In a Novelist’s World, You Choose Your Race

In the weak light of a February afternoon, Kelly Thorndike has a strange chance encounter in a Baltimore parking lot with Martin Lipkin, an old friend from high school. But time has brought a big change. The Martin that Kelly knew was white. The man standing before him is black.

Their meeting sets the stage for “Your Face in Mine,” Jess Row’s debut novel, which is to be published on Thursday by Riverhead Books, joining a long tradition of fiction about racial guises. Mr. Row’s tale is set in a near future in which Martin is the first person to undergo “racial reassignment surgery” to change his features, skin color, hair texture and even his voice. His surgical package includes a new biography and even a dialect coach — all a corrective for Martin’s “racial dysphoria.”

“I wanted to make the novel the logical outcome of the way certain vectors in our society are going,” Mr. Row, 39, a soft-spoken, self-described WASP, said during a recent interview. He pointed to the current state of plastic surgery, in which it’s possible for features and body parts to be changed to mask or remake ethnicity. “I wanted people to ask, ‘If I could have the surgery, would I?’ ” said Mr. Row, the author of two story collections, “The Train to Lo Wu” and “Nobody Ever Gets Lost.”

A fan of James Baldwin’s work, Mr. Row said he set out to have “Your Face in Mine” explore the ways people try to escape their racial identities, as well as investigate their desire for racial reconciliation and deeply unconscious fears and discomforts around race.

“Passing” has been a major theme in African-American literature for over a century, and has usually meant blacks living as whites to escape bias. “Your Face in Mine” owes something to classic stories of passing like “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” by James Weldon Johnson (published anonymously in 1912 and under his name in 1927), and the 1931 satire “Black No More,” by George S. Schuyler, in which blacks rush to embrace a new scientific process to become white.

It also calls to mind “Black Like Me,” the groundbreaking 1961 account by John Howard Griffin, a white journalist, who darkened his skin to appear African-American and wrote about the discrimination he experienced.

But if “Your Face in Mine” has elements of the traditional passing novel, it doesn’t stay in that lane. First, Martin was white, and for him, racial reassignment answers a psychological need, not a social one. He is more akin to someone desiring gender reassignment surgery: Martin Lipkin (now called Martin Wilkinson) felt he was a black man trapped in a white man’s body. Significantly, the novel’s corrective surgery is open to anyone of any race.

Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor of English and African-American Studies at Columbia University, called Mr. Row’s book “a new take on race,” offering the unusual perspective of the white Kelly and the ex-white Martin meditating on racial identity and raising questions about the very meaning of race.

“Race is both what they’ve inherited from their parents and from hip-hop culture,” Ms. Griffin said of Martin and Kelly. “What understanding of race does it suggest? What does it mean to be a black person born into a white body?” Ms. Griffin wondered how many white people would be inclined to follow Martin’s example. “There aren’t too many white people being held in chokeholds by the police,” she said.

Although Mr. Row’s racial reassignment surgery is fictional, many of the procedures he writes about in “Your Face in Mine” are very real. “The truth is that much of the plastic surgery we see today has a racial or ethnic component,” he said in an email, “because it has to do with inherently racial concepts of physical perfection, like the ‘Roman nose.’ ”

“Is Race Plastic?,” a recent New York magazine cover article, considered just this issue, exploring the implications of “ethnic plastic surgery” with its menu of procedures that go about “sharpening the stereotypically flat noses of Asians, blacks and Latinos, while flattening the stereotypically sharp noses of Arabs and Jews.”

Allyson Hobbs, an assistant professor of history at Stanford, whose book, “A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life,” comes out in October, said that in life and in literature, passing showed the complexity, and even absurdity, of racial categories.

“Historically, it was much clearer what was to be gained by being white, in the literature as well,” she said. “There was a social and economic logic to becoming white.” About “Your Face in Mine,” she said: “What this book sort of raises as a question is what someone expects to gain by being black, Hispanic or Asian in the 21st century? What is gained and what is lost through a racial reassignment in the 21st century?”

The transracial Martin’s insistence on a kind of existential blackness prompts a consideration of race by Kelly, a failed academic grieving over the accident that took the lives of his Chinese wife and their daughter. Another character, Julie-Nah, whose background is Korean, starts out wanting to become the whitest white woman possible but ends up questioning the purpose of reassignment.

Mr. Row traces some of his own questions about race to his time as a teacher in Hong Kong in the late ‘90s. He said he found himself in a place where he felt that people looked right through him, and where whites were sometimes called a pejorative Cantonese slang term often translated as “ghost” or “demon.”

“That fundamental experience of being so decentered and so destabilized has really defined all my work,” said Mr. Row, a practicing Buddhist who lives in Greenwich Village with his wife and two children. His 2005 story collection, “The Train to Lo Wu,” was set in Hong Kong and featured characters from different backgrounds telling stories. His 2011 collection of stories examining Sept. 11 and its aftermath, “Nobody Ever Gets Lost,” used a similar technique.

As he was writing “Your Face in Mine,” Mr. Row said, “I thought about all of the times I’ve felt drawn to a particular racial identity: listening to hip-hop or reading books about Native American reservations or being in a Buddhist temple.”

“The other part is looking around at the people I know and all the forms of racial passing that mask your identity,” he continued. “Some are subtle, like someone who starts practicing yoga and wearing an Indian third eye. Then there are all the white people who’ve taken on aspects of hip-hop culture — the clothing, the speech.” Sometimes it is done from a desire to feel closer to African-Americans, he said, or to escape whiteness.

If a dramatic fix is needed to bring people together or to help them with their racial demons, then Martin may be on to something. “I wanted to imagine the most radical kind of integration,” Mr. Row said, “the kind you can’t undo.”


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