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New York Times review: ‘If I Survive You’

Reviewer: Andrew Martin (New York Times)

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery
ISBN: 9780008501242
Format: Paperback

The opening story of Jonathan Escoffery’s debut collection is a bravura overview of the themes and dynamics that will haunt the rest of the book. Titled “In Flux,” it’s a second-person chronicle (“You immediately resent this question”) of the protagonist’s early life as the younger of two brothers in a Jamaican immigrant family living in Miami. The story is Escoffery’s most direct engagement with the question of identity, as the protagonist, Trelawney, tries to figure out where he fits in a Spanish-speaking, multiethnic city that can’t figure out his parents’ Jamaican accents or his own ambiguous racial features.

The only American-born member of his immediate family, Trelawney cycles through potential identities, drawing ire from his father for adopting Black American cadences and styles, and then, on a pilgrimage to Jamaica, being called out as a Yankee interloper for asking things like “Do any of you look to England or West Africa as, you know, the motherland?” College in the Midwest provides temporary, if unsatisfactory, clarity: There, he is “unquestionably Black,” but also told constantly by Black waitstaff and bartenders that “you look like a guy who works here.” A little less clarity starts to seem like a blessing: “You wish some Dominicans would move into town.”

The “you” of this first story is welcoming: The reader is invited to share in Trelawney’s search for an authentic self, if such a thing exists, by enduring the frustrations and microaggressions he faces. But this gesture is productively complicated by the story that follows, also in the second person, this time narrated in patois by Trelawney’s father, a tough-minded general contractor who favors his elder son, Delano, for his similarities to himself. The contrast between these two “you”s — one an earnest acolyte of American self-fashioning, the other an old-world bootstrapper with little room for self-reflection — fuels the conflict at the heart of the book. At the end of the story, Trelawney attempts to chop down his father’s beloved ackee tree, an overt symbol of his, yes, Jamaican roots, after being called “defective” for his perceived softness and lack of gratitude. He is promptly banished from his father’s house.

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