Author of controversial book on race attends Writers’ Series
By Era Bushati
Imagine you could undergo racial reassignment surgery to change the color of your skin, and consequently your race. That’s what author Jess Row explores in his debut novel, “Your Face in Mine.” Row held an informal Q&A about his novel, which he categorized as “speculative fiction,” on Feb. 10 as part of the New York State Writers Institute’s Visiting Writer Series.
Shortly after arriving in his hometown of Baltimore, narrator Kelly Thorndike runs into an African-American man on the street and is instantly drawn to his familiar face that he can’t seem to place. Kelly is even more confused when the man calls out to him by name. He introduces himself as Martin, his former high school friend and bandmate from 20 years ago. What threw Kelly off was Martin’s new outer appearance. When he knew his high school friend, Martin had been a white Jewish man, just like Kelly.
As Kelly and Martin spend time together, Martin explains his new look. Eight years ago Martin secretly sought out a doctor in Thailand who performed the racial reassignment surgery on him. After the surgery, Martin started a new life where he told no one of his former white self, not even the African-American woman he married. After reuniting with Kelly, Martin hires him to write a book about him. He’s finally ready to reveal his secret, as well as the success of his procedure. He wants to tell the world about racial reassignment surgery and its many possibilities for humankind. In fact, the book is part of Martin’s entrepreneurial plan to attract potential patients and turn racial reassignment surgery into the next coveted body modification phenomenon.
“Racial reassignment surgery. Why has nobody ever thought of that before?” said Row. He called it an irresponsible thought. He said he knows it’s not a fair or accurate analogy but that he knew it would make for an amazing novel.
“Your Face in Mine” features characters who try to find their identity by escaping their own race. In the novel, you’ll meet a Japanese man who turned into a Jamaican Rastafarian, as well as a Korean woman who turned into a white “Gwyneth Paltrow type.”
“Physical identity, bodily identity is something that is a matter of choice,” said Row. “Not a matter what’s given to you when you come out of your mother’s womb.”
Book critics have said one of the novel’s faults is that it is never truly explains why Martin chose to do the surgery. While that’s true, the reader does learn a little of his backstory. Martin grew up surrounded by black culture and learned to embrace it and eventually feel more comfortable in that culture instead of his own. He explains his self-diagnosis as “racial dysphoria,” the concept of being born in the wrong body. In the novel, comparisons are made to the transsexual experience. With so many ways to identify oneself, Row said he truly believes the day will come when people will also choose to identify as transracial.
Talking about race
The ideas in this novel can be uncomfortable. A New York Times review said, “Row’s key figure isn’t a black man but a white man in blackface, and given our history, it’s daring of him to go there.”
The novel is a conversation about race and the weight it holds in making up our identities, as individuals and as collectives. For all intents and purposes, it’s not hard to imagine that people may truly feel like they were born with the wrong skin color, but Row also knows Martin’s perspective can be viewed as problematic.
As a student in attendance put it, “It’s the privilege of a white person colonizing other racial identities.”
It sounds like a hostile comment, but Row is used to people being hesitant about this book concept. His first book agent told him not to write this story. “You don’t want the trouble that you’ll cause with writing that novel,” the agent said.
Row hasn’t heard any reactions to the book that he would consider backlash. He said that when publishing a book like this, you need to be accepting of whatever feedback you receive. A book critic from Flavor Wire said it was good that a young writer is “poking at a beehive.”
Row does exactly that. “Your Face in Mine” firmly inserts itself into the category of books that make you think about the future of humankind in a new way. In today’s world, talking about race is a delicate matter but this author and this novel dare to be bold.