In Jonathan Escoffery’s debut short story collection, If I Survive You, a mother, a father, and their two sons move between Jamaica and Miami together, apart. Alone. At turns cruel and harsh, and tender and loving, this collection is a gut punch. It circles around race, home, family, masculinity, and the elusive, torturous American Dream; and all who are beaten down as they try to reach it. Escoffery’s prose is unforgettable. I spoke with him about his writing process, incredibly realistic characters, and the forces that suffocate and, maybe, save them.
Jen St. Jude
Was there one character or story that inspired the others in the collection? Or did it come to you as a singular (beautiful, challenging) tangle you had to unravel through each plot?
Trelawny, Delano, and Topper all appeared at once, in a story that inspired the collection, but that story never made it into the final version of the book. I eventually cannibalized it and you’ll recognize my recap: Trelawny was the original narrator and the story focused on the tension between the two brothers as they struggled to live together as adults in the family townhouse. Topper, their landlord father, tries to hand over the problem of Delano not paying rent—of his abusing his position as family favorite—to a very frustrated Trelawny. The story had heart, but the more I revised it, the worse it got. I had to untangle what was good about these characters and build them out in different stories.
Jen St. Jude
In one stand-alone (to an extent) story, “Splashdown,” a character, Cukie, is haunted by his father’s abandonment. Trying to reconcile his past, he chases answers, but they prove more devastating than he could have ever imagined. This story gutted me; without spoiling too much (if possible) how do you think his ultimate fate informs other familial relationships in the book? What does it say for their future?
I didn’t consciously design them this way, but I came to see Cukie and Trelawny, and their respective fathers, Ox and Topper, as parallels to one another. In both cases, we have strained father-son relationships, and the sons in each pairing appear doomed to chase the question of whether their fathers love them or love them enough to protect them. Cukie imagines sinking to the bottom of the ocean to see if his (till-then) absentee father will save him and I think that impulse is with him at the end of “Splashdown.” In his own way, Trelawny puts himself in a situation at the end of the book that sets him up to learn whether his father will rescue him in spite of their falling out with each other. When Cukie digs through his father’s clothes bin, hoping to determine whether Ox is “good” or “deceitful,” I don’t think there’s anything he could have found, or any other action he could have taken, for that matter, short of putting his life in his father’s hands, that could satiate his need to know what kind of man Ox is and whether Ox will protect him.
We see how dangerous it can be to seek salvation from the men who failed these boys in the first place. But I also see, across the three cousins—to include Trelawny’s brother Delano—alternatives and opportunities to break toxic cycles. These relationships don’t all have to end in tragedy. If Delano can get his sons back in his life, and build a healthy relationship with them, perhaps they won’t grow up feeling the desire to harm themselves in pursuit of their father’s love.
Jen St. Jude
There are so many things relentlessly suffocating many of the characters; heat, insects, racism, and history. The weight of it all took my breath away as a reader, and it felt like the characters were always bracing themselves for the next blow. “In 2009,” Trelawny writes, “Kingston’s murder rate reached the highest ever on record, and my mom returned there so she could finally feel safe.” How much do you think this constant threat of violence (both verbal and physical) has shaped who he is? How has it shaped his family members?
I think Trelawny understands, intellectually, that his parents’ choice to emigrate to the U.S. was about prioritizing physical safety. We see that Topper’s mind remains unchanged in this regard, and he winds up relatively (financially) successful, perhaps because he has decided that he has no other choice but to make America work for him, regardless of its flaws. I think a lot of immigrants in the U.S. can identify with this attitude.
At the same time, what Trelawny viscerally understands is that he was born in a country that sees him as a problem. He begins to internalize this from a young age, and I would argue that this violence does manifest itself in physicality, in more ways than I can count. Panning out from the characters for a moment, we can look at disparate projected life outcomes based on race, or we could consider the physical and psychological toll of knowing your life outcomes will be hindered because of (systemic violence perpetrated against) your race.
I see the opening story, “In Flux,” as an example of this psychological toll in action. Trelawny constantly (re)defines himself through or against the gaze of others as a means of survival. On one hand, he is resilient. But I also think it’s debilitating. What else could he have been had he not had to spend his life constantly navigating others’ (abrasive) assessments of him.
To some extent, he believes that if he could just fit somewhere—anywhere—he could be safe. The issues that eat away at his self-esteem aren’t shared by his family members, because they come from a place where many of the people in power look like them, and they can return to this place where they “fit,” at least theoretically. We see, after she returns there, that Sanya doesn’t actually feel she fits in Jamaica anymore—there’s no going home.
Some might argue that Trelawny’s hyper-awareness of his positionality is his biggest problem—perhaps he’s perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy—and I’m interested in that conversation, particularly in the context of Black immigrants and their American-born children. I’m interested in how many generations can use their willful ignorance about America’s structural problems to their advantage, before it all starts to catch up to them through their children and grandchildren.
Jen St. Jude
The home that the central family acquires is in Miami. And it’s sinking. Plus, storms like Hurricane Andrew devastate homes and end lives on these pages. I felt climate raging through your words. How do you think weather contributes to this fictional and not-so-fictional world where stability is so elusive?
I wanted to show these characters, insofar as they’re our representative humans, losing their grip on what’s to be expected from nature, just as we’re continually less able to predict the weather based on annual benchmarks. The world is slowly falling apart in the background of these stories, particularly the titular story, which closes out the book. There’s no stability and our encroachment on the natural world is proving to be unsustainable because the natural world keeps finding surprising ways to fight back. The family home is sinking into the earth. The streets are flooding with no rain. Yet, Trelawny and Delano seem only capable of intensifying their sibling rivalry, while Tim and Morgan’s sex games grow more outrageous. I suppose I see the world ending this exact way. Climate disaster upon climate disaster and we’re too caught up in our petty personal wars to do more than have a cursory glance at what’s coming for the collective us.
So, I guess I wanted the book to feel contemporary.
Jen St. Jude
I think this collection has the potential to reach a lot of people for so many reasons, but did you have an ideal reader in mind as you wrote each story?
I have to write to excite or amuse myself, and maybe it’s by being that specific, in that way, that I’m able to get to the universal.
I’ll admit that, in the very late stages, I reviewed the manuscript with many different types of readers in mind. This wasn’t with a goal of pandering, but I did ask myself if I was taking any cheap shots, given the critiques and comedic elements in the book—which were often aimed at myself, or my surrogate, but oftentimes not. It’d be less important if I were writing about Jamaican characters in some faceless, generic version of America, but it’s a very multicultural book, set primarily in a specific city (Miami).
Jen St. Jude
I have a feeling If I Survive You will inspire a passionate, thoughtful audience for your work. What’s next for you and your writing?
I was taught that you should keep a fake novel pitch that you tell people about when asked this question so that you keep the bad juju away from your real project. Truthfully, I’m just working on feeling less like an author and more like a writer again. It’s confusing, because I spent so long just wanting to have a book published, but the real thing, the real joy, is in building story, sentence by sentence.
But yes, there’s a novel underway. It’s about a Narwhal named Wharhol, whose flat-earther dog friend, Noreen, convinces her to swim from the east to the west side of the Panama Canal. The long way. It’s an eco-tragedy about toxic relationships.
by Jonathan Escoffery
Published on September 6, 2022