Jonathan Escoffery’s debut book, If I Survive You, persuades the reader to ponder one of the most important questions of the human experience what are you? Masterfully chronicled, this collection of linked stories is a powerful rendition of what it means to grow up examining your identity, and the lengths one will go to while figuring it out.
In the first short story, “In Flux,” we are introduced to Trelawny the youngest son of Jamaican-born parents who fled to the United States from their homeland, in hopes of escaping political upheaval and a consequential rapidly increasing crime rate. Setting the tone that will continue the underlying trope throughout the novel, Escoffery’s personal experience mirrors the main character, having spent his formative years in South Florida encountering many of these inquiries himself. The metropolitan areas of Miami-Dade, and Broward Counties equally become fundamental figures by themselves, serving as a backdrop for a diverse cast of personalities, each striving to survive life’s calamities – including Hurricane Andrew.
“It’s all influenced by my experience growing up in Miami with Jamaican parents – but I think of myself as a storyteller first, more so than a chronicler of my own life. Since I was eight years old I’ve been writing and trying to tell interesting and compelling stories. Some of the choices Trelawny makes, I’ve never even had to think about… but I did go to grad school in the Midwest, where Trelawny goes to college. I think in a way, a lot of what he goes through when he returns, has to do with my anxieties around what I imagined could have been my fate had I moved back to Miami. At times I thought I was writing a story collection and other times a novel, but the spirit of both lives within the book. One of the reasons I went with my publisher was because they had the idea that we didn’t have to put a subtitle on the cover that would dictate how people had to read it. I absolutely loved that notion, because to me… I was building a cohesive world around this family in Miami, but I wanted people to read it as they chose, and for the book to exist in that in-between space.”
As Trelawny tackles serious life issues, Escoffery’s powerful poeticism begs the page to be turned and discover the humor deep within dismay.
“In “Odd Jobs,” when we meet Trelawny, he has been devastated by having been kicked out of his father’s house and the reality of living out of his vehicle. We get a quick roundup in the first paragraph of that particular story, of all his attempts to make something of himself, and where we leave him at the end – is with
the oddest job of them all. The story begins with him saying it’s this job that has saved him. Trelawny was on a trajectory towards giving up, and the events that transpire on this day are what allow him to seek out how to be a survivor. The next time we see him, he has found full time work, and is really striving to put a roof back over his head.”
Escoffery’s If I Survive You is a work of fiction, but incorporates a time in the world that is very much real to a large sector of the population and crucial not to be forgotten.
“I spoke with a lot of Jamaicans that had immigrated here during the seventies and eighties, and stayed, including my parents. There were some people that moved back shortly after they gave living here a go, and some who never left Jamaica. Their stories were sort of similar across the board, so I went with those as fact – although to corroborate the stories, I looked to the Jamaica Gleaner (periodical) for the historical events. I think what I’m most happy about, is the chance to add to the historical record of the Jamaican diaspora, and to document what it was like to grow up in Miami during the 1980’s and nineties – being able to talk about events I’ve never read about before. I know people who have had parallel experiences to mine that may see themselves in my writing, and I really wanted to contribute that to literature.”
Jonathan’s knack for capturing the true essence of his characters comes through often in their speech, with detailed colorful prose and an astute recognition, that exposes each individual’s uniqueness.
“If I wrote some sections in what’s thought of as a “standardized form of English,” it would have killed the authenticity of Top-per (Trelawny and Delano’s father). He’s largely telling himself the story of his life up to a certain point, and it would have been odd for him to translate it through someone else’s language. Not all Jamaican’s talk like Topper, but I tried to weave in various registers – even with Trelawny himself, as he is attempting to fit into different spaces.”
The title of a book has the power to seize your attention and illuminate personal perspective about what to expect inside. Escoffery explains a bit of how he decided on the name, If I Survive You.
“I was re-reading the manuscript and the word survival kept coming up, and I asked myself what does that mean… as the characters are dealing with, in some cases, life or death situations. There’s this family narrative and father/son dynamic that appears across multiple characters, and I started thinking about Jamaican heritage, particularly that of the second generation – and are they going to be able to sustain that in the United States? What happens when the older generation dies and we survive them… and all that remains is what they leave behind? Surviving someone in that sense – describing what Topper and Sanya are handing down to their sons… I wanted the term ‘survive’ to be interpreted in different ways.”
Joining the ranks of pop culture icon status, viewers of HBO
Max’s And Just Like That may have caught a glimpse of Escoffery’s book cradled under Sarah Jessica Parker’s arm.
“The moment was surreal… but I didn’t know that scene was going to make it into the show until Season 2 premiered. It’s interesting when you spend your time around other writers – sometimes what we value isn’t always what the larger media consuming public values, and so to have that crossover is phenomenal.”
“Under the Ackee Tree” proves to be a vital section in the book and should be poured over with care. Trelawny demonstrates his frustration with having to constantly defend his heritage and trying to assimilate as an outsider, by acting out in a rebellious and violent way at his father’s home.
“Ackee and saltfish is Jamaica’s national dish, and is important to Topper. Part of his dream home that he builds in Florida included the fruits of his homeland. He’s only able to have this tree in his backyard because his favorite son, Delano, becomes an arborist and transplants an ackee tree for him. So there’s this sense that Delano, the one who was born in Jamaica, understands the importance of lineage and culture. There’s also this idea that Trelawny doesn’t appreciate or understand the culture, and since childhood says he doesn’t even like the taste of ackee and saltfish. I see the pivot points of attempting to sever the ties with his birthright at the end of “Under the Ackee Tree,” and the final paragraph of the book. There’s an opportunity for hope and healing in that final moment, and those two instances operate as pillars for the book. My own father definitely became someone who was rooting for me, and although he didn’t necessarily understand my journey with writing… he was rooting for me more and more until he passed away.”
Jonathan is currently working on a second work of fiction set in Miami Beach, and is slated to appear at the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival in early September.
“If, If I Survive You is the only book I ever write, I’ll still be proud because it achieves what I set out to accomplish. Sometimes the adversity you face, which often comes in the form of editorial rejection, can make your career something you can be proud of, so I don’t encourage people to rush to get their work out. Making your writing truly exceptional and undeniable takes time and perspective. My advice, if you can stand it – is patience.”
Escoffery’s triumph received American Short Fiction’s 2023 Constellation Award for a Story Collection, was longlisted for the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, and was named one of the best books of 2022 by Entertainment Weekly, TIME, The New Yorker, People, Oprah Daily, and Kirkus.
Picador is scheduled to release the paperback edition of If I Survive You on September 5, 2023 which can be purchased online or at any Barnes & Noble bookstore location.