The writer on coming of age in dichotomous Baltimore and being warned against writing about race.
Image by Sarah Shatz
“Don’t write that book. It’s not worth the controversy.” This was the advice the critically-acclaimed short story writer Jess Row received as he began exploring the idea of writing a novel about race. A white man trying to tackle issues of race, he was told, would be like touching the third rail.
But Row persisted with his manuscript, and the resulting work, Your Face in Mine, was published in August 2014 by Riverhead. Row’s debut novel considers race from various angles: as a construct, as a form of self-abnegation, as a means of addressing an existential crisis, and even as a desirable plastic surgery procedure.
Your Face in Mine introduces the reader to thirtysomething Kelly Thorndike, who moves back home to Baltimore soon after his wife and child are killed in a car accident. There, Kelly encounters a familiar man who turns out to be Martin Wilkinson (formerly Martin Lipkin), Kelly’s best friend from high school. Martin, previously white, has undergone racial reassignment surgery to become black. Now a successful entrepreneur keen to promote the surgery, Martin convinces Kelly to write about Martin’s life and the procedure that transformed it. In the process, Kelly grapples with his past in Baltimore, his feelings of alienation after the tragic loss of his family, and his own feelings about race and identity.
The novel, with its understated prose, highly original premise, and underlying political themes, is one of the boldest and most powerful debuts of the year. As the New York Times’s Dwight Garner writes, “This novel more than fulfills the promise of those [previous] books. It puts [Row] on another level as an artist.” But Your Face in Mine has received pointed criticism as well. An NPR writer, for instance, accused the book of belittling transgender experience in “portraying the white need to appropriate black culture as an equivalent to the danger and difficulty of living with gender dysphoria.”
This hasn’t surprised Row. “I wanted it to be a polarizing book,” he says in the interview that follows. “I wanted it to have a feeling of a radical experience, an experience that was really challenging to the reader and challenging to our conventional literary categories.” As fraught as the subjects of racial identity, racial dysphoria, and racial masking may be for some readers, Row hopes that the book will be a breath of fresh air for those who want to “break out of the polite discourse around literary novels.”
Questions around race and culture figure into Row’s previous work as well. In 2007, he drew inspiration from his tenure as a teacher in Hong Kong for the poignant short story collection The Train To Lo Wu (Dial Press), which explores the worlds of Asian, white, and black characters adrift in China. Row’s precision as a writer comes through in the contours of these characters’ emotional states. For his stories, Row has received the Whiting Writers’ Award, two Pushcart Prizes, a PEN/O. Henry Award, and an NEA fellowship in fiction. He was also named among Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists in 2007.
I met with Row at New York City’s Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, where we talked about his upbringing in racially dichotomous Baltimore, the infusion of politics in his fiction, and the surprisingly real phenomenon of racial reassignment surgery. As much as I prodded him, and as is the nature of many of his characters, he flinched at nothing.
—Grace Bello for Guernica
Guernica: In your essay “Native Sons,” published in this magazine in August 2014, you suggest that writers of color are seen as ‘of color’ first and ‘writers’ second.” As a white writer, have you felt pressure to not write about race?
Jess Row: When I was seventeen years old, I took my very first writing workshop. The teacher, who was well respected and had been teaching for a long time, told the class the story of William Styron and his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. The teacher made it clear that this was a white writer who had taken some risks to write this grand, American epic about race. But Styron got thoroughly trashed for it; it stalled Styron’s career for a while. My teacher’s point was, “Don’t write about race. It’s not worth it. It’s the third rail.” I was so young, I was so enthralled with this teacher. I took every word out of his mouth as gospel.
His message was to have a very narrow focus as a writer and to do that one thing very, very well. So that became my aesthetic—a very Chekhovian, American realist aesthetic in the tradition of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Tobias Wolff. The perfectible, realist story that had these somewhat articulate characters, a lot of silence, a lot of obscured suffering, a lot of manliness, a lot of drinking, a lot of divorces. As my writing went on, I shed a lot of those elements.
I went to Hong Kong in the ’90s to teach in the Yale-China program. I wrote a collection of short stories about China, The Train To Lo Wu. One story in that book had a black protagonist. But it was always a false assumption that white American writers cannot write novels about race unless they’re approaching it from a very oblique angle.
When I came up with the idea for Your Face in Mine, one of the literary people who was advising me said, “Don’t write that book. It’s not worth the controversy.” And that sort of dismayed me for a while. Then I got a new agent, Denise Shannon, who said, “You must write this book right now.” It was then that I had the momentum to embark on writing the book. I had the feeling that I could do this, I could write this. From that point on, it was like, “Fuck it. I’ll just finish the book, and then prepare myself for what’s going to happen next.”
Black culture is very difficult to explain to people who don’t have any direct contact with it.
Guernica: In the Guernica essay I just mentioned, you quote James Baldwin talking about how his time in Paris informed how he saw the US. He said, “I began to see this country for the first time. If I hadn’t gone away, I would never have been able to see it; and if I was unable to see it, I would never have been able to forgive it.” Did you have a similar experience living in Hong Kong and then returning to the US?
Jess Row: In terms of seeing America, yes—but of course, I had nothing to forgive. Quite the opposite. It was an experience of really having a new perspective on Americanness. Only when you leave do you appreciate what binds American people and our cultural experience together.
One thing that really struck me about living in Hong Kong and teaching American history to college students there is that black culture is very difficult to explain to people who don’t have any direct contact with it. The impact of black music and black art forms on American culture is really difficult to appreciate in that context; either students have stereotypes of the culture or they’re skeptical of how important it is.
It’s only when an American steps outside of their own culture that you see how integral it is. For example, most Americans have a sense of what the blues is. But in Hong Kong, they have no sense of the blues.
Guernica: You’ve written two short story collections, The Train To Lo Wu (2005) and Nobody Ever Gets Lost (2011), and now you’ve written a novel. What kind of a shift did you have to make in order to write a longer work?
Jess Row: I wrote another novel before Your Face in Mine. When I sold my first book of stories, it was a two-book contract that included a novel. But I wrote that novel, and it was a total mess. The contract fell apart. It was one of those terrible learning experiences. [laughs] I learned what not to do.
When I wrote Your Face in Mine, I wanted to write something that was fast-moving, mostly chronological, very plot-driven, and immediately engaging in a way that didn’t demand tons and tons of research. And something that was perhaps more openly autobiographical and not so dependent on reconstructing the historical.
So the challenge wasn’t so much about short stories versus novels, the challenge was avoiding certain pitfalls. I never really had novel-writing instruction like people do in MFA programs, so I was at sea during the process. At the same time, I had a lot of expectations placed on me because I was already having some success with my short stories. That was not a good situation to be in. That by itself took a long time to overcome.
Guernica: I’m curious about the genesis of Your Face in Mine. The idea of racial reassignment surgery—where did that come from?
Jess Row: It came from a book called Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul, which is a history of plastic surgery that I picked up one day in a bookstore. The idea just sort of came to me as I read that book: What if there was something called racial reassignment surgery? Not unlike gender reassignment surgery, someone determines that they are of a different race on the inside and they wish to surgically correct that.
The idea was a bolt from the blue. It didn’t take me too long to interweave that idea with experiences I had in high school. A few friends of mine were these white kids who were obsessed with hip-hop culture and who were practicing a sort of racial masking. They weren’t passing, but masking. They were creating a sort of self-camouflage without articulating it as racial. It was very clearly a form of escape, a form of self-abnegation.
So the novel started as a theory that then connected with something from my own experience that I’d always wanted to write about but for which I’d never found the correct frame.
Guernica: Were you anxious about how the book would be received?
Jess Row: You know, I wanted it to be a polarizing book. I wanted it to break out of the polite discourse around literary novels. I wanted it to have a feeling of a radical experience, an experience that was really challenging to the reader and challenging to our conventional literary categories. What counts as art, and what counts as autobiography? I wanted it to be a discomfiting experience, and it has been, for some readers.
Guernica: The novel takes place in Baltimore. Can you talk a little bit about your experience of that city and how you wanted to convey that on the page?
Jess Row: I lived there for four years while I was attending high school. It was a very rough period for Baltimore. It was the middle years of the crack epidemic. It was a time when there were a lot of carjackings and the murder rate had risen. It was very dangerous, very violent—even more than it is today.
Yet my parents didn’t really restrict my movement, so I got involved in the underground music scene and the activism scene; I was doing some volunteering in food relief. I spent a lot of time throughout the city in poor areas, even though my family lived in a wealthy area.
The sense that I got of Baltimore was one of radical contradictions that couldn’t be resolved and one of radical racial disjunction that nobody was even trying to resolve. People lived in parallel worlds.
There was the isolation of an impoverished class of people, the sort of physical and spatial isolation that was at once a source of great pain and poverty and depression. But there was also this sense that Baltimore had been abandoned by industry, abandoned due to white flight, abandoned by the government. There existed all these crazy possibilities in a place that had been abandoned by everybody.
So what rises from the ruins of a post-industrial city? That conversation is happening about Detroit now. That conversation is more advanced now than it was in the early 1990s. But we still don’t have any good answers to those questions.
Guernica: You’ve said that it was through music that you began to explore race.
Jess Row: I was relatively isolated from people of color. My parents are too old to be Baby Boomers; they had me later in life. So we didn’t listen to any black music at all in the house, not even Ben E. King [who co-wrote “Stand By Me”]. My parents listened to none of that. I was raised with opera and very white-bread folk music like The Kingston Trio. That was about as daring as it got. So when I discovered hip-hop as a teenager, at first it made no sense to me at all.
Later, it made an enormous amount of sense. I listened to Run DMC when they first came out. The hip-hop that I really connected with was Public Enemy, KRS-One, Ice Cube, and N.W.A. That late ’80s and early ’90s era. The beginning of gangster rap and the beginning of politically conscious rap. I had a very immature, adolescent feeling of, “Wow, I can really connect with these people through the stories they’re telling in this music.”
I realized over time that it was much more complicated than that, but I never lost that empathic connection through music. It was almost too strong, like I was over-reading the content of the music. Now, hip-hop is mostly what I listen to, other than jazz. I’ve given up on pop music and indie rock. Hip-hop, I listen to all the time. It never left me.
The gestures and the swagger and the attitude of black men is imitated everywhere in American culture, but people still find black men intolerable.
Guernica: Earlier, you talked about wanting to avoid too much research, but I know you did do some research for Your Face in Mine.
Jess Row: The research that I did almost entirely focused on the medical and scientific elements that I needed in order to describe racial reassignment surgery. I wanted to infuse the story with enough facts that the reader would believe it. I spoke with several plastic surgeons here and in Thailand.
The most interesting responses I got were from the plastic surgeons in Thailand who, when I explained to them what my novel was about, said, “Racial assignment surgery already exists.” People are coming to them and looking for these types of procedures all the time. And because of all the cosmetic services like skin whitening and hair bleaching, there is a lot that people can do to change their appearance without having actual surgery. It’s quite common in Thailand and Korea and Japan.
Guernica: Martin undergoes racial assignment surgery to change his race from white to black. To what extent do you see this novel as an exploration of race and masculinity?
Jess Row: Definitely, if we’re talking about an American context, there’s an enormous difference between normative white masculinity and normative black masculinity. Part of what Martin describes when he says he doesn’t know who he is, he isn’t comfortable in his own skin—even though he doesn’t say it outright, it’s a crisis of masculinity. And when he becomes a black man, his masculinity is much more stereotypical and clearly defined. He’s much more of an alpha male as a black man than he was as a white adolescent. You could say a lot of interesting things about that [laughs].
I wanted Martin to be someone who stepped out of an uncomfortable past and emerged as a fully realized, powerful self. He’s the one who really sees the future and has a plan. He’s a Gatsby figure. That absolutely is about a shift in masculinity.
After Ferguson, there’s been a lot of talk about black men and the presence and absence of black men in positions of power in American culture. I remember someone saying something like, “The influence of black men is everywhere,” but in many communities their physical presence is intolerable. In other words, the gestures and the swagger and the attitude of black men is imitated everywhere in American culture, but people still find black men intolerable.
I really think there’s something to that theory. You think about every piece of idiomatic speech adopted by white men over the past ten or twenty years; virtually all of it comes from hip-hop. “Giving props,” for instance—it all comes from hip-hop. And there’s a reason for that. There’s a sort of conscious or subconscious masking going on there.
Guernica: Martin does have this swagger. I was so dazzled by and charmed by him.
Jess Row: So is Kelly.
Guernica: It takes some time to see that Martin is not who he appears to be, so to speak. Can you talk about how you approached that character?
Jess Row: I wanted Martin to be so forceful and charismatic that, at first, the reader would immediately buy into him as a fully functioning human being in his new role as a black man. You would never question that he achieved this “passing”—if you want to call it that.
But on the other hand, his story is never meant to be fully convincing. Ultimately, you realize that Martin is just barely keeping the whole thing together. By the end of the novel, things unravel. But we also see Martin as the consummate survivor, picking up and going to the next investor. We see the man behind the curtain, and he’s really a more naked version of the same person he’s always been. He has thoroughly invented himself once—maybe multiple times—and will probably keep doing so over and over.
Guernica: In the book, Martin says of Obama, “He wears that mask. He has that look all the time, a kind of noble dread. He’s a sacrificial king, the still center of the churning world. Call him whatever you want, but he’s older than old school. He’s the most primal president we’ve had in my lifetime.” Who or what brought about those ideas?
Jess Row: For a long time, I thought that I wouldn’t say anything about Obama in the book. It just seemed like the low-hanging fruit. But at a certain point, I realized the characters would say something about Obama. The novel takes place in 2012, deep into the Obama presidency. And I wanted them to mention it as sort of a tangent and then engage further with it.
In terms of the cultural critics whom I read, I have not read anyone who says what Martin says. I suppose there have been people who have compared Obama to Lincoln. But the connection to Joseph Campbell and the mythopoetic idea—that was my invention. It’s a pretty radical way of approaching Obama. But as soon as I wrote it, I thought, “Yeah, that sounds pretty credible.” It was one of those moments where I thought, “Wow, that made a lot more sense than I thought it would.”
But there is something very quiet and reserved and pessimistic about Obama’s temperament that is deeply un-American. There are those people who claim, “Oh, he wasn’t born here”—all that is nonsense. But there is a kind of skepticism and reserve about him that is really very unusual for an American politician. There’s nobody quite like Obama. It’s very haunting.
Guernica: To me, the novel is as much about grief as it is about race. How did you approach the character of Kelly, the narrator who has just lost his wife and daughter?
Jess Row: When I first started writing Kelly’s character, I imagined him still having his family intact in Baltimore. And it became clear to me immediately that I couldn’t balance his relationship with his family and his friendship with Martin. I had to make Kelly a much more solitary character and a character in a more extreme position. That’s when his backstory appeared to me.
In the beginning of the novel, he has lost his family and then loses everything else: his job, the radio station, what’s left of his career. I wanted him to be somebody who was experiencing, in a really self-conscious way, an existential crisis. I wanted him to be stripped of all his other options and looking for a way to redefine himself. But I wanted to articulate that crisis as a crisis of race. It’s something he might never have thought about in that way without Martin’s urging.
Guernica: Kelly likens racial reassignment surgery to gender reassignment surgery: “Inside you always felt black.” Did you do research on the transgender experience and community?
Jess Row: I did. I read this great anthology that Jonathan Ames edited called Sexual Metamorphosis, which is an anthology of transgender memoirs. That book was so informative to me—even though “transgender” and “transracial” mean very, very different things.
It was especially helpful to read about Christine Jorgensen, who underwent one of the first male-to-female gender reassignment surgeries back in the 1950s. She was the first celebrity transgender woman in the US. She was front-page news.
That history of gender reassignment was something I knew nothing about. And I immediately realized that that’s what Martin wants—to be one of the first to undergo racial reassignment surgery and then to position himself for that firestorm of publicity. And to reap a profit by selling the procedure.
This book is not meant to rub everybody the right way.
Guernica: There was a review of your novel on NPR that took issue with your comparison of racial reassignment surgery to gender reassignment surgery. How do you respond to that?
Jess Row: I’m not surprised by that review. The first line of it was, “Trans men and women face many problems,” without claiming that a similar dilemma can be found with regard to race. That statement is true; the politics of transgender identity are really complicated. And the debate over how much of gender is biological and how much of it is socially constructed is a very complex debate. I definitely never wanted the book to intrude upon conversations about transgender identity.
I was trying to raise an analogy in theory that has already been demonstrated in practice. I had observed people whose identity crises around race seemed analogous to other people’s identity crises around gender.
That’s probably the most heated review I’ve gotten. I’m perfectly okay with that. This book is not meant to rub everybody the right way.
Guernica: I’m wondering about the overtly political conversations that take place in the book. For instance, there’s a contentious discussion between Kelly and a white female friend who defends white flight. How did you come to these moments?
Jess Row: I honestly thought of it as a matter of consistent characterization. The people in the story would be having those kinds of conversations. Some readers might call that didactic or see it as an authorial intrusion. But for me, it was a reflection of the intelligence and complexity of these characters. To me, it was not a matter of intruding on the text so much as bringing out an aspect of the text that some fiction writers avoid. Those heated, wide-ranging conversations—if we have those conversations in life, those conversations should also be brought to the page.
One of the first writers I read who illustrated this was Grace Paley. In many of her stories, people have these conceptual conversations. They talk about ideas. They talk about history. “The Immigrant Story” begins in the middle of one such conversation. When I first read it in grad school, I had this feeling of, “That’s not enough to make a story.” Gradually, I began to appreciate that, with Paley, that’s just the texture of the people she grew up with.
She grew up in a Russian Jewish, leftist, communist household. She was a very political person. She was an activist all her life, and her stories reflected her own life. The people whom she knew lived out their lives through ideas.
Julian Barnes once said that he wanted to write his fiction essayistically and his essays fictionally. I like that quality, too.
Guernica: I know you practice Buddhism, and your faith comes up in The Train To Lo Wu. Did your Buddhism influence Your Face in Mine at all?
Jess Row: Yeah, absolutely. It influences everything I write. It colors how I see the world. Which doesn’t mean that it’s a conscious part of my writing process. I like to keep those worlds mostly separate, except for some places, like The Train To Lo Wu.
For me, there’s a very clear parallel between the practice of insight in Buddhism and what’s called prajna—the insight that arrives through meditation. It’s not zoning out—it’s not samādhi—prajna is insight into the world. And a lot of that insight has to do with karma and the way karma affects our lives.
Narrative stories are nothing but models of karma and causality—how one thing leads to another. And a lot of narrative fiction is about causality that we don’t immediately understand.
Guernica: Was there anything about writing this novel that was uncomfortable for you?
Jess Row: There were certainly a lot of moments of discomfort. Definitely the most difficult part was the scene in which Kelly is in the doctor’s office preparing to have the racial reassignment surgery done to him.
It was very difficult to write and very painful to imagine. Even getting to the point of realizing that I wanted Kelly to go through with the racial reassignment procedure—that took a long time. It took a while for me to realize that that was how the book was going to end, and that’s the way the book had to end. It wasn’t going to be satisfying otherwise.
He’s looking at his own body in this giant television screen, and the doctor is manipulating his image in front of him. Kelly feels that what he’s doing is so wrong that it’s almost like incest. In transforming himself, he’s breaking a taboo.
Guernica: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the protests in Hong Kong. As someone who previously lived and taught there, what do you think of the current situation?
Jess Row: At the time I’m writing this, it’s not at all clear what will happen in Hong Kong. As someone who is not in close proximity to the protests, it’s very difficult for me to comment on the course of ongoing events.
Speaking generally, though, it seems to me that what’s happening now is the natural outgrowth of decades of advocacy and coalition-building in the movement for democracy in Hong Kong. When the handover occurred, in 1997, there was this assumption—both inside and outside Hong Kong—that the city would eventually “integrate” into China, culturally, linguistically, and politically.
Just the opposite has happened. Hong Kong has been the place where the memory of Tiananmen Square lives on; Hong Kong people have become more and more committed in their resistance to authoritarian government, and also, not surprisingly, committed to safeguarding their culture and heritage as something distinct and worth preserving. One of the signature chants of this 2014 Occupy Central movement has been, in Cantonese, “Hong Kong people! Hong Kong people!” To me that’s a way of saying, “We exist, we are distinct, we are different, we are ourselves, we are not ‘Chinese.’”
I teach in the City University of Hong Kong MFA program in creative writing, and one of our graduates is the poet Nicholas Wong, who wrote a beautiful text, on September 29th, from the front lines of the protest, called “Before enduring it we will not endure it.”
I believe what Nicholas says: the Hong Kong protestors are insisting on their particular democratic rights in their particular political situation. But they are also, in the manner of all Occupy movements, using their bodies to be the archive of the world. They are giving voice to a global desire for a new politics and a new sense of community.
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