For Jess Row, white guilt isn’t some straw man beaten by conservative pundits to dismiss liberals. It’s a lived reality, and the creative wellspring of his provocative and complex recent novel, Your Face in Mine. The book’s narrator, Waspy Baltimore public-radio producer Kelly Thorndike, runs into a high school friend who seems to have changed a lot: Martin Wilkinson (formerly Lipkin) has had “racial reassignment surgery,” a radical new procedure that made him African American, and he tells Kelly it’s a billion-dollar opportunity. As Row (whose name rhymes with “how”) sat down in November to discuss his book over lunch in New York City’s Chinatown section, something much more serious—and real—was weighing on all of us. Police officer Darren Wilson had been cleared the previous day by a grand jury. Fires were burning in Ferguson, Missouri, and the era of “post-blackness” explored in Row’s novel had just gotten a lot more complicated.
You’ve talked about being influenced by Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul, Sander Gilman’s study of plastic surgery’s roots in ethnic alteration. But what inspired you to read it in the first place?
I picked it up at random because the title sounded so interesting. And when I was paging through it I had this question: “Why is there no such thing as racial-reassignment surgery?” It spoke very deeply to my own experience of wanting to leave my white identity.
Growing up in Baltimore, you wanted to leave your identity?
Well, I have felt happier as a person and more fully engaged with the world when black culture is a big part of my own life. When I was in high school I was really into hardcore [punk]. Hip-hop was also really important, and radical political activism too. Then I went to Yale and arrived in this world where, in order to fit in, I had to drop all that stuff. My political views became much more center-liberal, Clintonian. I stopped thinking about politics and black culture, started listening to Liz Phair and Pavement and playing in an indie band. I was also going through all these inner conniptions about what kind of writer I was going to be. I just assumed it meant drinking a lot and having this kind of iconic “American” experience—a return to Jack London-style brawny muscular American-ness.
When did all that change for you?
During my first year of living in Hong Kong [where Row taught English for two years], I remember staring at the screen and saying, “Am I still going to be a writer?” I wrote a story called “Revolutions,” which is in my first book, about an American artist who was living in Thailand, broke his leg, and had to come to Hong Kong for surgery and wound up convalescing there alone. It’s very much a story about artistic frustration and feeling like you’ve lost your mojo, but that was my regeneration artistically. I started crafting a more international style that didn’t have any American flavor to it. It was sort of like [Michael] Ondaatje or John Berger.
And you reconnected with black culture as well?
Around the time I turned 30, I realized that the things I assembled as the cornerstone of my identity in college were just not that meaningful to me. I realized the music I cared about had to have some sense of political commitment and some sense of connection to a larger sense of culture than a small privileged white elite.
A review of your novel in The New York Times declared that, “Where [James] Baldwin skillfully explained the minority experience of black rage to a majority white readership, Row gamely explains the experience of white guilt to the same audience.” Do you agree with that?
Well, I don’t know why [the reviewer] used the word “gamely,” like I’m doing somebody a favor. For me, whiteness has always consisted of defining itself against blackness and black culture, and feeling simultaneously a sense of superiority and supremacy and the guilt that goes along with it—but also feeling a sense of loss and isolation from something you want to be connected to, and yet you feel you can’t be connected to. So I think guilt is only part of the story.
Last year you published a long essay in The Boston Review, strongly criticizing white American novelists like Marilynne Robinson and Richard Ford for setting their fiction in “deracinated” landscapes scrubbed of poor minorities. Is Your Face in Mine supposed to be an antidote to that?
In my lifetime, I think there’s really been a sense in which liberal white American culture has shrunk away from blackness and black culture, and there’s just been this sense of defeat and failure, but also this tremendous sense of wishing the situation could be different. So partly I think what Martin is doing is addressing that moment in a very deep way, by saying, “I’m going to depart from the white experience entirely.” I wanted to write about the desire of people in a place of privilege to try to undo their privilege.
You studied Chinese—just like your narrator, Kelly. He lived in China, while you lived in Hong Kong. He married a Chinese woman, and plays with the idea of transitioning into the Asian race. Did that come from your life?
The experience of being white in Hong Kong was so isolating, and something that I thought about all the time was this wish to blend in, to disappear, to pass, which of course is not possible, strictly speaking. If I could only become fluid enough, culturally intermingled enough, then it would be this real sense of self-transformation, which was very fascinating to me.
You also became a Buddhist.
As I came to understand it later, a lot of that came out of a longing to pass. When I was in Korea on meditation retreats, and living in a Korean temple, wearing Korean Buddhist robes, in some sense that’s the closest I’ve ever come to a form of passing, or deracination.
That fantasy of ultimate freedom drives the novel, but it’s also problematic—the pursuit of a moneyed elite. What are we to make of something that’s already possible—gender-reassignment surgery? Is that problematic too?
That’s a very provocative question. It seems to me there’s no way of separating the fact that gender reassignment has become so widespread because of the capitalist consumer society that we live in. Every element of our identities is affected by a consumer mentality. It’s sort of like saying, “Information wants to be free.” Identity wants to be free! It’s this very techno-capitalist Utopian idea that the world will be better if people are just given more choices. And I don’t believe that. But looking at gender reassignment, it’s hard not to say that the world for these people is better. So I get this question all the time: Do I agree with Martin’s point of view? I’m hesitant to have a definite answer. I go back and forth a lot.
How would Your Face in Mine be different if you were writing it today, in the aftermath of Ferguson?
I definitely would have brought it up. I finished the first chapter in the fall of 2012, when police violence wasn’t nearly so much of a public issue. I was trying really hard to focus on kind of a positive entrepreneurial, even capitalistic view of blackness, because that’s what Martin believes in.
The blackness of the Obama era?
Yes, I was trying to capture an era that was focused on the question of “post-blackness.” That’s what Martin borrows from Obama—the idea of being self-made, composing yourself, writing your own script. It’s interesting that that’s sort of been eclipsed. Cornel West, on Facebook this morning, announced, “This is the end of the age of Obama.” Which is kind of amazing. It’s typical Cornel West style—hyperbolic. But in a way it’s also true.
What do you think West meant?
It seems to me that the discussion over whether or not we live in a “post-racial” society, which was so much a feature of Obama’s early years, is now decisively over. Ferguson, in this sense, is only one manifestation of a much broader failure of Obama and the centrist Democrats he brought into office with him—a failure to address all the ways in which disadvantaged people, and particularly people of color, are exploited, bullied, manipulated, and cheated in America. There’s a visceral sense right now that impoverished black people and their communities—like Baltimore—have been made, if anything, more invisible in the Obama years than they were before. That’s a stunning and depressing reversal from the optimism of 2008.
You recently published a story in The New Yorker, “The Empties,” which is post-apocalyptic—an increasingly popular genre foray for literary writers. Isn’t Your Face in Mine a little bit dystopian?
I’m not interested in dystopia as a thing. One of the interesting things about the end of the Cold War was this disappearance of an easy explanation for how the world was going to end. But one thing we know for sure is that in the 2040s, the white population is going to cease to be the American majority. For me there’s always the sense [in the novel] of the twilight of white supremacy. I don’t know how many other people have that in their minds but I sure do. I think there’s a lot of fear and paranoia about it but I prefer to look at it head-on.
Boris Kachka, a contributing editor for New York Magazine, has also written for The New York Times, GQ, Elle, and Conde Nast Traveler. He is the author of Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.