The question at the heart of If I Survive You is “What are you?”
Jonathan Escoffery’s debut collection of linked stories follows a Jamaican American family of mixed heritage that migrates to Miami in the 1970s. Trelawny, the second of two boys and the main character in most of the stories, is about nine years old when he begins to seek clarity on one burning question, “Am I Black?” It’s a question put upon him by the constant perusal of his brown skin, by a system that dictates how race is determined, preconceived notions of what a Jamaican looks and sounds like, and his mother’s noncommittal answer to the question—“you’re a little of this and a little of that.” His brother, Delano, is more direct: “You’re Black, Trelawny. In Jamaica we weren’t, but here we are. There’s a ‘one-drop’ rule.”
While Trelawny accepts his racial identity as Black, race is at play in other ways, and the question follows him through college and into early adulthood. When Trelawny graduates college and returns to Miami from the Midwest, the tanking economy makes it difficult for Trelawny to find meaningful employment. Desperate for a way to survive, he takes on questionable jobs, including one advertised by a white couple seeking a Black man to serve as a voyeur, and he finds that race not only excludes him from opportunities but presents other options for individuals to exploit his Blackness.
Escoffery was born and raised in Miami, and we spoke recently about how growing up in Miami serves as the foundation for his stories.
Donna Hemans: I’m intrigued by the title and the many ways you explore survival. There are hurricanes, homelessness, political violence in Jamaica, childhood bullies—all things the characters survive. And in “Odd Jobs” Trelawny is pummeled by the family of a woman who hired him to slap her. Can you talk about the idea of survival and what it means to the immigrant family and the generation of children born in America to immigrants?
Jonathan Escoffery: We experience these things quite differently. When you’re Black in America, there’s a different kind of experience from the generation born in the U.S. I was a very proud, patriotic child until America began to tell me that I wasn’t its ideal son. That sent me on a kind of exploration. If this isn’t where I belong, then where is it?
I’m part of the generation that’s surviving what it means to be in America when it seems like there could have been another option for us to not have to deal with this kind of racist system. It’s all the systemic problems that we deal with that affect us in very individual ways, that prevent us from rising to the top of certain careers, or at least may have us striving to feed ourselves in the ways that Trelawny does. He follows the playbook for upward advancement. He goes to college. He does well in college, and he still finds himself outside of what’s been promised to people who work hard in America.
But there’s also surviving your bad decisions and your obsessions. If you look at Topper who certainly made mistakes and he’s failed in ways—and there’s the question of whether he has failed Trelawny—but also he has built a business that was successful for a while. He’s able to build his dream house. So in those kinds of more material ways, we might see him as actually quite the success.
DH: “Pestilence,” begins: “The first and only plot of American soil my parents purchased together was plagued, as was the house they built atop it. The millipedes blackened our front steps, made Mom tap dance from car to welcome mat. They crept up pipes, bursting from bath drains at our most vulnerable moments, their dark bodies startling against the porcelain white.” Do you look at this “pestilence” as a metaphor for the family’s American life?
JE: I took that particular metaphor because the house I grew up in had all of those animals. There’s nothing that I wrote that was made up. And it was largely a one horse town when my family got here. The wildlife was pretty wild. I’m down in Miami, right now and I can see the lizards we had as children. The new generations of lizards have come in and eaten them and there’s always an invasive species that is descending upon this town. It’s cyclical. There are plagues acting as plagues upon the land. The developers are part of that. In terms of metaphors, it’s operating in that way. Something is always coming for this family.
DH: Sticking with the idea of loss, Delano loses his business and that’s tied to the economic downturn. There is the hurricane, of course, that destroys Delano’s childhood home and the house is sinking. There’s also the loss of family. So how do you look at these losses? Are they based on the family’s own failings or are there external factors, like race, affecting them?
JE: I think it’s a mixed bag. They’re taking what they’re given and sometimes making them better. That might just be a reflection of my worldview. Growing up, my parents said, “Don’t get caught up in the politics of the U.S. The system will actually tear you down. Just stay focused on you; don’t get involved in all these larger conversations.” This was my parents not that long after they migrated here. There’s a kind of short lived advantage to ignorance in a sense. I don’t think you can run the full marathon based on that ignorance, but you might make some good time in your sprint with that kind of ignorance.
Even with Sanya, there’s some similarities with my parents. After those 30 years go by she threw in the towel and she said, Yes, I am a Black woman. I do recognize that. And I’m going to peace out of America because this particular set of problems that it comes with, it’s just not worth it.
But Trelawny doesn’t have to take on all of these terrible jobs. In the final title story, he doesn’t have to go and meet with this couple. He’s just addicted to making his life difficult. His life has been made difficult for so long that he’s replicating that and maybe a little bit addicted to his own hardships and trauma.
DH: In “In Flux,” Trelawny asks a question that brought him back to Jamaica. “Among your friends, do people tend to think about or talk about their ancestral roots? Pre-Jamaican, I mean.” He is concerned about whether his peers look to England or West Africa as the motherland. Why is this important to him?
JE: He’s had these multiple experiences. He’s had the experience in Miami, where people keep saying, “What are you?” They keep accosting him with this question and when he tries to answer they’re very disappointed in his answers and they contradict his answers. And they say, “No, you look more like this. So you must be that or you sound more like this. You don’t sound Jamaican. So how could you be Jamaican? You look more like you might be Dominican, Puerto Rican.” They don’t really accept his answers.
So he takes up others’ obsessions. When he has the opportunity to actually be in Jamaica, he’s wondering if he could just feel that comfort level that the rest of his peers seem to feel. But what he’s finding when he’s in Jamaica is that even though he would very much love to be able to step into the identity of being unquestionably Jamaican, not thinking about where he belongs, he finds that he is within a kind of colorism. There’s a certain class perspective that he does not share. He’s noticing the ways in which he may not be able to actually fit within this group, as much as he would like to. Largely that is because he was born in America and he’s grown up American to an extent, and there’s not much that’s going to change that at this point in his life.
DH: How does Trelawny reconcile his racial ambiguity and the different ways he is treated?
JE: By the end of “In Flux” he’s solid in his Blackness. He’s Black with mixed ancestry. But it’s also never going to be so simple to others who are going to identify him however they happen to see him. He has a very different experience in the Midwest versus Miami. And I think that’s because in a place like Miami, people carry the way they see race from whichever nation they came from. Most of the population is not made up of white Americans. It’s mostly Latinx population from all over. And he has to respond to that and the other Caribbean attitudes towards race.
He’s had a lot of experiences in Miami where they’re saying, “I will give you more of a chance because I see you as not Black or not fully Black.” And he’s not latching on to that. He’s no longer interested in that kind of parachute away from Blackness.
DH: You talk about racism in Miami—some of it subtle, some of it overt. Can you imagine the book or these stories without that brand of racism? Is that brand of racism a characteristic of Miami?
JE: I really wanted to write the book that I never saw in the world. If I tried to write any other story it would feel false. It would feel like a poor imitation of something I had read and not aligned with my lived experience. People have written wonderfully about more overt racism that you might expect in the U.S.
Most of my presumed readers will not have grown up in Miami and won’t be aware of this brand of racism. I had to be brave about what I had experienced and hope that this would be understood. It’s 100 percent part of Miami. Miami is a place where people wear their prejudices on their sleeves much more than other cities I’ve lived in. Here people are quick to tell you their prejudices. They don’t let their prejudices get in the way of who they marry. But they will tell you what they think of a given group.
DH: I can’t help but think that the focus on survival and race all tie back to the idea of belonging. As a child, Trelawny wants to belong—whether to the group of Spanish-speaking friends at school or the group of Black children. He wants to fit in. Are those two ideas intertwined to you?
JE: Trelawny tries to belong to anyone who would have him. He wants to be uncomplicatedly American. He wants to be the classic American boy. Everyone is telling him he is not that. He finds people who look like him, but when they hear where his family is from he is rejected. He starts to feel that he hasn’t connected to his heritage. Where do I belong where I can fully claim this is my heritage? What he finds is that there is no place. Maybe that’s my pessimistic view of belonging. But I’m also open to the idea that Trelawny is too obsessed with these things. Maybe he is hypersensitive. What I wanted to demonstrate is that it is not coming from nowhere. People are putting this on him. He’s not given full membership to any group.
DH: When I think back a little bit on some of the things that I’ve read about how millennials view the world because they’ve gone through so much, I wonder if that is tied to the way Trelawny views his circumstances?
JE: He’s definitely in that place where he thinks he should be furthering the success of the family. He’s on a trajectory to do worse than his parents despite the fact that they went through the hardship of immigration and getting used to a new society. I think that a lot of us feel that way. For a very long time, I felt that way. It seems like it’s just too late for us to really achieve much. Trelawny definitely holds some of those views. He holds more of those views than Delano, who for the first time is starting to wonder about possibilities and maybe the lack of possibility, whereas he was probably more optimistic about how life was going to go up until about 2008 or so.
DH: Some of that is tied to the fact that he was also the favorite son. Right?
JE: He feels firm in his footing and he has the support from his family where Trelawny never did.