With his new collection of interlinked short stories, Oakland author Jonathan Escoffery dissects the ironies of race, identity and family for Jamaican immigrants living in South Florida.
Through the eyes of two brothers on divergent career and social paths from the mid-1970s to the arrival of Hurricane Andrew to 2008’s Great Recession, If I Survive You, published Sept. 6 by MCD Books, is by turns heartbreaking, harrowing and hilarious, earning its creator acclaim from the likes of Marlon James, Ann Patchett, Percival Everett, and a host of other critics and reviewers.
Himself a child of Jamaican immigrants, Escoffery grew up in the Cutler Ridge (now Cutler Bay) suburb of Miami. After college in South Florida, he traveled to Minnesota for a creative writing MFA, and then to Southern California to begin a PhD program in creative writing and literature at USC. He moved to Oakland when he was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford.
Escoffery was born in Texas shortly after his parents and older brother immigrated from Jamaica in the late 1970s.
Reached by phone, Escoffery discussed reasons Jamaicans came to the U.S. during those years.
“The island had gained independence from Britain, and the country was really trying to define what it wanted to be. There would be violence between (competing) groups spread across various communities. To avoid that, you saw a lot of middle-class people leaving the country and going to the U.S. and elsewhere.”
Escoffery’s family moved to Florida when he was about three years old.
“It was kind of a strange place, growing up there. You had this awareness of Miami being a city that catered to tourism, (with) this odd sense that you were one of the townies. People flew to Miami from all over the world to partake in night life or to be one of the beautiful people.”
Escoffery says he was a voracious reader as a child. The kids’ horror series, Fear Street, was a reading list staple. He also had enthusiasm for tales of family history. For example, there was local folklore in Kingston, Jamaica, that, because fruit grew in the streets, no one would ever go hungry. But when crime rates rose in the 1970s, his parents had to re-think Jamaica’s reputation as a tropical paradise.
“My parents had a neighbor who had a home invasion and was raped and robbed, and my grandparents at one point were robbed, tied up and had all their money and jewelry stolen.”
Many of the family stories are reflected in Escoffery’s debut book. Some of the pieces are so true to life that it’s tempting to read them strictly as an autobiography, when they’re clearly not.
The collection starts on a bravura note, a chapter titled “In Flux.” Recounted in the second-person present, the story introduces the reader to Topper and Sanya, transplants to Miami seeking to flee violence and downward mobility from Kingston, and their two teen sons, Delano and Trelawney.
Over the course of the collection If I Survive You, matriarch Sanya heads back to Jamaica, while Delano and Trelawny vie for their father’s attention. The younger Trelawney has an especially hard time figuring out his allegiances, ending up living in his car.
The opening chapter, “In Flux,” is told from Trelawny’s point of view, when he first has to reckon with race, when he has to choose with whom he belongs:
“It begins with ‘What are you?’ Hollered from the perimeter of the front yard when you’re nine—younger probably. You’ll be asked again throughout junior high and high school, then out in the world, in strip clubs, in food courts, over the phone and at various menial jobs.”
“In Flux” is remarkable in the way it switches times and identities, showing Twelawny’s discomfort with language and yearning for someone to teach him to use it. His mother insists on speaking patois while his father insists that he is thoroughly American. Nothing he does seems right.
Escoffery said writing about Trelawney in the opening chapter, “was an interesting project, to break apart elements of his identity and see what is essential. And each time he leans into parts of his identity, will people let him accept those parts?”
Delano, the older brother, is somebody who is pretty firm in his identity.
Escoffery described Delano as, “never the most privileged person, but he’s someone who’s going to make something out of nothing and not really sit around dissecting all of his problems.”
Trelawny, on the other hand, having been born in the U.S. to Jamaican parents, has a bit more trouble locating how he’s supposed to identify.
“People keep telling (Trelawny) how he should identify,” Escoferry said. “And people keep denying the ways which he attempts to identify. I think he comes to really regret his parents’ decision to immigrate to the U.S., because he believes, had they just stayed, he wouldn’t have these problems with trying to understand who he’s supposed to be.”
Another story central to the collection is “Under the Ackee Tree.” Topper hosts a party at which he insults Trelawny, only to have the boy rush to chop down his father’s beloved ackee tree, a fruit tree central to Jamaican culture.
Noting that Jamaica’s national dish is ackee and saltfish, Escoffery said, “Not too many people outside of Jamaica cook ackee.”
Ackee may be delicious, but the unripened fruit is toxic. Consumption and proper preparation of raw ackee requires a high degree of awareness.
“It can be dangerous to not understand your own culture,” said Escoffery. “It can literally kill you.”
Though canned ackee may be imported to the U.S., importation of raw ackee is banned.
“For the father to have his own ackee tree, there’s a lot of pride that he takes in being able to grow it fresh,” Escoffery said.
In the short story “Pestilence,” Trelawny has vivid memories of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which … “pops your house’s roof open, peeling it back like the lid of a Campbell’s soup can, pouring a fraction of the Atlantic into your bedroom—living room—everywhere, bloating carpet, drywall and fiberboard with sopping sea salt corrosion.”
The hurricane, which wrecked their home, was a turning point for Escoffery’s family, too.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. It is truly a marker of before and after in my childhood.”
Escoffery ties together disparate chapters of the collection with the title story, “If I Survive You,” a story he wrote over the course of about a year beginning the final term of his MFA studies.
Mentioning contemporary authors Paul Beatty, Percival Everett and Mat Johnson, Escoffery said, “I’ve read so many wonderful books as a consequence of being in an MFA program, and that helped me shape what kind of writer I wanted to be.”
One profound influence on Escoffery’s writing has been Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen, author of Passing (1929) and Quicksand (1928). The latter book was a revelation to him.
“I don’t know that I could write a story like ‘In Flux’ without having read ‘Quicksand,’” Escoffery said, “For me, it was a book that was really influential in the way it talks about race and how one’s identity can fluctuate. It opened up a door for me to understand that I can write about identity with that level of nuance.”
The work on his debut collection has paid off. In addition to winning the 2020 Plimpton Prize, Escoffery has a contract for another book and recognition from Oprah Daily for his story, “Splashdown.”
Meanwhile, Escoffery enjoys living near downtown Oakland, “. . . where art is everywhere I look, and that’s really fantastic. I love that there are things like First Fridays over in my neighborhood, where you can get such wonderful food in such options and variations.”
“(The Jamaican restaurant) Kingston 11 is right down the street,” Escoffery said. “I spend way too much money over there on my goat curry and my oxtail.”
“I’m definitely still exploring the Bay Area, Oakland in particular,” he said. “It grows on me day by day.”