself (something I am sure he is still working on, in any case, as it’s for sure not a clear cut or finite process) and therefore the chance to more fully communicate about it with his mother was never, and now will never be, an option. So those two parts of his life were very disjointed. All I’m saying is that it was a strange sensation to be left with, for me. Not necessarily bad, but definitely unexpected.
Overall, this was just as powerful a memoir as other reviewers have claimed. It was tense and intense and raw and candid. I think Jones’ insight into the things we do to try and really become who we are is phenomenal. And his way with words definitely has me feeling like I need to pick up some of his poetry in the future.
Some examples of the incredible language:
“Just as some cultures have a hundred words for “snow,” there should be a hundred words in our language for all the ways a black boy can lie awake at night.”
“People don’t just happen. We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us. The ‘I’ it seems doesn’t exist until we are able to say, ‘I am no longer yours.’”
“Of course I wanted to see the world, to experience its fullness. I wanted to be a real part of it, rather than the passing shadow I so often felt like. I wanted to devour the world.”
“Being black can get you killed. Being gay can get you killed. Being a black gay boy is a death wish.”
“Everyone has a lie we’re quietly waiting to believe.”
“We both clung to self-assured masks that actually allowed us to cause ourselves more unseen harm.”
“Standing in front of the mirror, my reflection and I were like rival animals, just moments away from tearing each other limb from limb.”
“If America was going to hate me for being black and gay, then I might as well make a weapon out of myself.”
“Boys like us never really got away, it seemed. We jut bought ourselves time. A few more gasps of air, a few more poems, a few more years. History hurt more than any weapon inflicted on us. It hit back harder than any weapon we could wield, any weapon we could turn ourselves into.”
“I was proud of my exhaustion, as if the darkness circling my eyes was proof of my adulthood.”
“Time cascading and crashing in on itself, each memory pushing me back toward the beginning of my grief.”
“Our mothers are why we are here.”