In his new book, author Jess Row asks the question: What would it mean if you could receive surgery that could change your race?
During the evening of Sep. 23 in Taylor Hall, he posed this question to a gathering of students and members of the community by reading a short passage from his book, “Your Face In Mine,” which was published last month.
The premise of Row’s book is that Kelly, a white American man in his 30s, moves back to his hometown after his Chinese wife and child are killed in a car accident. While he is settling into his new job at a radio station, but feeling discontent with it at the same time, he happens to run into a black man whom Kelly thinks he knows, but isn’t sure.
Kelly soon realizes that this strangely familiar man is actually Michael, a childhood friend, who has undergone experimental racial reassignment surgery, changing the color of his skin from white to black.
Sometime during his adulthood, Michael came to the realization that he was transracial, and was actually a black man in a white body.
The novel delves into what his change of race means for Michael as well as Kelly’s growing temptation to receive similar surgery to become Chinese, like his dead family.
Row is a faculty member of the English department at the College of New Jersey, where he teaches creative writing. “Your Face In Mine” was inspired when he happened to read a book on the early history of plastic surgery. That book got him thinking until he came up with the idea of “racial reassignment surgery.”
“I started wondering: why has no one come up with this idea before?” Row said.
Row says the idea was also connected to and came from various people he has known and encountered throughout his life who seemed to want to alter themselves or their race. As a boy going to school in Baltimore during the rise of hip-hop, Row had several friends—who were white—that he believed really wanted to be black and portray themselves as a different race. It is people such as these, in addition to America’s long and convoluted history with race, that the novel is drawn from and based on.
“The book wouldn’t exist without particular anxieties and dysphorias we have in America that surround race,” said Row. “That’s what it is constructed out of.”
The beginning of the story is set in Baltimore, where Row himself was born and attended high school before going to Yale. After graduating with a degree in English, he spent several years in Hong Kong, during which time he published a collection of short stories titled The Train to Lo Wu, which was a finalist for several awards. He then went on to receive an MFA from the University of Michigan.
Professor Amitava Kumar of the English department helped arrange for Row to give his reading. The two met at the wedding of a mutual friend in New York City, and have since appeared together on various writing panels. Row and Kumar have also worked together on a series of articles, published in the Boston Quarterly, that discussed various aspects of argumentative fiction.
Kumar, who mentioned that he was greatly impacted by Row’s article in the Quarterly, believes that Row’s particular style of writing will appeal to members of the Vassar community.
“He takes a different approach to writing than all the creative writing courses in America,” said Kumar. “All his writing is a challenge to any kind of purity. He engages themes of things mixing together.”
When writing the novel, Row traveled to Taiwan, where a sizable section of the novel is set, to talk to various plastic surgeons there. He was surprised that, after he had stated what his novel was to be about, many of the surgeons knew immediately what he talking about.
Though none of them used Row’s term, ‘racial reassignment surgery,’ many of them reported that they have clients almost every day that want to change their appearance to look more like a member of a different race. This struck Row, that people in reality were pursuing this idea they had come up with on their own.
Since “Your Face In Mine[’s]” release, it has been reviewed by many critics throughout the nation. Though many reviews speak glowingly of the book, not all reactions to “Your Face In Mine” have been positive.
“I’ve gotten some very heated reviews,” Row reported. “And while I don’t like getting bad reviews, it is a good thing. I like getting reviews that spark debate.”
Sparking debate, according to Row, is the purpose of “Your Face In Mine.” He wants his book to get people thinking about the ideas it brings up, particularly what it would be like if people could actually change their race midway through their life. Row hopes that once people are thinking about these issues, a way to overcome the dysphorias of race Row talked about can be found.
Despite raising these issues, Row doesn’t offer a solution to the problems he brings up. He has been asked to read his book at several other universities, and several times attendees have called him out on issues ranging from the hypocrisy of being interviewed on NPR after criticizing it in his book to his right to write a book that deals so heavily with race.
“The book is meant to be a provocation,” Row said. “And in some ways a prediction of what is to come. Though I don’t think it has happened yet, the idea of someone being transracial I think is a prediction.”