In 1959, John Howard Griffin, a white journalist from Texas, used a combination of dyes, drugs, and exposure to UV lamps to darken his skin and pass as African-American in the segregated Deep South, in order to write the incendiary classic Black Like Me. Fifty-five years later, Jess Row’s debut novel Your Face in Mine imagines a world where such transformations are on the cusp of becoming commonplace. Complete, permanent “racial reassignment surgery” has been secretly perfected, and is about to be revealed to the public. A Korean woman can look like the lily-white American actresses she admired as a teenager. A Japanese Rastafarian can move to Jamaica and blend in. A white, Jewish boy from Baltimore can grow up to be a black man.
Readers drawn in by this science-fiction hook will be satisfied by the second half of the book. Plot-driven, full of surprises, and set against a throbbing, insistent Bangkok, this section also includes long conversations between characters on the procedure’s philosophical implications and fascinating embedded documents on its legal and medical mechanics. It’s the book you want and expect, entertaining and authoritatively researched.
The first half of the book, however, set in a grim, claustrophobic vision of Baltimore, is both more mundane and more haunting, and is much harder to unpack. The book opens with our main character, Kelly Thorndike, running into an old friend from high school named Martin. Martin used to be a white, Jewish, pot-dealing punk. Martin is now a family man, a successful, ruthless capitalist, and black.
Aligning the reader with Kelly’s perspective, rather than Martin’s, proves to be a wise choice. The shifting complexity of Martin’s consummated desire to be black (in the latter part of the book, he essentially functions as the villain) is overwhelming, and having Kelly as an equally bewildered surrogate eases our entrance into the novel. Martin hires Kelly on vague terms, as a kind of publicist-biographer-journalist, in preparation for the day when Martin will share his secret with the world. Kelly is tasked with merely observing Martin and rifling through his records – exactly what the reader wants to do.
At first, Martin adheres to the cliché of transgender narratives, which modern transgender activists are trying to open up and complicate: that he was simply “born in the wrong body” and was always black inside. But Martin’s motivations are revealed to be the product of a full, flawed, irreducible life, and they differ wildly from those of the other “racial reassignment surgery” candidates, just as the experiences of transgender individuals differ wildly from one another.
Kelly’s life, meanwhile, has the arc of ordinary tragedy. He’s grieving for his wife Wendy (Qing Dewen) and his daughter Meimei, who died in a car accident. The only two industries he’s ever worked in, academia and public radio, are both crumbling, though he never found great passion or success in either one. His return to Baltimore has an air of defeat; though he spent part of his youth there, he was eager to leave, and even his parents have moved on. He has a dark, potentially felonious secret, but he’s already forgiven himself. And in the grand scheme of such a byzantine, morally ambiguous novel, the secret seems relatively minor.
Kelly reflects on his life in order to examine what it is to be white. Given that the vast majority of published authors and their characters are white, it’s astonishing how rare such an examination feels. Readers and writers are trained to see white characters as blank canvases, primed for whatever the writer wants to depict. A nonwhite character comes preloaded with expectations, and worse, is a choice that must be explained, and a book with a protagonist of color is necessarily an “identity” book. But a book with a white protagonist can be any kind of book it pleases, and its universe is allowed to be blithely unaware of race altogether. Mulling on whiteness is dangerous territory. The privilege is so vast and inherent that it’s difficult to make white characters’ race a source of sympathy, and meaningful revelations are in short supply. White readers know what it’s like to be white, obviously, and readers of color had no choice but to learn – to see how we’re seen, in order to advance, avoid harassment, and navigate a hostile world.
But Row, through Kelly, manages to draw new and provocative insights from this seemingly shallow well. He depicts the trajectory of the “Good White Person”: a bleeding-heart Democrat who still chooses to live among other white people for “the schools, the parks, the playgrounds, the excellent restaurants,” and whose children are only exposed to black people through babysitters, maids, and community service. Who flee from the suffering of others, leaving whole cities to collapse. Who live with an almost pleasurable “frisson of guilt,” vote for Obama, and spout off facts about the African-American struggle to other white people at parties to feel good about themselves. Who are surprised and offended when told that they’re part of the problem.
Kelly calls it “white dreamtime,” and it’s thrown in his face – first as a grad student, by his (Chinese) thesis supervisor, then by Martin, years later, who has voluntarily woken from the dream: “You feel like you had to work hard for what you’ve got, but not that hard, in the end, right?”
They dismiss his depression as a phase, his self-loathing as a choice. They explain that because he has access to almost every space, there are some spaces where he should not “push [his] way in.” He cannot really live in Wudeng, China, the place where he met Wendy and the backdrop of so much happiness, not the way he wants to – as a citizen, someone who belongs. Kelly feels the truth of what they’re saying, but also the quiet, personal agitation of having your feelings diminished and seeing the door you want to pass through closed (even while an almost infinite number lay open). Martin, and his surgeon in Bangkok, can open that door.
Writing about some of the most divisive topics of our time, Row pulls no punches. Your Face in Mine isn’t a “well-handled” or “sensitive” treatment of race; it’s provocative, uneasy, and audacious. As with the best speculative works, it presents a hypothetical, literally post-racial future to comment on our very racial present. The result is a unique entry into an urgent conversation.