The conversation novelist Jess Row wants to have is the one we don’t seem to be having.
“It felt like there was a discussion about race that is not happening in America or American literature,” says the Your Face in Mine author, who appears Saturday at Miami Book Fair International. “White writers in many cases choose not to populate their fiction with people of color. A lot of what I’m doing is trying to write against that, not about race but against the avoidance of race that’s such a dominant model in white literary discourse.”
Row, 40, has written about race before (his first book, the story collection The Train to Lo Wu, was set in Hong Kong and examined that subject among others). But in Your Face in Mine (Riverhead, $27.95), Row found a unique way into the discussion. His narrator, Kelly Thorndike (white), runs into a familiar man (black) in a Baltimore parking lot and realizes with a shock that the guy is his old high school friend Martin — who used to be white.
Martin has had what he calls “racial reassignment surgery” because, he says, he always felt black. He wants Kelly to help him publicize the surgery by writing a book about it (Martin’s wife, who is black, has no idea her husband used to be white). The premise is intriguing and overflowing with possibilities, especially as Martin’s secret agenda is slowly revealed.
The borderline sci-fi idea came to Row in one of those all-too-rare flashes of inspiration. He was reading Sander L. Gilman’s Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul: Race and Psychology in the Shaping of Aesthetic Surgery, about the history of plastic surgery in the 19th century.
“A book about rhinoplasty is a racial history, a history of the surgical assimilation of German Jews,” Row explains. “It came to me — I thought, given the technology we have today, given the prevalence and widespread use of gender reassignment, why couldn’t there be something called racial reassignment surgery? I wondered if someone had written the story or used the term, but basically it didn’t exist.”
Writing Your Face in Mine, he says, gave him the chance to dissect complicated and awkward discussions about race.
“There’s a feeling among white Americans that there’s no such thing as racial harmony, no such thing as a positive, productive relationship with people of color,” he says.
“White Americans have the option of not having to think about race on a daily basis. People of color don’t. Race is a major deciding factor in their lives and the histories of their families. ... I think the awkwardness of the conversation is also that sometimes white Americans expect to be educated, and there’s this sense among people of color that white people ought to know better and not be so uninformed.”
At one point in the novel, Kelly reflects on his teenage love of hip-hop and is surprised when a biracial friend tells him bluntly, “It’s not meant for you.” It’s a moment Row has reflected on for a long time.
“When I was first listening to hip-hop when I was a teenager — and this was in the early days of gangster rap — I was drawn to it because I loved the narratives and the intensity and how offensive it was and how true at the same time,” Row says.
“But I was aware in some sense it wasn’t meant for me. I remember reading this article in Spin, a converation between Chuck D and Spike Lee after Do the Right Thing, and Chuck D said his music wasn’t for white people or white liberals. That was so hurtful and painful for me, but I’m glad I read it when I did. It gave me this sense of self-consciousness. I had to think about it. Why is it that it’s not for me? Why is it it that I’m the problem?”
While Row sees the white flight of the 1970s and ’80s as part of America’s problems with race, he fears the movement of young people back to urban neighborhoods won’t make the conversations easier.
“There’s an enormous amount of obliviousness, a desire among young gentrifiers to see only the city they want to see,” he says. “When the question was first asked, ‘Why are there no black characters on Girls, a show that takes place in Brooklyn?’ I think Lena Dunham’s response demonstrates something about the mentality. She was dumbfounded by it.”
He does find hope in literature, citing such authors as Colson Whitehead, Mat Johnson, Danzy Senna, Adam Mansbach, Jonathan Lethem and Claudia Rankine as writers who are delving wholeheartedly into the politics of race. His literary hero, James Baldwin, was a master on the subject (Row wrote a passionate essay for Guernica about his fascination with Baldwin’s little-read novel Another Country).
“Baldwin talks all the time about how white Americans are trapped in the same power structure and suffer from their place there,” he says. “The fact is white people don’t do the work of understanding that it’s not only destructive to society but also destructive to them.”
Jess Row appears at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in Room 8201 at Miami Dade College.