47 pages 1 hour read

Jonathan Escoffery

If I Survive You

Fiction | Short Story Collection | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


If I Survive You is a collection of eight linked short stories published by Jonathan Escoffery in 2022. His first book-length publication, it was longlisted for the National Book Award in 2022 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2023. Escoffery, the child of Jamaican immigrants, grew up in Miami and earned a bachelor of arts from Florida International University and a master of fine arts from the University of Minnesota. At the time of writing, he is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California. Escoffery is interested in race and racism in America, cultural identity development, the immigrant experience, and the impact of structural inequality on immigrant communities and communities of color in the United States. Although not autobiographical per se, If I Survive You draws on the author’s experience growing up in a Jamaican American community in Miami, the years he spent living in the Midwest, and his family’s own immigration story.

This guide refers to the 2022 hardcover edition by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Content Warning: The source text contains racist language, depictions of racism, and violence.


The first story, “In Flux,” is an account of the narrator Trelawney’s childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in a Jamaican American family in Miami. Trelawny is the sole member of his family to have been born in the United States. His mother, father, and brother were all born in Jamaica, and his father and brother in particular bond over a shared Jamaican identity that Trelawny lacks. He struggles to navigate between a sense of Jamaican-ness that he does not quite feel and the American identity that his family wishes he did not inhabit quite so comfortably. Trelawny also struggles to develop a sense of racial identity: His family’s light skin renders them multiracial in Jamaica, but in the United States, they are typically considered Black. At school, he is not Jamaican enough for the Jamaican students, too Black for the Hispanic students, and confusingly racially ambiguous to many.

His parents’ relationship is troubled, and after Hurricane Andrew strikes, the two divorce. Trelawny remains with his mother, and his elder brother, Delano, moves with his father to their old, hurricane-ravaged house in order to help him repair the damage. Trelawny continues to struggle at the new schools he has to attend after the move; his search for identity and belonging will remain a key focal point for Trelawny well into his adulthood. He recalls attending a midwestern college. Although he is academically gifted and devoted to his studies, the culture shock he experiences during his undergraduate years is profound. After graduation, he returns to Miami.

The second story, “Under the Ackee Tree,” is narrated by Topper, Trelawny’s father. Topper recounts his early adulthood in Jamaica and the family’s immigration to the United States. Topper and Sanya were relatively affluent in Jamaica, but grew dissatisfied with life there as the country became increasingly violent. Topper’s father ran a successful construction company, and although Topper was a gifted artist, he was dragged into the family business. After moving to Miami, however, he and Sanya struggled. He took a series of low-paying jobs while Sanya found work as a secretary. Their first child, Delano, who was born in Jamaica, retains his Jamaican cultural identity. Trelawny, born in the United States, is much more American, which leaves Topper deeply disappointed. Topper and Sanya’s relationship deteriorates until the two divorce. He remains close to Delano, but drifts further from Trelawny. The story ends with Delano gifting his father an ackee tree, a species native to Jamaica. Angry at his father after years of judgment and favoritism, Trelawny tries to destroy it with an axe.

In the third story, “Odd Jobs,” Trelawny is living out of his car in Miami. Having finished his undergraduate degree just after the 2008 financial crash, he is unable to find steady work. In performing a series of odd jobs, he answers a Craigslist ad from a woman who wants to be punched in the face. Although he almost cannot bring himself to hit her, the two have a tense conversation about race, after which he is able to slap her. The woman, a college student, lives with her parents and is obviously wealthy. As the woman told him that her parents have anti-Black prejudice, Trelawny worries that they will come home, find him in their home, and arrest him—or worse. The parents do, in fact, come home to find him in their kitchen. The story ends with the woman’s parents assaulting him.

The fourth story, “Pestilence,” provides an account of a portion of Trelawny’s childhood. Their neighborhood in the south Miami suburbs, recently developed, has displaced a host of local plants, animals, and insects. As a result, when Trelawny and his brother are young, the crabs, millipedes, locusts, and other various pests are still striving to maintain a foothold in their lost habitat. Trelawny remembers the neighborhood boys banding together to find creative ways to kill the creatures. He also remembers his father’s favoritism and Delano’s easy acceptance of his role as the eldest and preferred son. Trelawny and his brother adopt a dog, Double, but their beloved pet runs away during Hurricane Andrew and is killed. The hurricane’s destruction is staggering, and Trelawny remembers returning to find his entire neighborhood leveled.

The fifth story, “Splashdown,” is told from the perspective of Cukie, Trelawny and Delano’s cousin. After 12 years of absence from his son’s life, Cukie’s father Ox contacts his mother Daphne to tell her that he would like to have a relationship with his son. Daphne drives Cukie down to Smuggler’s Key, where Ox lives, from their home in Kendall, on the south end of Miami. Ox is a lobster fisherman and a captain for guided fishing expeditions, and he teaches his son his trades so that he might have something “to fall back on” when he gets older. Although the two initially develop a meaningful bond and Cukie returns summer after summer to work alongside his father, they drift apart when Cukie observes Ox involved in what looks like a smuggling operation. Cukie returns to Miami, graduates high school, and starts a family. He reaches out to his father after losing his mother to cancer and finding himself in need of a better job. Their reunion is rocky. Ox had been involved in smuggling. He is involved in the illicit activity still, and after the tense argument about his activities, Ox leaves Cukie stranded in the waters off of Smuggler’s Key.

In the sixth story, “Independent Living,” Trelawny has finally found employment. He is an administrative assistant at a residential facility for seniors on Miami Beach. The facility’s administration is predatory, and Trelawny identifies more with the residents than with his fellow employees. They too come from immigrant communities of color and have been adversely impacted by the economic downturn that followed the 2008 crash. The retirement community has a long waitlist in spite of its shady business practices and state of general disrepair, and bribery is common amongst residents hoping to avoid rent increases and would-be residents hoping to move in. In spite of his increased cash flow, Trelawny still lives out of his car, and on cold nights sleeps clandestinely in the complex’s extra unit, used for employee meetings and breaks, but only during the day.

The seventh story, “If He Suspected He’d Get Someone Killed This Morning, Delano Would Never Leave His Couch,” focuses on Delano. He has just been dumped by his wife who has moved to California with their two sons. A hurricane is approaching and although Delano’s landscaping business has faltered and his bucket truck is being held hostage in the repair shop for non-payment, Delano hopes to score a contract with the neighborhood association in his area clearing trees in danger of falling onto cars and homes in the upcoming storm. A tragic accident leads to the death of one of his workers, and Delano spends a tense period of time waiting to hear if he will be held responsible for the death

In the eighth and final story, “If I Survive You,” Delano and Trelawny are living together in their father’s house. Delano has fallen into a depressive state and has not been paying rent. Topper, irritated with Delano rather than Trelawny now, offers to sell the house to Trelawny. Trelawny learns from his mother that there is a lien against the property and that he shouldn’t buy it, but the offer creates conflict between the brothers nonetheless. Delano decides to revive his musical career and kicks Trelawny out so that he can have more space for band practice. Their conflict escalates, and Trelawny ends up in jail after disturbing his brother’s performance. His father comes to bail him out, and Trelawny realizes that forgiveness is the only path forward.