If I Survive You. (Image: DC)
There is nothing bizarre about Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You, a Booker Prize shortlisted book of interlinked short stories that focus primarily on poverty and race in America. Yet, from the moment I cracked the book open to the time I turned the last page over, there was something odd about the way I read it. Automatically, instantly, without a thought, I transferred the location of the book in my head and read it as stories primarily about poverty and identity in India. Because there is nothing in If I Survive You that I have not observed or lived side-by-side with in this country. The only things that were new to me were the details of the day-to-day lives of the characters and their inner monologues. Poverty, this book makes clear, is a universal experience. A poor person in one country lives the same kind of life as a poor person in another country, even if the GDPs of these countries are poles apart, even if one country is ‘developed’ and the other ‘developing’, even if their cultures are beyond comparison.
The main characters of If I Survive You are Trelawny, his older brother Delano, and their father. We meet Trelawny — the book’s central character — in the first chapter when he is a boy growing up as the only American by birth in his family of immigrants from Jamaica. Rather than grounding him however, the fact that he was born in America makes him the only member of his family with an identity crisis. The rest of them know who they are — they’re Jamaicans working and living in America; they have a home to return to if that’s what they’d like to do some day. But Trelawny is in his only home and has been confused since he was a kindergartner. On the one hand, his school makes him and all the other children aver their American-ness every morning assembly. On the other hand, Americans don’t seem to think he’s American.
That’s partly — or perhaps mainly — because of the American obsession with race. Trelawny has plenty of Europeans in his ancestry, but he isn’t White. He isn’t Black either, in the sense of being a Black American. His skin colour is brown, but he isn’t Hispanic. He’s from the Caribbean, but he’s Anglophone, not Spanish speaking. In colour-coded America, he’s an outlier in every direction. So he can belong to no commonly found group in any of his schools unless he fakes being part of one community or another, and he doesn’t fit with his family either.
This sense of never being ‘one of us’ colours all of Trelawny’s experiences, even long after he reaches manhood. Meanwhile, his contractor father cannot seem to understand Trelawny the way he understands Delano, while Trelawny cannot help feeling that there is nothing father-like about his father at all. And when father and younger son do try and get along, the results are so disastrous that Trelawny is kicked out of his home.
With little money and only a car in which to live, Trelawny must do all sorts of odd jobs to survive, some of the better paying of which are beyond freakish. There’s the woman who wants a Black man to punch her in the face just for the experience of it. The couple who want a Black man to watch them get their kink on. There’s the job in a government-funded housing complex for indigent senior citizens where the main task is to ensure that the rent is always raised. Even when Trelawny finally acquires a degree and lands a teaching job at a private school, he cannot afford to buy the house his father offers to sell him for a price too good to be true. No matter what he does, no matter how many times he manages to claw his way to a place where he has options, every time Trelawny tries to dig himself out of the pit he was born in, the outcome is a nightmare — and he understands that such an outcome is inevitable. In the last story in the book, he acknowledges this fact: "It occurs to you that people like you — people who burn themselves up in pursuit of survival — rarely survive anyone or anything."
Escoffery’s writing is so smooth that even though the book is a collection of interlinked short stories, it seems to have the continuity of a novel. And the directness of his tone makes If I Survive You utterly compelling. There are no vague metaphors here about poverty and its effects. There’s also no sense of victimhood because there’s no space for suffering in the lives of Trelawny, Delano and even their father. Survival is the only thing on their minds, even if it kills them in the process.
Kushalrani Gulab is a freelance editor and writer who dreams of being a sanyasi by the sea
If I Survive You
By Jonathan Escoffery
pp. 256, Rs 499