Via DM, email, and phone, I spoke with Jonathan about his debut collection.
YVONNE CONZA: Your story endings flicker with “to-be-continued.”
JONATHAN ESCOFFERY: Early readers voiced, “reads like real life.” Likely one contributing factor for this revolves around the fact that, even after a given set of trials ends for a character, they will still, like all of us, have to wake up the next day and deal with the everyday demands of life. That consciousness of continuation conveys the likelihood that we’ll see some of these characters again.
Is it important to think about your characters as having a continuing existence?
I never think of the life of a character as concluding when the story they appear in finishes. They’re all very alive to me, unless they die in the story, but even then they live on in a sort of suspension. Earlier events in their lives might still be story-worthy, or might take a less central role in another character’s retrospective telling of events. This is equally true of stories I’ve written that aren’t in If I Survive You. The linked story structure particularly promoted this inclination to render elliptical endings. For example, I wanted Delano, the older of the two brothers, to be depicted as infallible in some stories and a total fuck-up in others. He loses and wins depending on when we focus on him, depending on the given character or narrative lens that evaluates him and his actions, and depending on which of his narrative threads readers decide to prioritize.
What do you wish editors would reflect upon regarding writing that’s crafted with its own identity and standards?
My wish extends beyond editors to include writing instructors and students whose majority status situates them in the seat of power. “Standards” across our literary landscape seem to be almost entirely based around comps, which dissuade writers from taking new approaches to narrative or working in lesser-known traditions.
Good stories teach us how to read them and smart readers should be able to pick up on the rules and the expectations the story sets forth. This is true of stories that are more, or less, familiar to American readers. “I’m not familiar with this content, this lived experience, or this narrative structure” is a lousy reason to dismiss a story or full-length manuscript. Shouldn’t those be reasons to get excited about a piece of writing? This response sounds, to me, like embracing ignorance and fear, and I can’t see how that yields success in practical terms. Scared money don’t make money, as they say. I’ve wondered what those editors think when the project they dismissed goes on to win a bunch of awards or garners other markers of success. Do they reflect?
In the best-case scenarios, when one editor dismisses these stories, another editor winds up recognizing their value, and the work goes on to expand our understanding of what’s possible. I worry that some of these stories never make it out into the world, but I want to believe that persistent writers do ultimately prevail.
The humor in your book will be a topic of conversation. Talk about that.
I think the book is hilarious, but hearing that the humor comes across to anyone outside of my own head is always a little surprising. I’m very glad that it comes across, but I don’t expect to be funny to anyone other than myself. My inner critic is always cataloging life’s absurdities and contradictions that we, as a society, pretend not to notice or that we accept as normal, and writing these absurdities down feels like turning to a close friend, someone who shares my sense of humor, to say, “Do you believe this shit?” Which is cathartic, if nothing else.
Building stories sentence by sentence, I employ every tool at my disposal to energize the prose, and humor serves the writing in that way. I write about heavy topics such as race, poverty and death, and the last thing I want to do is brutalize my readers. Humor is an entryway into these topics that can allow readers to leave a story feeling enlivened, rather than demoralized. Readers here might again just refer to me. I don’t want to brutalize myself.
Humor is a way that my characters cope with their difficult circumstances. When I was younger, living in Miami and spending time with my economically distressed friends and coworkers, myself included, we would laugh and laugh. We had seemingly little control over our lives and almost exclusively communicated through jokes to cope with our menial jobs, our pitiful pay, our asshole supervisors, and what promised to be bleak futures. We laughed to release stress, to keep from exploding, to keep from killing each other or ourselves. The power dynamics in the book are often skewed against my protagonists, and they often respond with humor, because what else can they do? The observations I make about our larger, systemic problems are written with humor because what else can I do?
What is the challenge with humor?
The obvious challenge is that we don’t all agree on what’s funny. I’ve yet to meet a reader of my work who is a Jamaican American from Miami, so I can’t expect that everything I find humorous will land with a readership that has a dissimilar frame of reference.
“In Flux,” the foundational opening story, is capricious, like a hurricane. At any moment, things could potentially change course. Written in the second person, the narration introduces a vantage point that’s reflective, more mature. What went into this choice?
I wanted to tell Trelawny’s story through his shifting relationship with his identity — to pivot from his feeling grounded in an American identity to the gradual deterioration of that assuredness, to his trial runs with Jamaicanness, mixedness, Blackness, and so on. The logic: Each time he fully embraces one aspect of his identity, outside forces enter to poke holes in his claim to it. At the same time, I knew I needed to keep him embodied and moving through physical space and time. It made sense to me to track his evolution by having his confrontations with identity largely taking place along a recognizable timeline, so we mostly see him in, or mapped against, his various educational institutions. Keeping him in those settings helped me build out the cast of characters and voices that would continually challenge him along the way. Part of the logic meant moving him to different culturally distinct settings to further destabilize him: the college move to the upper Midwest from Miami, the visit to Kingston from the Midwest. Another rationale involved his graduation from others’ obsession with his identity to his own obsession with it.
As I tracked his movement through school, and tracked his shifting relationship with himself, I realized that, for a certain kind of reader, the story of family would be most compelling, so I made sure to develop and track the family’s evolution as well. It was helpful to build Trelawny against Delano, who has no anxieties about his ethnic identity and who appears to be well adjusted for most of the book. Events like hurricanes Andrew and Katrina and the recession were helpful to use to contextualize Trelawny’s timeline, situating him in the world we live in.
In that same story, how did those fragmentary, essayistic breaks further inform and complicate the themes of identity, culture, and heritage?
The breaks allowed me to closely follow the identity thread while moving relatively quickly through time and cover roughly 20 years of Trelawny’s life. It didn’t seem very realistic that he would go through all of these shifts in the span of a week, or even a year. Certainly, there are other things going on in Trelawny’s life, when he’s nine and 10 years old, for example, and we see some of that in “Pestilence,” but “In Flux” focuses on the factors that push him up against, or away from, different aspects of his identity.
The breaks and sections helped me isolate the different parts of his identity in a way that mirrors the ways we often talk about identity, and they serve Trelawny’s early understanding of race and ethnicity as elemental. He details the actions he takes to “be more Black,” then to “be more Jamaican.” His attempts are, at times, absurd, if not comical. But hopefully we see, in his journey to construct Blackness and Jamaicanness, the external pressures that compel him to do so.
The second-person format allows the nameless narrator to cue readers as they dip in and out of the fragments. The “you” establishes a point of view. Does it also make readers complicit within the thematic layering?
In the larger project of the book, I think the “you” implicates the reader. Will I survive you, reader, who are in part responsible for building and upholding the society that means to destroy me?
Is the second person also an active empathetic device? The reader, not having a named narrator, engages with a “you-you-you” trance-inducing repetition. Can you talk about this choice and its challenges?
I don’t know if it’s an empathetic device, but I’m with you on the repetition, and believe there is a lulling effect that draws readers quickly in.
In the collection, the “you” works as the I, as the narrators, Trelawny and Topper, work through the events of their lives. The narrator is speaking to himself, perhaps across time, to a younger version of himself. He is unpacking and judging and coming to terms with the decisions he has made. In that sense, the title might be read as “if I survive myself,” or “if I survive my recklessness,” or “will I destroy myself.” Where I think it can be an empathy-building tool is in the fact that this version of the “you” allows for a brutally honest conversation that involves criticism and judgment without the involvement or presence of a self-righteous narrator, or one who is performing self-effacement.
There’s no detail that doesn’t have a working part in a future story. Glancing references or phrases reappear and take on added meaning. How did you keep track of these references, their connections and payouts, in the stories?
I like to evolve details while drafting and revising. At this point in my practice, writing a first draft is usually the most painful stage in the process, and if I don’t already know where a story is going or where it will end — if I don’t have a final image that I’m building towards — and I feel stuck, I tend to look at what I’ve already written, what’s poured out of me consciously in a sentence or paragraph or page, and what’s there that appears to interest me subconsciously, and I’ll build from there by bringing back a detail and deepening its relationship to the story’s central questions. In this way, I can elongate a thread, even a minor one, and build into the prose a kind of refrain, and, possibly, a pattern.
I think the first return of the duppy in “In Flux” is an example of this. I was figuring out where to go, and how to approach the intensification of the father’s misdeeds, and bringing back the duppy seemed like a great opportunity. As a reader, there’s something satisfying about encountering a detail that might at first have appeared trivial or arbitrary and newly recognizing the weight it holds in the story. For writers, it’s an opportunity to create a sense of familiarity and connectivity with readers, even as they encounter your story for the first time.
In the revision stage, whether working across sections of a story, or revising across stories in my linked collection, I’d revive and expand a particular detail to give a sense of cohesion, the way a song’s hook, or chorus, sparks recognition but also signals to us that a verse, or even a discordant bridge, is still of a part of the rest of the song. I also think it’s useful to plant these moments as a sort of payoff for the reader, particularly when a story might have a less conventional or recognizable shape, or if the momentum seems to derive from a character’s emotional intensity and observations, rather than their external actions, or if their external actions are more reactionary than goal oriented. These moments of return and recognition, the conversation between writer and reader, can serve to re-energize the story and propel readers forward.
The final story in the collection is the one place that I wrote out a catalog of details and threads, and this organized approach seemed to be necessary, because I wanted to use this story to give the entire book a sense of climax and conclusion, while attending to its concerns as a standalone. And there were just too many details to keep track of in my head.
What opportunities did nonlinear time provide for the material? What challenges?
I love the way a story that we think we have a handle on can change and deepen when we get more information. When the second story in the book begins 20 years before the opening story, we’re able to learn how it is that Trelawny, the book’s central character, winds up the American-born son in this family of Jamaicans. We newly understand the forces at play that go well beyond just the personal choices his parents make. Historical context is added. I think it’s helpful to meet Trelawny first, since we spend the most page time with him and since he seems, in a way, to be the most destabilized by his family’s migration to the United States, but rotating as far back as the 1960s to younger versions of Topper and Sanya helps to establish that Trelawny is part of a continuum and part of a legacy that he may not fully understand. And I think that lack of visceral understanding for what his parents went through in the time leading up to their departure from Kingston adds to the tragic nature of his falling out with Topper.
The opening two stories play off one another. I think each makes the other that much more heartbreaking, because Topper and Trelawny fail to connect despite their mutual interest in doing so. It was also important to go back in time to establish that the catalyst for the family’s financial precarity is their move to the United States, and that the US government played a part in creating the conditions in Jamaica that led them to leave in the first place. Understood is that strife and precarity weren’t part of the family’s original or essential condition.
I mentioned earlier that we move swiftly through Trelawny’s childhood in “In Flux” to trace his relationship with his shifting allegiances to various aspects of his identity. I felt there was more to be gleaned from his childhood, though, hence the return to it in “Pestilence,” where we learn a bit more about how the boys experienced their parents’ deteriorating marriage, and how they are first pitted against one another in relation to their parents and to the family home.
While “Pestilence” hopefully deepens our attachment to, and understanding of, Trelawny and his family, it’s arguably the one story that doesn’t explicitly move us forward in time. This made it one of the more challenging stories to position in the collection’s ordering. But since it’s told from Trelawny’s retrospective first-person point of view, I imagine him looking back on this childhood from some point after the event that closes out “Odd Jobs” and before the start of “Independent Living.”
The women in your book are determined and strong. Was that intentional? How is gender working with, or complicating, the narrative?
The women in the book are formidable, and I didn’t write them that way as an act of equity. I was reflecting the world around me — the makeup of my writing programs and jobs and family (my mom has eight sisters) — when I wrote the women characters as strong and determined.
Where I think gender complicates the narrative is when these women go head-to-head with the male characters. It was challenging to write about Tina sexually assaulting Delano because none of my early readers saw it as assault or even harassment. Afterward, when he says, “I would rather starve,” readers saw his comment, his hurting her feelings, as the much bigger offense. He became the bad guy. Culturally, we still believe that a woman can’t sexually assault a man, that the physical act can’t be interpreted or defined that way, because we believe that man, by definition, means person who welcomes any and all sexual interactions. I had to find a way to signal this is wrong in a way that didn’t totally interrupt the story. The question for some readers became would this happen? but this is based on real events, so I didn’t have that same question.
These face-offs were fascinating to work out because, at times, it meant subtracting and adding signifiers of power — make her wealthier, re-emphasize that he’s homeless, and so on — until the power dynamic read the way I needed it to.
Cultural narratives can be misrepresented. What are the dangers in that? And what is your hope for them?
I think it’s dangerous for someone like Trelawny to believe what most Americans seem to believe: that all Jamaicans are poor and uneducated, and that their lot in life is to serve the needs of tourists. It’s also dangerous for him to idealize Jamaica. The same is true of the United States. For the first time in American history, Black Americans’ contributions to this country are being centered in the mainstream, and we’re seeing the violent reaction to it across the country. The unfortunate reality is that a large segment of the population wants the narrative to be that Black people are essentially deficient, and my hope is that no Black child grows up with that harmful narrative ever again.
My hope is that, as more minoritized writers take their seats at the proverbial table, we’ll feel freer to find and create the structures that best contain our lived experiences, with better hope that these stories will see the light of day in magazines and on bookshelves. For the moment, we seem to be moving in the right direction. The rate at which this will happen will be greatly influenced by publishing’s commitment to hiring and promoting and retaining editors from historically marginalized backgrounds. This, once again, extends to all arms of the literary world.
By not applying conventional dramatic arcs to the themes of racial identity, cultural dislocation, and family dynamics, can these topics be viewed more honestly and with greater clarity and complexity?
Yes. To me, it more honestly reflects reality. I’m not trying to win at Jamaican Americanness or Blackness. I’m not necessarily trying to beat racial constraints or racism, though occasionally it can feel that way. At times, I might be trying to survive others’ prejudices against, and assumptions about, my identities. I might make certain I’m the best-dressed person in every room I step into because I have to do so just to be treated with dignity, for example. But mostly, I’m just trying to live. I hope these stories make it easier for me and others to do just that. But if I try to tackle identity while feeling the pressure to send my protagonist on some unrelated quest, it can feel so artificial, or like I don’t even believe these topics are interesting and worthy of individual focus.
I understand that we must hold our readers’ attention, and we do that with voice, humor, reversals, subversions of expectations, energetic language, musicality and rhythm, engaging patterns, and so on. We do that with dramatic questions that create suspense, and often, because the social issues you listed have real-world implications, they naturally hold stakes. We write about the quests that have everything to do with our hero’s journey to self-discovery.
If I Survive You gutted me most when I was laughing. In writing this book, how did you visualize your role toward readers, your responsibility or input when dealing with issues of racial identity and oppression?
The word responsibility stands out to me because I did feel obligated to stick to only what I had personally witnessed rather than making up absurd racial remarks or dynamics that might seem humorous or otherwise compelling. I had to ask myself, What are the ethics of writing about race in fiction? As fiction writers, we’re supposed to be imaginative and make things up. But it’d be irresponsible and dangerous to exaggerate or fabricate what might be said about, or to, members of one identity group by members of another. I’m not trying to stoke animosity, and I’m not trying to cry wolf.
I don’t think there’s a line of dialogue in “In Flux” that isn’t a direct quote, but I, of course, created characters around those quotes. In most cases, if not all cases, the dialogue comes from things I was told, or overheard, over and over again across years.
When it comes to learning about racial identity from African American literature, what do you hope is not part of the conversation?
I hope essentialism leaves the conversation. I’d like to say that I hope, one day, the white gaze will be nowhere in the conversation. And that I hope we can stop defining ourselves against others’ perceptions and prejudices. And that I hope we can one day be free. It’s a terribly idealistic hope. The truth is that Black people are only in the Americas en masse because of the white gaze, because in order to construct whiteness in the first place they created Blackness.
I guess I don’t think people should learn about racial identity unless they learn that it’s a sham. A sham that affects every aspect of our lives.
Yvonne Conza’s writing has appeared in Longreads, The Believer, Electric Literature, LARB, BOMB Magazine, AGNI, The Rumpus, Joyland Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, Ex/Post, and elsewhere.
Author photo by Cola Casados.