Mon | Mar 27, 2023

Book showcases Jamaican family grappling with life in the US

Published:Monday | September 19, 2022 | 12:05 AMNeil Armstrong/Gleaner Writer
If I survive you cover
If I survive you cover

Jonathan Escoffery, United States-born author, who is of Jamaican parentage, has written his first book, If I Survive You, a collection of stories published by McClelland & Stewart, which went on sale in North America on September 6.

It is described as “a major debut, blazing with style and heart, that follows a Jamaican family striving for more in Miami, and introduces a generational storyteller”.

In the 1970s, Topper and Sanya flee to Miami as political violence consumes their native Kingston. But America, as the couple and their two children, Delano and Trelawny, learn, is far from the Promised Land. Excluded from society as Black immigrants, the family pushes on through Hurricane Andrew and later the 2008 recession, living in a house so cursed that the pet fish launches itself out of its own tank rather than stay. But even as things fall apart, the family remains motivated, often to its own detriment, by what their younger son, Trelawny, calls “the exquisite, racking compulsion to survive”.

Escoffery, 41, says while growing up his parents, who were English and literature teachers and professors, encouraged him when they saw what he had written on the page. However, at the same time he felt discouraged about pursuing such a path with no one tried and true way to becoming an author. The more practical message was that he should get a different job that would make him successful and then write on the side.


“But once I got into college and start taking a lot of workshops and realising my professors were writers – they were all authors, they had writing careers of their own – that was always my happy place. The more I understood about what it meant to take that journey towards putting a book out, the more energised I felt. And that’s when I really start to focus my energies and really consider what kind of first book I would want to have.”

Having read many authors who were a part of the Harlem Renaissance Movement, like Langston Hughes and Nella Larsen, or those who were either immigrants or the firstborn of immigrants in the US, he saw stories that ran parallel to his family’s story and inspired him.

“Reading those authors lit a fire under me to really get this book out because I felt if you want to see that book in the world, maybe you’re the one who has to write it so that’s what I did.”

The earliest renderings of the characters in his new book started 10 years before he sold the book. At the time, he was applying to graduate school and needed to prepare a writing sample.

“I thought I had it finished but then this other story kind of poured out of me, and it was a story about Trelawny and Topper and Delano. I felt like I had suddenly found my subject matter in a way that I hadn’t yet and so I put that in my writing sample and was able to gain acceptance to several programmes and wound up going to the University of Minnesota. It was at the University of Minnesota where I started playing with these characters more in different stories, including some of the ones that actually made it into the book,” says the writer who grew up in Miami but now lives in Oakland, California.

Escoffery says it was spring of 2014 when he was in his final semester in graduate school that he wrote the story Influx and when he did, that’s when he finally saw what the book would be. He sold the book to a publisher in 2021.

In an effort to be insightful in his fiction, Escoffery decided to write about his own culture and the many cultures he knows, and the tensions of inheriting multiple cultures, especially growing up in a place like Miami, which has “so many cultures kind of pressing up against each other”.

“Each time I thought it was a challenge for me as a writer, I thought, well, that in a sense is the challenge of my book’s protagonists. What they’re dealing with is how do you exist and how do you decide who you are when other people are giving you this litany of questions – what are you? And you answer that question, and they say no, that’s not what you are. And so them trying to figure out who they are is a big part of the book and we go on that journey with characters like Trelawny, Delano and Topper.”

Escoffery is the recipient of the 2020 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and the 2020 ASME Award for Fiction.

He received his MFA from the University of Minnesota, is a PhD fellow in the University of Southern California’s PhD in Creative Writing and Literature Program, and in 2021 was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University.