Jonathan Escoffery’s debut novel is bold and beautiful. It’s told over seven interconnected stories and from different members of the same family. A Jamaican family come to the USA to find a better life for their sons Delano and Trelawny but things don’t work out as planned. When his parents split up Trelawny stays with his mum while his older brother leaves with his dad. As well as trying to work out where he belongs Trelawny now thinks that his father favours his brother. Most of the stories are around Trewlany trying to come to terms with who he is and what his family mean to him. It’s a painful journey with no clear resolutions and it’s a clever exploration of being ‘othered’ and trying to find your place in modern society.

Tell us about the bookshelves in your home  

I have about 614 books in my studio apartment, which makes for a challenging time when it comes to displaying them. I have just one small bookcase in my living area, but high above my kitchen cabinets, a built-in shelf holds the majority of my books. I use a retractable ladder to reach them, which can make retrieving a book feel like risky business! This shelf runs two rows deep and about two hundred books in length. I organise all of my (visible) shelved books by colour, which helps them appear decorative and pleasant to look at.

I’ve stacked two columns of books beneath my small glass dining table, which looks a bit more intentional than it might sound. Finally, I keep fifty or so books on my desk, where I do most of my writing, and they’re typically comprised of reference materials, poetry, craft books and whatever fiction I’m planning to read next. I’ve read maybe a third of the books in my apartment.

Which books are your most recent bookshelf additions?

Most recently, I purchased Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom after seeing her in conversation at Stanford University. I loved The Argonauts and can’t wait to read another from her. I also added a couple of advance reader copies to my shelves, including Taylor Koekkoek’s Thrillville, USA, which I read immediately and absolutely adore, and Harold Rogers’ Tropicália, which I look forward to digging into.

Matching towers below

Do you judge people by their bookshelves? 

I’m mostly just excited by other people’s bookshelves, but if I notice someone’s shelves hold some of my favourite authors, I tend to give silent brownie points. Then again, if someone’s shelves are overwhelmingly lacking in diversity, so much so that I take notice, then yes, I judge.

I have friends who are serious readers who give away all of their books after reading them and they tend to be the fastest readers. I (somewhat) admire but can’t relate to them. I’m a book hoarder.

Which is your most treasured book? 

The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay came into my life at a crucial point in my readerly and writerly development, and it houses so many of my literary heroes. I also love how the introduction to each author helps to contextualise their contributions to the tradition and the larger literary cannon. 

What do your bookshelves say about you? 

They say that the life of the mind is important to me and that I value the arts above most things.

What’s the oldest book on your shelves?

Such a tricky question! I have a first edition copy of Reader’s Digest’s Best Loved Books for Young Readers, which includes condensed versions of Treasure Island, David Copperfield, The Call of the Wild and Madame Curie. The edition is about fifteen years older than me and I feel as though I’ve had this book on my bookshelf for as long as I’ve been alive.

Do you rearrange your bookshelves often – and where do your replaced books go?

I tend to put the books I’ve read back on my harder-to-reach bookshelf as I pull down the books I’m planning to read next. If they fit within the colour scheme I have going, they get slotted into the front row. Otherwise, they get placed in the back row, out of sight.

Do you have any books from your childhood on your shelves?

I still have my original Green Eggs and Ham and Put Me in the Zoo by Dr. Seuss.

Book lender, book giver or book borrower?

I don’t like to borrow things in general, but during my MFA program, I noticed that most of my favourite books were borrowed from friends who were great at recommending books I might enjoy, based on my writing. If I lend a book, I’ve learned not to expect to ever see it again. If I gift a book, I’m more likely to buy a new copy than to give it from my collection.

Whose bookshelves are you most curious about?

I’m always interested to know what fills the creative wells of artists working outside of the literary arena, and I’d love to know what’s on the bookshelves of Kano, a.k.a. Kaine Brett Robinson.

Introduced and compiled by Sonia Weir

Jonathan Escoffery is the recipient of The Paris Review’s 2020 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and the 2020 ASME Award for Fiction. His stories have appeared in The Best American Magazine WritingOprah Daily, Electric LiteratureAmerican Short Fiction and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Creative Writing MFA Program (Fiction), a Fellow in the University of Southern California’s PhD in Creative Writing and Literature Program, and a Wallace Stegner Fellow in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University. If I Survive You is published by Fourth Estate.
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Author portrait © Cola Greenhill-Casados
Bookshelf images courtesy of the author (click to enlarge and view in slideshow)

Sonia Weir is a contributing editor to Bookanista. She started the Ultimate Reads and Recommendations Facebook group in December 2018, which now has over 700 members from all over the world. The group is inclusive and aimed at every reader, no matter the books, authors or genre.
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