If a writer should follow Ernest Hemingway’s well-known dictum to write what he knows, then first-time novelist Jess Row just might be in the wrong business.

Case in point? In his highly regarded collection of short stories, The Train to Lo Wu (2005), Row, who taught English for two years in Hong Kong, wrote audaciously and movingly from the point of view of Chinese characters.

And, now, in his imaginative and thought-provoking first novel, Your Face in Mine, Row writes about a white man named Martin Lipkin who has “racial reassignment surgery” and becomes a black entrepreneur named Martin Wilkinson. In the process, Martin’s predicament allows Row to explore the perplexing, emotionally and politically charged issues of black and white identity. Row also invents a syndrome—Racial Identity Dysphoria Syndrome, or RIDS—that may leap from the pages of fiction to the pages of medical or psychology textbooks some day in the not-too-distant future.

Row's novel poses a startling question: What if we could change our racial identity through surgery?

“I was thinking, what if there was racial reassignment surgery that was like the gender reassignment surgery of our time?” Row says of the conception of the novel during a call to his home in NYU housing in Manhattan’s West Village. Named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007, Row teaches creative writing and literature at The College of New Jersey. His wife is a poet and scholar of African-American literature and black diaspora literature at NYU, hence their housing situation. “Then I thought, what if there were people who believed themselves to be born in the wrong racial body and had the surgical means to change that,” Row adds.

Sounds like science fiction, right? But on a research trip to Thailand where he interviewed plastic surgeons doing sex change operations, Row found that his premise was not so far-fetched. “When I told them what my book was about, one of them said that is already happening, we just don’t use those words for it. And when I asked if they had clients they thought would do this if it were available, they said absolutely, we talk to people all the time who want to transform themselves in this way.”

The very human desire for transformation is palpable throughout Your Face in Mine. The story is told by Kelly Thorndike, a former bandmate of the young, white Martin. As the novel opens, Kelly, now in his 30s, meets the financially successful, black Martin on a Baltimore street and becomes, shall we say, critically involved in the story. Kelly has recently lost his Chinese-born wife and daughter in a horrific car crash and as a result has his own burning need for a transformation.

But transformation is a difficult business, as Row, a longtime practitioner of Zen Buddhism, well knows. “In this novel, there’s something very deep that the characters don’t understand about themselves. They follow what is to me a mistaken path toward trying to alleviate what they’ve lost in their lives by transforming themselves. In no case does it solve their problems. I would say that the fiction I write, and fiction in general—if you look at it from the Buddhist perspective—is about modeling karma, how one event gives rise to another event, how actions have consequences. That’s the way in which fiction and Buddhism come together. They’re both really in some sense about causality.”

How Martin and Kelly work out their separate karmic paths in the novel allows Row to examine very complicated issues of racial identity in America. “My feeling is that black culture is American culture. Anyone with an American identity is in some sense rooted in a common experience that can’t be separated from the experience of black Americans and the experience of black culture. You can’t separate rock and roll from the history of black music. You can’t separate contemporary American culture from hip hop. You can’t separate the story of America from the story of slavery.”

Still, Row acknowledges, it’s possible for many Americans to live in what his narrator calls “white dreamtime,” an idea that “very much comes from my own experience. I’m turning 40 this year, which means I was born at the tail end of the Civil Rights movement. I had liberal, very well-meaning, relatively self-aware parents. But I lived an existence where, for the most part, people of color were at a distance, were not my intimate friends. Looking back on that time, it became clear to me that it’s possible for a variety of reasons for white Americans to imagine themselves in a world where people of color—it’s not that they don’t exist entirely—but they don’t meaningfully exist. And that is what Kelly describes in the novel.”

Baltimore, where most the novel’s events take place, is the perfect setting to illustrate this kind of divide. It’s also where Row went to high school. “I really love Baltimore and I grieve over it at the same time,” Row says. “From the time I moved away until now, which is more than 20 years, this city has been in an absolutely dire economic situation. That’s partly because it’s so close to Washington, D.C. It’s been used as a kind of laboratory for so-called solutions to urban poverty. And . . . none of those solutions has worked. So I wanted the novel to be a kind of love song to Baltimore and also a kind of wail of despair.”

Like other good works of fiction, Your Face in Mine is not merely a report on what the author knows from experience but an imaginative act. And in this case, it is an act with big risks. “A white person engaging with black culture is a very, very tricky business,” Row admits. “And in some sense there’s no way to get it right. But from my perspective that doesn’t mean that one should stop trying.”

 

Author photo by Sarah Shatz

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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