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Saeed Jones recommends 6 books on family roots and grief

The award-winning poet recommends works by Toni Morrison, Cheryl Strayed, and more

Saeed Jones is a poet whose first collection, Prelude to Bruise, won the 2015 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. His new memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, describes how owning his homosexuality required distancing himself from his mother's love, and was recently named winner of the nonfiction Kirkus Prize.

We the Animals by Justin Torres (2011).

Michael Cunningham rightfully called this autobiographical novel a "dark jewel." When I was working on my memoir, I often thought about how Torres uses lyricism to color the emotional nuances of the main character's coming-of-age experiences.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilker­son (2010).

Without a doubt, this is the book I have recommended the most in the past decade. Drawing on incredible research and countless interviews, Wilkerson follows three black Southerners who — like millions of others in the 20th century — moved north to escape Jim Crow's caste system. Few other books have better helped me locate my family and personal history in the broader context of American history.

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke (2011).

In 2011, my mother had a heart attack the night before Mother's Day. In 2008, O'Rourke's mother died of cancer on Christmas Day. I'm deeply grateful to O'Rourke for so thoughtfully writing about her own bereavement and about the nature of grief itself — that, for example, grief episodes come in waves.

You Don't Miss Your Water by Cornelius Eady (1995).

In this collection of narrative poems, Eady depicts the experience of losing his father, with whom he had a complicated relationship. I was deeply moved by how he used lyricism to convey the way grief swirls past, present, and future into a kind of fog.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (2012).

You don't need me to tell you that this popular and acclaimed memoir is an incredible book. So think of this as more of a thank-you note to Cheryl Strayed: I read Wild about a year after my mother's death, just as I was beginning to understand that, at some point, I'd have to figure out how to live again. A book can be a miracle, and this book was absolutely a miracle for me.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977).

In my experience, grief is an epic odyssey. After my mother passed away, I reread Song of Solomon because I found it comforting to spend time with the story of a young man on an epic journey. Macon "Milkman" Dead is changed by the quest just as I was being changed in real time by my new reality.

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