Immigrants, Race, and Tragedy in Bay Area Author Jonathan Escofri, If I Survive You

Auckland writer Jonathan Escofri is at home. His new book “If I Save You” was released on Tuesday, 6 September. Photo: Gabriel Lowery/The Chronicle

Jonathan Escofri describes the experience of seeing his novelist debut, “If I Survive You,” on dozens of “most anticipated” fall book lists, with pre-glowing praise from famous authors and even interest from Hollywood, as “exciting, of course, but also a bit scary.” .

“I’ve been hanging around with a copy of ‘Under the Ackee Tree’ for a really long time,” the Oakland writer said on a recent video call with The Chronicle. This witty depiction of a generational struggle between father and son “too dense to stifle” won a Paris Review Fiction Award and is one of eight interconnected stories in his thrilling new collection released Tuesday, September 6.

Escofri, who is currently a Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, grew up in Miami in the 1990s with Jamaican parents who fled political violence in Kingston. Like the skilful narrator in his book, Trelawney, as a teenager, Escofri encountered the tangled and confusing ways he summed up his peers and society at large based on assumptions about race, dialects (“Why does your mother speak so funny?” A neighbor teased young Trelawney), education, and class.

The stories in “If I Survive You” — about Trelawny and his parents, Topper and Sanya, who lost their home in 1992 to Hurricane Andrew and saw their families split in its wake — all centered on these malicious, though funny, ways in which people misunderstand each other.

“Race works in this really funny way in Miami, and I wanted to touch on some of those concepts,” Escofri said.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jonathan Escofri’s “If I Survive You” depicts a Jamaican-American family – like him. Photo: Gabriel Lowery/The Chronicle

Q: Trelawny feels life on the page, as does the book’s setting in Miami. To what extent were personal experiences the starting point for the stories in “If I Survive You”?

a: The starting point for a lot of the stories came from personal experience. She was born in 1980, and so was Trelawney. It helped me reflect on what I went through and what was on the national news at different times.

(Hurricane) Andrew was very personal to my family in Miami, of course. The withdrawal from real life was also helpful because I didn’t read many books with families like me. I really wanted to bring them.

Question: By writing about this Jamaican-American family as vividly as you do, you draw attention to how underrepresented the characters were like them.

a: This was one of the main drivers for me at certain points when it was hard to imagine finishing the project. I felt I had to get this book out because vision matters, Trelawney says in the book.

Jonathan Escofri in his Auckland apartment. Photo: Gabriel Lowery/The Chronicle

Q: In the first story, “In Flux,” you described Trelawney beginning to deal with how much his racial identity is defined by other people’s perceptions. He is considered too black for certain groups that he wants to stick with, and not black enough for others. You write, “How can your blackness be so weak?”

a: In writing the book, I had the pleasure of noticing seemingly absurd things. Trelawney can never say, “This is what I am, just accept it.” Instead, everyone tells him who they think he is. In fact, they feel empowered to say, “We know more than you know yourself.”

Q: He is always told he must be a Dominican.

a: I was told that arose many times! People can be very outspoken. They really want to know, do you belong to a group we get along with, or a group we know we don’t get along with? Rather than just knowing who I am as a human being.

Q: “Under the Ackee Tree” is an incredibly powerful story about the tormented relationship between a father and his son. How did it feel to write from the father’s point of view and not from the son’s point of view?

a: I worked on that story for so long from a son’s point of view until I realized it was actually Topper’s story and the whole family’s story.

From the very beginning, I had a picture of an aki tree. Few people outside of Jamaica or the Jamaican diaspora know of or eat (the fruit) acai, but it is the national dish of Jamaica. I wanted to celebrate that, and I thought, let’s go back to the time when new ackee was in abundance and Topper saw people in Jamaica selling it on the side of the road, while now he has this precious tree that represents his legacy of survival in the United States. What if Trelawney tries to cut him off because he feels excluded from his family and Jamaica?

Q: It’s a powerful symbol.

a: Yes, it is. There is just something about this story in particular that, when I go back and read it, I get really emotional. I wouldn’t read (publicly) from that.

Jonathan Escofri “If I Survive You”. Photo: Gabriel Lowery/The Chronicle

Q: In the “Odd Jobs” story, Trelawny is really frustrated with his luck and lives out of his car when he answers an ad posted by a woman named Chastity who will pay him for hitting her in the face. What inspired her?

a: For many years, I had to pick up day jobs, gigs on Craigslist, and I saw a similar post asking someone to come over and give that person a black eye. I didn’t attend to that (laughs), but it was so weird that it stuck with me.

Trelawney at that point was in miserable conditions. He was evicted from his parking lot. He’s basically starving. I imagined, “Where should someone be to answer this kind of call?” This is where my imagination started moving.

Q: Many of your stories have very dark elements, but they still have noisy streaks. Do you find humor in stressful circumstances natural to you?

a: I think it’s a coping mechanism. I fantasize about my characters, because I know it’s true for me, especially when times are tough, there comes a point where you have to laugh so you don’t cry. You may cry too, but you can only cry for so long.

I had the pleasure of writing the book to note anytime I noticed assumptions, perhaps about race or poverty, that go unchallenged and seem absurd. In the same story, Trelawney told of a girl who was beaten by her father because she was living with a black boy, but the boy was not actually black. It was just a perception of his blackness, because he is from South Asia.

And when Trelawney told Chastity that white women had told them the same story before, she said, “I’m not white. I’m Latina.” I’m trying to show that there are ways that we think about race on strict, fixed terms that are actually kind of silly.

if you survive
By Jonathan Escofri
(Farrar, Strauss & Giroux; 272 pages; $27)

Babylon Salon Jonathan Escofri, Charlie Jane Anders, Vanessa Hua, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, and Zoe Olivia Young: Personally. 5:30 pm. September 17. Free. The Sycamore, 2140 Mission St., SF

City Lights Bookstore Jonathan Escoffery offers in conversation with Yohanca Delgado: 6 pm. 6 October. Free, registration required. Kerouac Alley is between Columbus and Grant Streets, between City Lights and Vesuvio Café.

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