'If I Survive You' author grew up feeling judged — and confused — by race
Jonathan Escoffery grew up in Miami, the son of Jamaican immigrants. In a world where identity was linked to race, he says it was often confusing to figure out where he fit in.
Other segments from the episode on January 9, 2023
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. The year is new, and no one yet knows what the best books of this year will be. But many critics, including our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, agree that one of the best books of 2022 was written by my guest, Jonathan Escoffery. We didn't catch up with him in 2022, but we're going to do that now.
Maureen's review is what made me want to read the book. "Here's what she said about why he's on her best of list. Jonathan Escoffery's debut collection of eight interconnected short stories overwhelmed me with its originality, heart, wit and sweeping social vision. Escoffery's aspiring, mostly Jamaican-born immigrant characters keep getting knocked down by racism, the 2008 recession and, most literally, by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which reduces their house to its skeletal frame. But in its larger sense, the you in the title 'If I Survive You' is America itself." Unquote Maureen.
Like the main character, Trelawney, Jonathan Escoffery is an American-born son of Jamaican parents who left the island in the '70s and settled in Miami, where Escoffery was raised. Growing up in a racially and ethnically diverse city, the character, Trelawney, is never sure who he is. He's considered brown, not Black. But most of the brown students in school are Dominican or Puerto Rican, and he's not either. He becomes an aspiring writer but supports himself doing odd jobs, sometimes creepy or unethical ones, and for a while, is living out of his car.
A lot of that is drawn from Escoffery's life, but Escoffery went to grad school and founded the Boston Writers of Color group, which currently has more than 2,000 members. He's received grants and fellowships. He's now a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University and attends the University of Southern California's Ph.D. program in creative writing and literature as a Provost fellow.
Jonathan Escoffery, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really enjoyed your book. I want you to read from the very beginning of the book, and this is a slightly condensed version of the beginning.
JONATHAN ESCOFFERY: Absolutely. And thank you for having me. This is from the beginning of the book and from a story titled "Influx."
(Reading) It begins with, what are you, hollered from the perimeter of your front yard when you're 9 - younger, probably. You'll be asked again 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 pre-adolescent 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.
(Reading) It's America, and it's the '80s. And at school, in class, you pledge to one and one flag only - the Stars and Stripes. Greatest country on Earth is the morning anthem. It's the lesson plan, a mantra drilled into you day in, day out, a fact as inarguable as two plus two equaling four. And what you start to hear as you repeat this to yourself is the implication that all other nations, though other nations are seldom mentioned in school, are inferior.
You believe this. It's an easy lesson to internalize except that your brother, Delano, your parents, nearly all your living relatives are Jamaican. When your play cousin moves to Kingston from Miami to your Cutler Ridge neighborhood, winding up in your third-grade class, refusing to pledge allegiance to your flag, you know to distance yourself from her. You say a quiet thanks that your last names are different. If you'd had any context for the question of what you are when it first came, you might have answered American. You were born in the United States, and you've got the paperwork to prove it.
You feel pride in this fact, this inalienable status. You belt Lee Greenwood's "God Bless The U.S.A." on the Fourth of July and even more emphatically after visiting your parents' island nation for two weeks in your 9th summer. You disagree with every aspect of the island life down to the general lack of central air conditioning. You prefer burgers and hot dogs to jerked or curried anything.
Back at home, your parents accuse you of speaking and even acting like a real Yankee. But if by Yankee they mean American, you embrace it. I speak English, you respond. Your parents' patois and what many deem an indecipherable accent still play as normal, almost unnoticeable against your ears, except that it is increasingly paired with the punitive - for instance, when your mother says, unoo can spill di ting on di tile, but unoo kiyan clean it (ph)? And your brother says, no me, Mummy. And you say, I didn't do it, Mom.
GROSS: OK, so translate what your mother said and what your brother said.
ESCOFFERY: (Laughter) She's saying you can spill things all over the tile, but you can't go ahead and clean it up. And Delano, the older brother of Trelawney, is saying, I didn't do it, Mom. And Trelawney is saying the same thing but in his more standard American English.
GROSS: Did you grow up speaking patois as well as standard American English?
ESCOFFERY: I did not. And I was somebody who was placed in day cares from an early age much like Trelawney. And I didn't really pick up what I might call my parents' language whereas my brother certainly did a lot more. And he was also born in Jamaica and just would have had a lot more contact with Jamaicans who were speaking in that dialect. So for me, I kind of already had this different language that I was using in the house from my parents and the other family members.
GROSS: Did they understand you?
ESCOFFERY: They did, but I think maybe I found them a little befuddling. And I think my parents found me to be a little bit of this strange, foreign American child who was growing up in their Jamaican household.
GROSS: So in the U.S., patois said foreign. What did it mean in Jamaica? Was speaking patois in Jamaica a sign of class?
ESCOFFERY: It was. And here's the thing. I think a lot of Americans might listen to how Jamaicans speak, hear an accent, and think that that is speaking patois. Whereas in Jamaica, it's a very different thing. People, like my parents, who went to school where they were being taught by the British educational system prior to Jamaica's independence, they would have thought of the way they were speaking in school and in front of their parents as one kind of English. And then, patois would be the kind of thing that they would speak with their friends out in the streets or out at a party. And if somebody could only speak patois, that would be a kind of indication of being part of the lower class.
GROSS: Was your family part of the lower class?
ESCOFFERY: So my family was part of the middle class. My father's family, prior to marrying my mother, they were more of a kind of upper-middle class. And my mother was maybe more on the lower-middle class, but still traditionally educated.
GROSS: So Trelawney, your main character, grows up in Miami and goes to majority minority schools, where there's few white people. Most of the students are Puerto Rican, Dominican, African American, Jamaican. And people are always asking, what are you, so they kind of know what team you're on. And Trelawney has trouble answering that question because one of the questions he's not sure of is, are you Black? What does Black mean in Jamaica versus what it means in the U.S.?
ESCOFFERY: I think it's this interesting thing where it's constantly - or at least it has slowly changed over the years. And so where I may travel to Jamaica and talk to the lightest-skinned Jamaican I meet and they may say, well, we're all Black - this is a Black nation. But Blackness in that sense is not something that - it's not going to limit your possibilities in the same way that coming to the United States, I think, for a lot of Black immigrants, who were part of the majority - racially, anyway - when they come to the United States, they experience a racialization that is very different. And particularly, you know, pre-internet - thinking of my parents' generation - they had to discover their Blackness for the first time coming to the United States.
GROSS: So when people asked you when you were young, like, what are you - meaning, what race or ethnicity, what group do you belong to? - how would you answer?
ESCOFFERY: I - when I first was asked this question, I believe that I probably didn't quite understand it. And so it would have been a question that I would have taken back to my own parents. And my parents were the people who were saying, well, you're a little of this. You're a little of that. They would break down a really complex ethnic heritage that they either knew firsthand or, to some extent, it would have been handed down to them from their own parents.
But because I do have an older brother who is 4 1/2 years older, certainly grasped the context of the question in a way that I don't think my parents did, he was the person who said, hey, you're Black (laughter). And for me, it's like I had an answer, but I didn't necessarily know what the answer meant. And so when I would go to school and I might start naturally hanging out with some people who might have felt that I looked a lot like them, what I would discover is that they would begin to air a lot of anti-Black sentiments, somehow not necessarily counting me as Black.
GROSS: So you're talking about, like, kids from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.
ESCOFFERY: Right, a lot of the...
ESCOFFERY: Right. A lot of the Latino kids, the Puerto Ricans, the Dominicans. And some of them would actually think that I was Puerto Rican or Dominican. And so I think there - in order to protect myself from that, I would lean very hard into my Jamaican-ness in a way that I was trying to get ahead of any aired prejudices, so that, perhaps, if someone had a problem with my - whether it was my Blackness or my Jamaican-ness, they would know right away. And they could still air it with me. But there would be no mistake about where I stood. In Miami, there is a very bold distinction made between Black Americans and Black kids from the Caribbean. And so that was a factor that was also in play. Some of that, again, is people saying, well, it's just cultural. But then you see prejudices being aired. And that goes, you know, both ways, in my experience.
GROSS: What are some of the prejudices in each direction?
ESCOFFERY: Well, I think there's this assumption in the Black American community that Black people from the Caribbean think they're better. When I say better, I mean they think that they have, in a way, gotten over the history of oppression that comes with colonization, that comes with slavery. When slavery did end in a country like Jamaica, by far, the majority of the people were Black people. And so there wasn't this kind of - there were certainly problems. Problems did not end by any means. I don't mean to suggest that problems ended once slavery ended, and racial problems specifically. But it's a much different thing when you are part of the majority and you can start making strides towards being the people in power, in a sense, or the people who control their own destinies much quicker in a systemic way, in a larger-scale way.
And I think that there is an attitude that Caribbean people come over with that can be seen as, you know, a little bit haughty or a little bit keeping their noses up in the air at other people who have had a much different trajectory within this country in a historical way. And I think that, from the Caribbean standpoint, when people first arrive in the U.S., there is this attitude of, well, why don't we all just get over these questions of race and racism. Let's just move forward. We're individuals. And that's an attitude that I have witnessed over and over and over again. I've witnessed it. And I've also witnessed it erode over time, as people start to actually experience decades of racism in America. And they finally, you know, maybe 30 years on, realize, oh, that attitude I had that maybe even served me as I turned a blind eye towards the large-scale racism and anti-Blackness in the United States, it does take a toll over time.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Escoffery. His book, "If I Survive You," focuses on the American-born son of Jamaican parents and his extended family. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jonathan Escoffery, author of the acclaimed book "If I Survive You," a collection of interconnected stories. Like the main character, Escoffery grew up in Miami the son of Jamaican immigrants.
So your character - and I think this is when he's in college - thinks, when I say Jamaica to non-Jamaicans, no one thinks of CIA operatives or puppet prime ministers, of historical continuity. Instead, they break into free association, Bob Marley, ganja, poor people, Sandals - hey, man. At best, they believe our history began the moment they purchased their all-inclusive vacation package. So what do you think of when you're watching TV and you see ads for Sandals? And Sandals is this, like, all-inclusive resort that has different branches. And certainly, one of them is in Jamaica. And they advertise on their website. It's like rolling mountains, wild rivers, enchanting waterfalls, magnificent palm-fringed beaches by day, colorful skies, authentic reggae music and flavorful dishes by night. And you don't have to worry about a thing. Food, drink, water sports and world-class entertainment are all included, always unlimited. Our staff is ready to welcome you to paradise. What do you think of when you read that or hear that?
ESCOFFERY: Yeah. I mean, well, one thing I have to acknowledge is that a very large part of the economy in Jamaica in particular, in many parts of the Caribbean - the economy is tied to tourism. The problem is when I speak to Americans who have traveled to Jamaica, they have this association with it that makes them believe that all Jamaicans exist to serve their needs. And that's the big problem for me.
GROSS: The character Trelawney is mocked for sounding white, and so he is mocked on both ends. He's mocked because his parents speak in patois. And he's mocked because he sounds white. Did you deal with that in your own life, that people said, in an accusing way, that you sounded white?
ESCOFFERY: I absolutely did. My family moved from Miami in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew. We moved to Broward County to a city called Miramar. And so I was in a new school, a new city. And I was absolutely told that I sounded white. And I was asked why I sounded white, which was a little bit confounding for an 11-year-old who hadn't really considered these questions of why one speaks the way they do. I had, up to that point, largely just thought of myself as an American kid. And suddenly, I was being asked all of these questions - why do you sound white?
GROSS: The character in your book is accused of plagiarism because his essay sounds too white to be believable, so he must have plagiarized it. Did that happen to you?
ESCOFFERY: Something very similar happened to me in ninth grade. Yes.
GROSS: What happened?
ESCOFFERY: Well, I was doing a - some kind of science report. And my teacher basically said, you know, this doesn't sound like you and - but it was after, you know, maybe half a year of seeing how the other Black kids, including myself, were treated by this teacher. And this was at a point in my life where I had a full investment in, I think, my Blackness and signifying my Blackness through the music I listened to, through the clothing I wore, through my use of AAVE - you know, my playing with it, my trying to speak that way in order to fit in with my friends.
And there was just this - I think it was almost, like, not just the language I was using in the paper, but a questioning of my intelligence, period. There appeared to be a only slightly implied, somewhat explicit belief that I must be stupid because I wore baggy clothes and because, amongst my friends, we spoke a certain way. And this was not just some notes written on my paper. This was, like, a full conversation that I had with my science teacher. And the part of the book that, you know, is fictionalized is, no, I did not turn in a report that looked like the report that's turned in by Trelawney in the book. But I did have to, in a sense, dumb down my paper or he would not accept it.
GROSS: Did that make you angry, that you had to dumb down, you had to pretend to not be as smart and as good a writer as you really were?
ESCOFFERY: It made me angry. It made me very confused. It was among the first times where I started to wonder if I could ever escape the assumptions that were going to be made about me throughout my life. And I think it was around the time where I just kind of stopped caring about how I did in high school.
GROSS: How did it affect your ability to get into a college that you wanted to go to?
ESCOFFERY: Well, around maybe midway through 11th grade, getting into 12th grade, I started to think about, you know, where my mediocre grades had gotten me. I went to a college fair, and I spoke with a recruiter from Florida State University. And I remember the first question they asked before they would really even give me more information was what my GPA was. And again, I had been kind of coasting. I - it was kind of a conscious decision to coast. And whatever my GPA was at that point - you know, I think it was not even a B-minus.
The recruiter basically kind of shrugged and said, no, we don't have anything for you. And, you know, that was one of the first times where it really hit me that even though I was doing this as a kind of conscious rebellion against the school system, it was only me who was going to have to suffer the consequences of that decision. And so I started trying to get my grades together, pulled my grade-point average up. And then, I wound up gaining entrance to Florida International University, which is our local state school in Miami.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Escoffery. His book is called "If I Survive You," and it focuses on the American-born son of Jamaican parents and his extended family. We'll be right back after a short break. I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jonathan Escoffery, author of the acclaimed book "If I Survive You," a collection of interconnected stories. Like the main character, Escoffery grew up in Miami, the son of Jamaican immigrants. In a world where your identity is connected to whether you're white, Black, brown or Asian, it was confusing to figure out where he fit and how he was perceived by others. "If I Survive You" is on our book critic Maureen Corrigan's list of the best books of 2022. But we're just catching up with Escoffery now.
Jonathan, why did your parents leave Jamaica?
ESCOFFERY: My parents left Jamaica for a similar reason that the parents in my book leave Jamaica, which is that the crime rate had absolutely exploded and they were not just reading it in the newspaper or seeing it on the nightly news. It was something that was all around them. There were home invasions in their neighborhood. Violent things were happening to their neighbors, people they knew. And so watching that happen, they decided that they were going to move with my brother to the United States. They had a kind of vague awareness that this was all tied to politics and tied to the politicians who would go into the poorest neighborhoods and promise something - for plumbing to be installed in one little house that people would be able to use if everybody in that community goes out and votes for their side, for example. But that would basically explode into violence between competing groups. And that was absolutely motivated by politics in a kind of explicit way.
And then we have the American influence. People of my parents' generation, they were actually very aware of who the CIA agents were, who were, you know, oftentimes just kind of hanging out with people. And the CIA agents who they knew, they would be at the parties that they would go to. They would date their friends. It was this kind of open secret. So there was awareness that they were there. But it wasn't until kind of later reports came out about the actual damage that they were doing in terms of stoking the violence, because Michael Manley, the prime minister, was moving forward with a socialist agenda, which would have worked against the United States' global priorities.
GROSS: So there's a chapter in your book devoted to, like, how messed up your home was. Like, one of your homes in Florida, there were, like, millipedes and nighthawks swooping down and crabs on the streets. It was just, like, the house felt, like, haunted by, you know, creatures. So I imagine that's pretty realistic in parts of Florida and that there's probably really big roaches. And what's the name of the bug I'm thinking of?
ESCOFFERY: The palmetto bug.
GROSS: The palmetto, yes, the palmetto bug.
ESCOFFERY: Which is our roach
GROSS: Yes, exactly. So were you plagued by that?
ESCOFFERY: We were plagued by all of those things. Yeah. The millipedes were everywhere. The nighthawks definitely attacked us. The crabs were everywhere, though I was a little bit more fascinated than afraid of the crabs. And we would catch them in buckets. And I don't think we were quite prepared to eat them in my family. But, yeah, they were a real occurrence and many, many more animal species were around at all times. And they seem to come in waves like seasons, like plagues even.
GROSS: It just seems so surreal to me to think of, like, crabs in the street.
ESCOFFERY: Oh, yeah. And Cutler Ridge is - it's right along the coast. And so the crabs would just come in in waves. It's been a long time since I've seen them come in in such numbers. But certainly, when I was growing up, you know, they would come in by the hundreds or thousands, and it was a good idea to just let them kind of wash under your car because you would see people kind of rush forward impatiently and you would see them, you know, half a mile down the street pulled over because they now had a flat tire.
GROSS: I hadn't thought of that - from the claws?
ESCOFFERY: From the claws, yeah. But I remember as a kid, you know, my brother and I, we were catching them for sport, especially when they weren't necessarily washing in front of my house in the hundreds, but there might be, like, a dozen that kind of got lost in the neighborhood. And we would collect them, and neighbors would come up to us and say, hey, are you actually going to eat them? And we'd say, no, and then we'd give them to the neighbors. So there were definitely people who were eating them but just not us.
GROSS: You took a break from college of several years. In that period in between, you did a lot of odd jobs. And I mean that in both senses of the term odd jobs. When Trelawney, the character in your book, is doing odd jobs, whatever he can get to make a living and to kind of keep a roof over his head as opposed to living in his car, a couple of his jobs come from classifieds, like, from Craigslist. And one of them is a woman who wants to be punched in the face. She wants to know what it feels like. And she's also doing a photography project. That's what she says anyways. And her ad says, no Black men. Your character shows up anyway. And then there's a couple looking for a Black man to watch them have sex. So, of course, I'm curious to know if you took jobs like this or know somebody who did and whether it was just, like, research looking for - looking through Craigslist and similar places to see what kind of weird jobs were out there.
ESCOFFERY: It was primarily looking for jobs for myself. Many of the weirder jobs I did not show up for. And then there was the research arm where being a writer for many years, always looking for subject matter, I found Craigslist was a very interesting place to find people admitting what it is that they desire in a way that they might not say out loud. Or conversely, they may say what they don't want, and they might be more open about who it is that they would exclude. And so those job postings were ones - or I found similar job postings to the ones that wind up in the book on Craigslist. And, you know, typically, it'd be the kind of thing where months or maybe even years later, I was still thinking about those postings. And so I decided that I would write about jobs like the ones that I saw. But I had to imagine my way into those stories. I did not show up for the job asking for a man to punch a woman in the face. It's probably a good idea that I make that clear.
But I would see so many jobs where people were either saying, do not show up to this being Black, no Black guys allowed, and then there would be this other arm of things where there seemed to be this real interest in whatever Blackness brought to the table. So for the people who said we specifically want a Black man to show up, that I also found almost more fascinating because I thought, well, what is it exactly about Blackness that you - or what assumptions are you making about Blackness? Or what do you believe about Blackness that is going to add a kind of value to your life in the bedroom? But, you know, I showed up to a lot of weird catering jobs. And to be honest, some of them said kind of racially coded things, if not racially, you know...
GROSS: Like what?
ESCOFFERY: Like, well, like, don't show up Black, or we like a more European look, or it's OK if you are kind of the Caribbean-looking-mixed look. But, you know, there's a certain border. There's a certain line. And if you're someone who, you know - I am somebody who has unfortunately been very poor, has missed meals because I just couldn't afford them. I would show up to some of those jobs and wonder, you know, are they going to let me through the door? I don't know because I've had these other voices growing up saying, well, you're Black, but you're kind of Black only, or you're Black with an asterisk. And so you might slide through the door. And that was the case, where I slid through the door of some of those jobs.
GROSS: Well, you said there were periods when you were poor. You were living out of your car for a while like your character, right?
ESCOFFERY: Well, no, I have - I wouldn't say that I was living out of my car for a while. No. I am someone who has slept in his car as the result of the many hustles that I've had to do to put myself through college. But I wouldn't want to confuse the two.
GROSS: When you say you slept in your car, what do you mean by that?
ESCOFFERY: There were times where we had no power. There was times where we...
GROSS: Oh, OK. Yeah.
ESCOFFERY: ...We - our water was out. But there were also times where I worked in Miami Beach, and I lived in Cutler Bay. And then, I had to go straight from my job to school, which was in North Miami. And it just - you know, it didn't make sense - I wouldn't actually be able to make it home and back to school in time. And so - but this is also around the time I was working a lot of overnights. And so, you know, I would sleep in the car for a few hours before class, and then, I might sleep in the car for a few more hours after class and then go straight back to work.
GROSS: Where would you park the car?
ESCOFFERY: Thankfully, while I was in college, it was easy enough to park on campus as long as I did actually have my decals that said I was a student. The great thing about being a student, you can also take a shower at the fitness center. The times where I slept in my car because of the issues going on at my house, like no electricity - maybe I needed internet, and I actually had to get things done on campus. But there was nowhere to sleep on campus overnight.
Those were the times where, you know, I would have to worry about security because you certainly shouldn't - or you're certainly not allowed to be sleeping in your car on campus overnight. And so that's the kind of thing where you'd have to, you know, spot the security guard and move your car. And then, there's a little chase that ensues. And, you know, I never - again, I never thought, well, now I am an unhoused person, a homeless person. It's more like, you know, life right now is a struggle, and I'm going to do everything I can to get through.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then, we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Escoffery. His book, "If I Survive You," focuses on the American-born son of Jamaican parents and his extended family. It's a collection of interconnected short stories. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jonathan Escoffery, author of the acclaimed book "If I Survive You," a collection of interconnected stories. Like the main character, Escoffery grew up in Miami the son of Jamaican immigrants. In a world where your identity is connected to whether you're Black, white, brown, Asian, it was confusing to figure out where he fit in and how he was perceived by the world. The book was on our book critic Maureen Corrigan's list of the best books of 2022.
You managed to go to college and grad school and get fellowships and become an acclaimed writer. Your character Trelawney follows in your footsteps in a lot of ways but not in terms of the success you've had. Now, the story ends at a point where maybe he would go on to that kind of success that you've had and that kind of accomplishment. But, you know, unless you write a sequel, we're never going to know.
Why didn't you want to give him the kind of, like, follow-through and success that you were able to achieve in your own life? It's as if he made all the kinds of wrong moves that you didn't make.
ESCOFFERY: In a way, I was writing about my fears. I left Miami in 2011, and I never moved back. And I was thinking about what it might have been like had I actually moved back to Miami. I just didn't think that there would be that much opportunity back there for me. And yet I wondered. And so for me, I was able to play out a lot of scenarios that I thought I might find myself in had I moved back to Miami.
I will say a lot of people have asked me about whether or not the book could have had a happier or more positive ending. For me, I actually thought that - I think that it is a very positive ending because I think Trelawney, at the end of the book, is finally ready to grapple with the idea that maybe he has actually been leaning into his own problems in the negative way. He's creating more problems for himself than he maybe needs to. I think he is obsessed with living out his traumas and repeating his traumas. And I think, by the end, that he is ready to break out of that cycle. At least, that's how I see it.
And, you know, I think that was an important lesson for me in terms of the difficulties and hardships that I've had to deal with in life. If I didn't believe that there was a brighter future ahead, then oftentimes, I found myself taking actions that weren't actually serving myself. And I was taking actions that were going to lead me nowhere, essentially. And so, you know, I think, for me, maybe I just think that's one of the best realizations I've ever had, and probably one of the realizations that's led me to have a more successful life and career. And so maybe that's where I wanted to land Trelawny in the end.
GROSS: What's an example of, you know, decisions you made or actions you took that you realized were leading you nowhere?
ESCOFFERY: So coming from Miami, growing up in Miami, Miami - and there's a part of me that loves this about Miami, I should say. Miami is a very materialistic place. It's a very flashy place. It's the kind of place where most people, if they have a nice car, they can't really afford the car, you know? We are judged on the presentation that we go out into the world with. That's how we judge each other. Oftentimes, that's how we judge ourselves. And I very much needed to break out of that. So I was someone who, at 18, I put myself in loads of debt because I wanted to have nice clothes. I wanted to be perceived as somebody who was attractive and, you know, if not successful, on his way to being successful.
And, you know, something that I realized was that if I don't break out of those habits, I was never going to get anywhere. And I was prizing the wrong things. And I was valuing the wrong things. And that was another really good thing about finding my community in college. Suddenly, I was around people who really didn't care how they dressed. No offense to them. I'm sure they were dressed just fine. But that wasn't what they were valuing. They were valuing education and the life of the mind and creativity. And that was something that I had to embrace and realize, that, you know, putting on this kind of show of doing well was not actually going to help me actually do well.
GROSS: In your acknowledgments, you thank your brother, Jason (ph) - you say, who taught me how to live in the world. What did he teach you?
ESCOFFERY: I was a very introverted kid who would have happily just stuck with my books and never left the house. And my brother, who - given our age difference, he definitely had every excuse to not take me out with him to parties or take me out to hang out with his friends and take me out to help me meet people. And my brother was someone who helped drag me out of myself and drag me out of my head. And I don't think I could be a well-developed human if I hadn't gotten out of my head at a certain point. I don't think I could write very good stories if I didn't get out and live. And my brother kind of set that example.
Of course, my brother is only 4 1/2 years older than me. So you know, he was a much more - I would say, my older brother was the person who was most present in my life growing up. And he was my figure of manhood, in a sense. And that's a lot to put on somebody who, again, is only four years older than you. And so, of course, he made mistakes. And of course, I - sometimes I learned from his mistakes. Or sometimes I emulated his mistakes. But I think he did a lot for me that he never had to do.
GROSS: Well, Jonathan Escoffery, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. I look forward to reading more from you.
ESCOFFERY: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Jonathan Escoffery's book of interconnected short stories is called "If I Survive You." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review SZA's new album, "SOS." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "EL CIEGO")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Five years after the release of SZA's debut album, "Ctrl," she has a new album called "SOS". Released at the very end of last year, it went immediately to No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. Rock critic Ken Tucker has been listening to its collection of 23 songs that straddle pop, hip-hop and R&B. And he thinks "SOS" ended last year with a bang that's still reverberating.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTICE ME")
SZA: (Singing) You stay on my mind. I can't regret no time spent with you. And I still wonder if you notice me, yes.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Five years ago, SZA's debut collection, "Ctrl," hit home to a lot of listeners for the portrait she painted of a young woman going through changes with conflicting feelings, ambition and insecurity, awkwardness and defiant self-assurance. On the new album, "SOS," SZA describes her world with even more precision and a bittersweet edge. On the song called "Shirt," for instance, she wants to share some romantic disappointment, urging the listener to, quote, "feel the taste of resentment".
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHIRT")
SZA: (Singing) Kiss me dangerous. Been so lost without you all around me. Get anxious. Lead me, don't look back. It's all about you. In the dark right now. Feeling lost, but I like it. Comfort in my sins and all about me - all I got right now. Feel the taste of resentment. Simmer in my skin. It's all about - bloodstain on my shirt...
TUCKER: SZA, who's in her early 30s, was born Solana Imani Rowe. Raised in a devout Muslim family and Maplewood, N.J., she's described her childhood as very sheltered, very conservative. Her father forbade her from listening to profane hip-hop music. On the other hand, he was a producer at CNN, her mother an executive at AT&T, and SZA definitely comes across as connected to the wider world. She sings and raps in a fluid manner that renders her crooning conversational. The instrumentation behind her emphasizes hip-hop rhythms, even as the frequent medium tempos and romantic imagery hearken back to the quiet storm era of R&B in the 1980s. You can hear Luther Vandross and Minnie Riperton and Peabo Bryson in her approach.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GONE GIRL")
SZA: (Singing) I need more space and security. I need less voices, just you and me. I need your touch, not your scrutiny. Squeezing too tight, boy, you're losing me. Boy, you're losing - gone, gone girl, gone girl. You better learn how to face it. She's gone, gone girl. She's gone girl. You never replace her. She's gone, gone girl, gone girl. You better learn how to face it. She's gone, gone girl. She's gone girl.
TUCKER: I'll play a bit of two songs to suggest SZA's range over the course of this meaty 23-track album. On one of the best here, her song called "Ghost In The Machine," SZA creates an eerie soundscape and makes her voice snake in and around the melody. Her voice bends and breaks with hopelessness about a pending disaster. You can't be sure whether she's talking about the end of a relationship or the end of the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHOST IN THE MACHINE")
SZA: (Singing) Everything disgusting, conversation is so boring. Heard about what? I hate her, I don't agree, I did it first. I give a - I just wanna - eat, sleep, love, happy. Can you make me happy? Can you keep me happy? Can you distract me from all the disaster? Can you touch on me and not call me after? Can you hate on me and mask it with laughter? Can you lead me to the ark? What's the password? I need humanity. Y'all lack humanity, drowning in vanity. Craving humanity.
TUCKER: At other moments, SZA slides into singer-songwriter mode. She out-Taylors (ph) Taylor Swift on the songs "F2F" and, as I'll play here, "Nobody Gets Me," with its strummed acoustic guitar and its lyric about sending out big love and not receiving enough of it back in kind.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY GETS ME")
SZA: (Singing) Nobody gets me. Took me out to the ballet. You proposed. I went on the road. You was feeling empty, so you left me. Now I'm stuck dealing with a deadbeat. If I'm real, I deserve less. If I was you, I wouldn't take me back. I pretend when I'm with a man, it's you. And I know that it's too late. I don't want to lose what's left of you. How am I supposed to tell ya? I don't want to see you with anyone but me. Nobody gets me like you. How am I supposed to let you go? Only like myself when I'm with you. Nobody gets me. You do. You do. Nobody gets me. You do.
TUCKER: There's a song on this album in which SZA fantasizes about killing her ex-boyfriend and another in which she says, I'm still playing the victim. But one of the best things about "SOS" is that it rejects simple notions of victim versus victimizer. These new songs resist any listener's attempt to figure out the real SZA. She's making music that's more interested in reaching out, in wondering what you think about your life.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed SZA's new album, "SOS." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be champion distance runner Lauren Fleshman. She's now a coach and an activist working to get the sports world to recognize the differences in male and female bodies and stop practices that encourage girls to become anorexic, lose their periods and end up disrupting the hormonal function essential to building healthy bones and a healthy body. She knows this from the research, as well as personal experience. She's written a new memoir called "Good For A Girl." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEEK & DESTROY")
SZA: (Singing) You push me past my own capacity, boy. Permission to crash, collecting damages, boy. No reaching and grabbing for more clarity now. Seek and destroy, all missiles deployed. Do it to you. Do it to you. I had to do it to you. Do it to you. Don't make me do it to you. Do it to you. Do it to you.
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEEK & DESTROY")
SZA: (Singing) Now that I've ruined everything, keep it all for me. Now that I've ruined everything, space is all I need. Do it to you. Do it to you.
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