As if we don’t exist | Review of Booker-shortlisted ‘If I Survive You’ by Jonathan Escoffery

This set of eight interlinked stories on the immigrant experience in America holds plenty of wit and wonder

September 07, 2023 03:25 pm | Updated November 20, 2023 10:08 am IST

This year’s Booker Prize longlist has some star omissions (think Salman Rushdie for Victory City or Barbara Kingsolver for Demon Copperhead, to give just two examples), but there are wonderful surprises in store as well.

One of them is surely Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You, a set of eight interlinked stories on the immigrant experience in America. The book’s selection immediately triggered a row over whether a novel of essentially short stories should have been nominated in the first place. Does the format really matter? With just three words, ‘What are you?’, the novel sparks discussion on a host of issues — from race, identity, economic (in)stability, father-son relations to immigrant life in the U.S., the Caribbean’s complex history, and also climate change.

In interviews, the Jamaican-American writer has said that he wants to write about characters who look like him. “Visibility is important. Otherwise, it’s as if we don’t exist,” he says, and in this novel, he has created a family of characters who look like him. The year is 1979, and Topper and Sanya are forced to flee to Miami from Kingston, Jamaica, which is gripped by political violence. They expect a lovely welcome in America, but things are not quite that simple.

Question of roots

Author Jonathan Escoffery

Author Jonathan Escoffery | Photo Credit: thebookerprizes.com

Their sons Delano and Trelawny, who are constantly asked about their roots, struggle to find their place. As Trelawny recalls: “It begins with What are you?... You’ll be asked throughout junior high and high school, then out in the world, in strip clubs, in food courts, over the phone, and at various menial jobs. The askers are expectant. They demand immediate gratification. Their question lifts you slightly off your preadolescent toes, tilting you, not just because you don’t understand it, but because even if you did understand this question, you wouldn’t yet have an answer.”

The family will spend their whole life trying to understand — and answer — this question. They will also grapple with other questions like where is home; it’s ironic that the brothers end up fighting over ownership of the house they share. They are pulled in different directions over Jamaica as well; what do they remember of the place, what memories do they want to hold on to, what do they want to discard?

Their father, whose relationship with the younger son is particularly troubled, cooks the boys ackee and saltfish, and explains why it’s Jamaica’s national dish. “The ackee grows in a pod and it must open on its own or it will poison you,” he warns them. When the younger son spits out the cooked ackee with an ‘eew’, his father retorts: “How him can say eew?”

There’s ample wit and great laughs as Escoffery tells a poignant story of migration, race and belonging.

If I Survive You
Jonathan Escoffery
Fourth Estate
₹499

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in

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