The first few lines from Jonathan Escoffery, If I Survive You, with my notes and underlined words, and a screenshot of the first page.
It begins with What are you? hollered from the perimeter of your front yard when you’re nine—younger, probably. You’ll be asked again throughout junior high and high school, then out in the world, in strip clubs,1 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 preadolescent2 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.
Perhaps it3 starts with What language is your mother speaking? This might be the genesis, not because4 it comes first, but because at least on this occasion you have some context for the question when it arrives.
You immediately resent this question.5
“Why’s6 your mother talk so funny?” your neighbor insists.
Your mother calls to you from the front porch, has called from this perch overlooking the sloping yard since you were allowed to join the neighborhood kids in play. Always, this signals that playtime is over, only now shame has latched itself to the ritual.
Perhaps you’d hoped no one would ever notice. Perhaps you’d never noticed it yourself. Perhaps you ask in shallow protest, “What do you mean, ‘What language’?” Maybe7 you only think it. Ultimately, you mutter, “English. She’s speaking English,” before going inside, head tucked in embarrassment.
In this moment, for the first time, you are ashamed of your mother, and you are ashamed of yourself for not defending her. More than to be cowardly and disloyal, though, it’s shameful to be foreign. If you’ve leamed anything during your short residence on earth, you’ve learned this.
- Does this odd item in the otherwise mundane list of places imply that we’re going to be back there at some point? (Or is whoever finds this item odd merely bourgeois at heart?)
- As we know already how old “you”‘s toes are, what’s the purpose of this word?
- What is “it”? (And “the genesis” of what is meant here?) The first time this doesn’t raise a question (“It begins with” may just be a figure of speech), but the second (and third) time it does.
Also, perhaps “it” isn’t the same in paragraphs 1 and 2 (because if it were, wouldn’t the second one start with “Or perhaps”?
- This is the second sentence to use “not because” when speaking to the preadolescent “you”, which I think sounds patronizing. Further down, we get similarly knowing rhetorics: “only now”, “more than…though”.
- Why is this a new paragraph?
- This apparent error (or variant) may hold a mirror to the foolishness of the uneducated yet normative speaker. Is this also a bit of a punch down on the part of the narrator, whose obvious command of English enables them to expose those who “speak funny”?
- So much speculation: Couldn’t the author/narrator decide and establish what is what, rather than offer it all up for debate?
|First few lines from:||Jonathan Escoffery, If I Survive You (4th Estate)|
|Found on this list:||Booker Prize 2023 (Longlist)|
|How easy it was to survive reading this:||Super easy|