‘Sink Back In To What Was Lost’: An Interview with Jonathan Escoffery

The author of If I Survive You on the gift of humour, the impact of the housing crisis, and family legacy. 

Neil Price is a Toronto-based writer, educator and community advocate. His writing on policing,...

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Caribbean immigrant literature has a long and rich history. We think almost immediately of work by Claude McKay, Edgar Mittleholzer, Jamaica Kincaid, Paule Marshall, Dionne Brand, Austin Clarke and Samuel Selvon, to offer a paltry list of writers. If, like me, you grew up in Canada, you’ve probably mostly read Anglo-Caribbean writers. Because whole experiences rooted and rendered in the French, Dutch, and Spanish Caribbean have not been widely translated into English, we’ve been left with a narrow, monolingual view of what it means to leave your island for a “big” country. As a result of these differences in language, history, and distance, it seems we never get the full Caribbean picture. Our understanding of narratives that emanate from the region is, in many ways, as fragmented as the archipelago’s geography. For the most part, we make do with our half-histories and layers of cultural complexity. We try our best to understand who we are, even though we don’t have all the pieces. As writer Antonio Michael Downing puts it, as Caribbean people, we tell stories about “being shattered over and over and reassembling [ourselves] over continents and calamities.” 

The same can be said of author Jonathan Escoffery’s debut short story collection, If I Survive You (McClelland & Stewart), whose characters grapple with reassembling their lives through the calamities of race, immigration, interpersonal strife, and economic survival within a Jamaican family trying to make it in Miami, Florida. The “you” in the title represents several possibilities—the United States, family, even former selves. All are sources of conflict; all embody the problems of modern life. Told mostly through the eyes of twenty-something Trelawny across eight interlocking stories, the stories follow his experiences with precarious work, homelessness, family struggles, and the constant fight to fit into and survive his environment. The stories are largely about history’s reverberations. It is Trelawny’s parents’ decision to leave a troubled Jamaica in the 1970s that sets in motion his challenge to define his racial and cultural identity as a US-born Black man navigating a country buckling under the weight of the Great Recession. 

Escoffery’s characters not only have to deal with external forces of racism and economic turmoil, but they must also come to terms with the filial divisions and growing feelings of distrust that exacerbate their troubles. In the story “In Flux,” Trelawny searches for a racial identity only to be told by his mother, Sanya, that he should tell people he’s “a little of this and a little of that.” In “Under the Ackee Tree,” we learn of the decisions his father, Topper, makes concerning women in Jamaican that have disastrous consequences for his family. And in the eponymous story “If I Survive You,” the sibling rivalry between Trelawny and his brother, Delano, reaches a peak that threatens mutual harm.

In all this tumult, Escoffery’s stories never become navel-gazing tales of woe; they never feel fueled by self-pity. Instead, they are narratives infused with a biting humour that draws the reader into a complex tapestry of human folly and perseverance. As in earlier Caribbean fiction, the characters in If I Survive You laugh at their circumstances. Their jokes become paths to sanity, their laughs are balm against self-destroying bitterness.

I spoke with Jonathan Escoffery about how his stories navigate notions of being in exile, race and identity, Jamaican-ness, and humour.

Neil Price: The main character in these stories, Trelawny, is born in the US to Jamaican parents. They leave the island in the ’70s, when there were all kinds of challenges: political violence, debt, CIA intervention, and so on. As the stories unfold, we get the sense this is a family in exile. Is this an accurate description or are they immigrants in a more traditional, economic sense?

Jonathan Escoffery: I think exile is a good word because this family has not left for the more common narrative of upward mobility that might be associated with Jamaicans, to be specific. And there’s certainly, at least for a time, with Topper and others, the belief that there is no going back. I think Sanya comes to feel differently for a short time herself. I wanted to touch on historical reasons, at least briefly, for why a family like Trelawny’s would end up in the US in the first place, and write against the idea that there wasn’t US involvement in sending them there. Or write against the idea that it was, you know, their own poverty that sent them out of the country. And there’s also the kind of exile for the next generation, for a character like Trelawny who’s a minoritized being in the United States, but at the same time, doesn’t quite belong to Jamaica. And so, he’s a person without a land. He has these jobs that deny his own race, in a sense. He has to pick up a job that would otherwise exclude him or lean into these other ideas of what Blackness is supposed to be, and show up for the job that is actually looking to exploit his Blackness. He’d love to go back to Jamaica and sink back into what was lost when his parents left, but there really is no going back for him. He stands out as very American in Jamaica.

We’re accustomed to stories of West Indian migrants heading to the US and quickly becoming industrious, being quick to set up shops and other businesses. These narratives go back to the early ‘’20s. I’m thinking of Marcus Garvey and that legacy of West Indian mobility. But your stories set up and probe these historical tensions. You seem to be refreshing or re-examining these tensions with the migrant story in a much more contemporary context. Were you interested in writing against some of the tropes that come out of our assumptions about the West Indian migrant story?

I wanted to put Jamaicans on the map in terms of stories coming out of South Florida and Miami because I just don’t think there are any.

No, not at all. None that come to mind.

Right? We are down there, but we are somehow unseen at the same time. I get messages from Caribbean and Jamaican people who say, “I’ve never seen myself on the page.” I wanted to write us into historical record and write us into existence in the form of media, I suppose. But with Jamaicans there is this weird thing where we want our culture to survive in the US, but we’re always talking to each other and saying, “Oh, you’re not Jamaican,” or, “What do you know about Jamaica?” I wanted to be very honest about those kind of problems within our own community. In a sense I’m asking, “Do you want us to survive or not?” If you keep pushing people out, [Jamaican culture] is going to end. It’s not likely to be carried forward by the next generation. Where does a Trelawny find himself? He is taking his parents’ culture as a sign that is giving him messages from the larger culture. If you go to college, you get a ticket to find a solid middle class life. But he doesn’t find it. And I thought, you know, on [the] one hand, I think it makes sense that it would be the hardest thing for him to find during the recession. I also had that experience. I happened to finish college during the recession. I was working throughout college because I was a non-traditional student. I was seeing just how difficult it was to get any kind of job. One day, you could kind of get these entry level jobs that would have paid you a salary that would allow you to live with dignity and allow you to feed yourself and have a roof over your head. And then the next day it seems like there just were so few of those jobs and the jobs that were paying you much less were still telling you to be grateful. And then there’s what Trelawny has chosen, much like I chose, to get an English degree. There’s always that lingering question of, “Well, what can you do with this degree?” I think English degrees teach you to think critically, and I think we see Trelawny thinking critically on the page. Is it benefiting him materially? It’s a lot of my own anxieties playing out on the page. I’ve never moved back to Miami after I left. It is just a very difficult landscape, as I see it, for utilizing such a degree.

The first story takes up identity head on. The question that opens the story “In Flux” is, “What are you?” This story takes the reader into the internalized world of racism, shadeism, and colourism. Were you deliberately trying to shed light on how these isms get internalized?

Yeah, absolutely. I wanted to show that it’s not always such a simple thing in terms of how we identify ourselves. A lot of people identify as being Latino and that is their race. And I agree with that, like a lot of people do. But then how do we complicate that when you have white Cubans in Miami who identify as white more than they do Latino? And then what do you do with Black Cubans or other Afro Latinos? And then you include Jamaicans where you have these very light-skinned Jamaicans, dark-skinned Jamaicans; you have white Jamaicans; you have Chinese Jamaicans. Can Jamaicans be a race? Or there’s this thing where Black Jamaicans will move to the US, and they’ll say, “I’m just Jamaican,” and you have all of those different nuances. Some will say, “Well, we’re different culturally.” And that’s true enough. But what does culture have to do with race, and how do we define the culture then? Is it Jamaican accents? Is it the percentage of oxtail and ackee and saltfish that you eat per week? It is all very complex. I wanted to put all of that on the page. If you follow a character like Trelawny and follow his experiences, you see how it plays out. You see how his just saying, “I’m Jamaican,” or just saying, “I’m Black,” or just hanging out with people who look more like him—you see how it’s just all very complicated when people who look like him don’t identify the same way he does.

You use second person quite a bit in these stories. I wonder whether it is intended to complicate this notion of the subject “you,” or whether it is meant to draw the reader into a narrative that feels more immediate with respect to Trelawny and the other characters.  

I think it does have the effect of drawing readers in, but that wasn’t my primary concern. In full transparency, when I started writing “In Flux”—which was the first story I wrote in the collection that is told in the second person—I was writing it as an essay. I was doing this kind of exploration of just how strange it was to be confronted by that question, “What are you?” and the different ways I’ve had to interpret that question and the different ways people seem to have meant it. I was living in Minneapolis, in the Midwest, which is very different culturally from a place like Miami. And I think that kind of very distinct experience of being away from Miami led me to think about the whole experience being in flux. I wanted this character to be poring over the details of his life. With “you,” I envision a kind of older Trelawny talking to himself about [his] experiences up to that point. What drives him to be interested in taking this DNA test by the end of the story? It’s this kind of complex thing of his mother refusing to say, ”Hey, you’re Black,” or herself not understanding that the family would be perceived as Black in the United States. But [she is] still saying, “You’re a little of this and you’re a little of that. You’ve got grandparents from this country, this European country.” And Trelawny [is] moving away from that in a sense and thinking, “Let me embrace Blackness,” which again goes back to that question: what is race? Is race the music I listen to? The clothes I wear? He internalizes all those questions, and he decides to take this test. In a sense, it’s not like his mom was lying about the diversity of his racial or ethnic background, but it’s still an insufficient answer. I just wanted him to be having that conversation with himself and it allows him room to critique both places that are constantly taking him apart but also critique how he’s chosen to respond to those voices, at times kind of ridiculously.

Speaking of ridiculous, these stories are decidedly humorous at times. It was refreshing to pick up a funny collection of stories, to be honest. They’re not always funny—there are moments that are deeply poignant and disturbing—but humour runs right through the stories. I was immediately reminded of Samuel Selvon’s “Lonely Londoners.” I wondered if the humour was by design, or if it came out of the “ridiculousness,” to use your word, of the complexity and the inability to really grapple with all of these threads for characters like Trelawny and Delano. There’s so much going on. There’s the family struggle. There’s the struggle of identity and finding one’s place. There’s the economic struggle of finding livable wages. How did you fashion the humorous elements of these stories?  

The very first story I wrote that explored these characters did not make its way into the book. But it just kind of poured out of me, and there wasn’t really much strategy involved. But after I shared it with my reader-writer friends, I considered it to be a very humorous story. I wanted to keep that alive in the book. I ended up going to grad school to do my MFA. And I think [in grad school] there’s this self-imposed pressure that I needed to start writing these serious stories. And I remember one of my advisors, Charles Baxter, wrote me a note and said, “You know, I liked what you got going on here. But don’t forget that you seem to have the ability to write humour. Don’t forget that that is a wonderful gift, if you can continue doing that.” And I loved that I had a kind of permission to continue to do that. I also didn’t want to overthink it, because I remember at a certain point, even prior to that, I was thinking, “Well, now it has to be a book, like a humorous book.” And the more I thought about that, the less humorous it was. I realized that the humour did not detract, it only added. I think it came out naturally, but at the same time, as you said, I was putting these absurd moments in, these certain ways we treat race and identity at times.

Yes, for example, there is that funny scene where the professor wants Trelawny to put more Blackness into his research paper.

Exactly. It’s like, “stay in your box,” but where your box happens to be graded is mediocre. They want you to accept this mediocrity or subpar performance because that’s their idea of you as a Black person. And then there’s ways in which Trelawny feels powerless in his poverty at times. And I think he is responding with humour because that’s his outlet.

That’s what got me thinking of Selvon’s work, because the stories are these outlets for situations that are quite dire. But we end up laughing at them. And in some way that laughter gets us through. And it felt like that pulse was running through your stories, which was lovely to experience.

Right.

I wonder if we could talk about the character Sanya for a minute and the fact that her home is foreclosed. We often think of home ownership as being central to our West Indian sense of accomplishment in capitalism. I’m thinking of Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas as one general reference. And yet Sanya packs it up, and the narrator shares that in many respects she feels safer back in Jamaica despite its problems. Is her packing it up and returning to Jamaica a comment on the impossibility of the US, and that sometimes the only thing one can do is to turn our back on it and give up?

The short answer is yes. I wanted to explore Topper’s attitude about never being able to return to Jamaica in contrast to Sanya, who never got used to the weight of being a marginalized person in the US. I also wanted to show the impact of the housing crisis because my mother did lose her house, so that’s something that’s hit me personally. From a narrative standpoint, I wanted Trelawny to return to Miami but not have that same safety net, in a sense. If Sanya doesn’t leave Miami, then Trelawny will always have that safety net. To set those dynamics up I had to have Sanya leave. And then she does go back to Jamaica, and she does say she felt free there by the privilege of relative racelessness. And any time I’ve visited Jamaica in my adult life, I’ve felt that privilege of relative racelessness. I felt able to breath freer, and those have been very short bursts in my life. That’s also because I have a mind where I’m always picking apart my own lived experiences. And of course, by the end of the book she [Sanya] says, “Well, time to leave Jamaica because I’m just not one of my people anymore.” She’s still ever-searching; there’s still an idea of “you can’t go home”.

That idea of home gets romanticized, doesn’t it? You think you can return to this thing that stood still while you were gone but it’s changed in your absence.

Exactly. 

In a key moment in one of the stories, Trelawny gets into an argument with his father, Topper, who he feels is putting him down and ridiculing his lack of Jamaican-ness. Trelawny goes outside and begins to chop down the ackee tree which his brother, Delano, had gifted their father. I wondered about the symbolism and the idea of the transplanted tree. We’re accustomed to the ackee tree in Jamaica, but here it is symbolizing Topper’s emotional and psychological connection to Jamaica. And it’s his son—a son that he’s got this complicated relationship with—who attacks this symbol. How did you arrive at that scene?

For me, the tree symbolized that carrying forward of the family legacy, that legacy including the Jamaican culture that the family brings over. I think it’s one of those things where I wanted to make sure of the historical record in a sense. For me it’s such a fascinating fruit. The ways in which it opens; the way in which it can be poisonous if you don’t know what you’re doing with it, [like] if you force the ackee pod open and try to cook it after that point. I wanted to explore the dangers of not understanding your own culture. Even though Topper had resentment for Trelawny and for his perceived American-ness and his perceived disinterest in his Jamaican heritage, it’s partly the moment where Trelawny is trying to claim his Jamaican-ness. And one would think Topper would be all for it, except Trelawny is criticizing his father’s decision—a very difficult decision—to pack up and leave his country of birth. And that is a painful thing to Topper. Whether or not it was the right move, I don’t think anyone could say. He has the belief that it was the right move. But Trelawny feels like all that he has suffered as somebody who’s not seen as legible—everyone saying what he isn’t—Trelawny sees these as things that he’s lost out on. To me, his trying to chop down [the] tree is him giving up on the idea that he’s going to be the ideal Jamaican son. He’s going to show that he does understand the significance of the tree by trying to do the one thing that would hurt his father the most in response to being called defective.

In another story, “Under the Ackee Tree,” you write in the first-person using Jamaican patois. Did you have any trepidations? Not every writer does that well. Tell me about that decision to use patois in letting the reader hear Topper’s voice and its function in relation to the other stories.

Originally, I wanted to have a falling out with Topper and Trelawny. I was trying to play it out in my head, but I thought for a time that this was also going to be Trelawny’s story. And what I realized is that this conversation around whether they should have ever moved from Jamaica in the first place—I felt like it was important that we see what was going on in Jamaica and what was going in Topper and Sanya’s lives in the 1970s for them to make that decision. I realized that it was going to be one of the parent’s stories. And the greatest tension is between Topper and Trelawny, [so] I wanted to make it his [Topper’s] story. I didn’t want to vilify him in this book, even though some of his decisions are questionable or maybe just bad. But I see it as being more complicated than just good or bad. I wanted to give him an opportunity to tell his own story in a sense. And once I made that decision, I had to consider, how would he retell his own story to himself? And for me to put that in what’s thought of as a standardized English—it didn’t make a lot of sense. Why would he have to be interpreting himself with language that isn’t his? Why wouldn’t he use his own language? And then there’s just—for me—any time I’ve been asked as a reader to do a little bit more work to engage with a piece of writing, for me those are the stories that I am most attached to. Often, those are the stories where, when they end, I look up, and I say, “Wow, I forgot I’m not in the story.” So, I thought, yes, let me write it this way. I didn’t feel like I had anything to lose, honestly. And that was the story that got me in the Paris Review and my writing career took off from that point. And thankfully, it paid off.

It certainly did. It’s my favourite story in the collection, so I’m glad you made that choice. [Both laugh].

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