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Making A Space For Joy: Saeed Jones On Writing In Ohio

Saeed Jones at BookExpo at the Javits Center in New York City, May 2019.
Wikimedia Commons
Saeed Jones at BookExpo at the Javits Center in New York City, May 2019.

Saeed Jones is used to being away from home.

“In 2012, I circled the globe by myself in 8 months. I’ve lived all over the country and I think I just know what home feels like,” Jones said in an interview with WOSU. “Though I moved here basically Labor Day weekend, I nested immediately. I just felt this immediate connection.”

Jones moved to Central Ohio from New York City in early September. He compares it to falling in love.

“It’s a first date, and you don’t want to get ahead of yourself but everything is clicking and you feel it on the inside. That’s what it felt like coming here,” he says.

But before the honeymoon phase could really take hold, Jones went off on a nationwide book tour. A former BuzzFeed staffer and host of Twitter morning show AM2DM, Jones published his debut memoir How We Fight For Our Lives barely a month after moving to Columbus.

Then he spent the majority of October holding readings and interviews across the country, garnering near-universal praise, and winning the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction.

Despite the intermittent nature of his first few months as a Columbus resident, Jones says the time has been prolific.

“In New York, it would be like a poem or two a year, for the last five years,” he says. “Here, I’ve produced more poems in last two months than I have in the last two years.”

That, Jones says, is largely tied to the peace he’s found in Ohio.

“I tell people that it feels like the Ohio sky is a guest in my living room,” he says. “Every morning I’m looking out at the neighborhood, and looking at the sky and the trees and the rooftops, and so there’s a calmness that allows me to hear the beginnings of what usually becomes poems.”

There’s practical concerns as well. Jones wrote a short essay on why he chose Columbus for his newsletter last month. Some of the draws are classic: low cost of living, the ease of traveling to other big cities. Others were more personal: the black history of Columbus, its strong LGBTQ community.

The essay reads like poetry, and near the end he talks not just of Columbus’s literary merits (namechecking current residents like Hanif Abdurraqib, Eloisa Amezcua and Maggie Smith), but also of the tie between the craft and joy.

"Because Hanif is here, writing and happy. Because Eloisa is here, writing and happy. Because Maggie is here, writing and happy. Because Dionne is here, writing and happy. Because those are just some writers and poets I’ve befriended in the month I’ve lived in Columbus. Because I’ve already fallen in love with three different bookstores in Columbus. Because one of them is just a few blocks from my apartment and knows my name and makes me feel welcome."

That connection, between “writing” and “happy,” is essential for Jones.

“Sure, art can come out of suffering and duress that has been well documented and discussed,” Jones says. “But I think we need to make space for a conversation about joy. The art and insight that can come from a stable, happy quality of life is just as valuable.”

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.