Read A Book: Jess Row Discusses ‘Your Face In Mine’ + The Possibility of Racial Reassignment Surgery

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Read A Book: Jess Row Discusses 'Your Face In Mine' + The Possibility of Racial Reassignment Surgery

Read A Book: Jess Row Discusses 'Your Face In Mine' + The Possibility of Racial Reassignment Surgery

Your Face In Mine, Jess Row’s fictional examination of racial difference, is one of the most quietly unsettling novels of 2014—and not by accident. It begins with a startlingly original premise–two white kids who bonded over punk music and angst in their Baltimore high school pass each other on the street as grown men. One of them is now black. From that arresting hook on the book’s very first page, Your Face In Mine plunges into an exploration of the disorienting and sometimes gut-wrenching possibilities of “racial reassignment surgery,” a techno-thriller conceit that is perhaps not so speculative in this era, a time in which technology is a major factor helping to re-write social conceptions of gender in many communities.

The questions that arise from this simple leap of the imagination—what happens to the idea of race when a person can effectively elect to ‘pass’ as a member of another—of any other—racial grouping through surgery? What happens to our self-identity if it is no longer tied to the racial category we were born with? Who would you be, if you could choose?—are asked through the life stories of the novel’s two main protagonists. Martin-who has undergone racial reassignment surgery and assumed a new identity–now lives as a prosperous black business man within the Baltimore’s class of movers and power-brokers, completely and seamlessly immersed into the black community, right down to his beautiful African-American wife Robin and their two picture perfect children. Kelly, by contrast, is dealing (or rather, not dealing) with the death of his wife and daughter. He accepts a thankless, dead-end job at the local public radio station, coming home mostly to escape the pity of his friends and his wife’s family—a disconnect made deeper by the time lag from the U.S. to China, where he first met and fell in love with her. He is quickly converted from potential whistle-blower to co-conspirator in Martin’s disappearing act, via a plot to turn Martin’s story into a documentary of sorts, an exposé that will bring racial reassignment surgery out of the secretive Bangkok clinics where it is performed and into mainstream Western consciousness.

In a weird fictional parallel to the interrogation of gender roles that our generation is living through in the real world, Martin’s choice is presented as a response to ‘racial dysphasia’. Radically alienated from his Jewish heritage, Martin’s only family is his emotionally absent, closeted gay father, who mostly leaves him to be raised by the Baltimore school system. By the time he meets Kelly in High School, Martin has learned the codes necessary to fit in with his white peers. But after his father’s death from AIDS, he admits to himself that his only true sense of ‘home’ resided with the family of his African-American friends, who all but adopted him as a toddler. Although not quite the proverbial ‘black man born in a white man’s body’, the character of Martin presents a compelling and plausible case for the idea of racial displacement—a complete emotional disconnection from the racial identity the world ascribes to you.

Although it would be spoiling to reveal much more of the story, suffice to say that it carries the reader from Baltimore to Bangkok–and into the dark recesses of a white man’s soul, from rage to suicidal self-loathing. It is important to note that although the characters sometimes exhibit an ironic self-awareness, the book itself never lapses into the satire we almost expect from this material, a conditioned response, perhaps from decades of deflecting (and sometimes amplifying) the pain of racial conversations with humor. Instead YFIM takes as deadly seriously those uncomfortable thoughts which form the basis of so much American comedy (think Soul Man; White Chicks; Chappelle’s Show; Eddie Murphy on SNL, Melvin Van PeeblesWatermelon Man and so many others) preferring to take an unblinking look at the way race plays into the stories we tell about ourselves via the struggle between Martin and Kelly’s very different (and internally conflicting) relation to the idea of who they are, racially.

It also must be said that it’s an extraordinarily confident novel. Original, full of rich description and prose that is beautiful without ever distracting from its powerful subject. It is also extremely well-plotted in a way that belies its status as ‘literature’—and at the end leaves the reader on a plateau which manages to feel fitting to the point of inevitable and at the same time surprising, even revelatory. If that seems paradoxical, imagine a book-end to the opening scene which also manages to be shocking but still begging the question—didn’t anybody already think of that?

That is no mean feat. But even more noteworthy for a novel about race by written by a white man, YFIM is never cringe-worthy, arriving astonishingly free of the myths, assumptions and platitudes about black culture and race in America that even our most self-aware writers and thinkers tend to fall back on unconsciously in fits of almost-drunken domain specificity, like recovering race-aholics. Its shortcomings, in fact, could be listed on two or three fingers and feel almost to nitpick-y to even enumerate (so pardon me while I enumerate them anyway). Finger 1: brochures listing the details of racial reassignment tech and treatises on racial identity theory and its relationship to developmental psychology are paraphrased in big chunks or inserted into various characters mouths (or since this is 2014, their e-readers) in a way that almost makes you wish they were not paraphrased but inserted whole as more complete texts-within-a-text. Finger 2: some of the more autobiographical anecdotes from Martin and Kelly’s high school years of confronting adolescent rage and ‘90s rap trivialize even as they feel true and appeal to our nostalgia. Ultimately, they undercut the stakes of the story which, after all, are about as big as a novelist can take aim at; Man’s Inhumanity to Man, the possibility of Redemption, the Souls–not only of Black Folk–but all Americans.

But that may be because for a novel almost entirely about race, it restricts itself almost entirely to the interior life of its white–that is, born-white—characters. Which is to say, the only non-white character who has the chance to bare the depths of his soul is Martin, a White Jewish man who has elected to be black through expensive surgery. The only other non-white person with a voice here is Robin and one of her two major dialogues with Kelly takes place on chat between Bangkok and Baltimore as she endeavors to find out what he and Martin are up to, a discussion that tellingly leaves her in the dark and very much off-stage. As that choice indicates, the novel’s main dramatic conflict is driven by white characters, externalizing their feelings about race through the central technological conceit.

What exactly to make of YFIM then?

On the one hand it is uncommonly honest, deft in its unfolding of a striking narrative, fearless in its exploration of existential crisis—walking the reader right up to that edge of the self, the precipice where one’s own identity dissolves. On the other, it sometimes feels trapped inside a racial solipsism, a möbius strip wherein all sides of the racial dialogue are assumed by white men speaking in different voices. If that sounds like an accusation, it is experienced as both a strength and a weakness when reading the novel . The voice of YFIM—mostly expressed through Kelly but suffused throughout the whole story—is always self-critical. Although readers may reflexively raise up when Martin speaks authoritatively on the crisis of the young black male in the inner city or the dilemma of being the first black President—the novel itself is never guilty of presuming to speak for or “whitesplaining” the black experience. It also undermines the idea of race itself in a way that provides a fitting analog to the online space, where racial identity can be changed almost as easily as uploading a .jpg. Yet the technological simulation of racial characteristics Row imagines nevertheless confronts these existential questions of racial difference by reducing it to a sort of role-playing game, a toy version of racial conflict (and/or rapprochement). What to think, indeed? What to feel?

Jess Row would say (did say, in fact) that the novel’s purpose is to ask questions, not provide answers. So it feels appropriate that this book review should end not in a rating, a kicker or pat conclusion but rather in a conversation with the author, a discussion that ranged from George Schuyler to Snow and many points in between. Read on to continue the conversation…

>>>Purchase Jess Row – Your Face In Mine (via iBooks)

>>>Purchase Jess Row – Your Face In Mine (via Powell’s)

OKP: This is a disturbingly original premise. The opening scene (a white man and a black man pass each other on the street in Baltimore and realize they have met before—as two white men) is so gripping, I have to wonder if it that hook wasn’t the impetus for the whole novel?

JR: That’s a great question. It was. I really did start writing this book from the beginning, and that initial scene where Kelly meets Martin in the parking lot was really the first image that I started the book with.

It was that very powerful image of this man with a hood coming out of nowhere–not ‘nowhere’ in the sense of some mystical nowhere but an American nowhere; just a parking lot in a random place where you’re not particularly supposed to be. And this person approaches you and it turns out that you know them. And not only do you know them but there’s very deep unfinished business between you two.

OKP: So how did the idea of racial reassignment surgery as the larger premise come about?

JR: It all happened in a very strange way because I’d picked up somewhat randomly a book about the history of plastic surgery called Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul by Sander Gilman. I picked it up at a bookstore really having no previous interest in the topic. The book is about the early history of plastic surgery and particularly about rhinoplasty–the nose job and how it was invented by German Jewish surgeons in the 19th century, specifically to achieve the kind of racial reassignment effect.

It was designed specifically to make German Jews look less Jewish. And it was very technical–he reproduces this in the book. They have before and after pictures of the big nose and the more classical Roman nose and all that kind of stuff, and so the idea just sort of suddenly came to me at that moment: “What if this idea of racial reassignment surgery were extended more broadly so that a person could transfer from any one identity to any other identity?”

And I think it sort of clicked with me because it seemed so much in the air, it seemed so much in the way that we live today, this idea that you can modify your body in any way you choose and the possibilities seem to be endlessly expanding. I kept wondering why nobody had written this book before me, and I kept expecting while I was writing it that either a book or a movie with the same premise would come out before me and preempt me, but it never happened which is my good luck.

OKP: In a way the fact that this was initiated by this 19th century text makes sense because even though this has a lot of “shock of the new” about it, it’s kind of amazing that we’re still in the place where transgressing that boundary could be so shocking.

JR: That’s true. You’re totally right. You know, the particular medical fix, or the idea that you can use medicine and technology in this way, in this kind of “corrective” way is a very 19th century idea. And it has a kind of 19th century utopian (or dystopian) quality to it. And I think that that wasn’t really first and foremost in my mind while I was writing the book, but it’s kind of inevitable. You see this sort of thing, especially around the turn of the 20th century, a lot of works of speculative fiction about the kind of technological utopias of the future. This doesn’t take place in some kind of future utopia or dystopia, but the idea of that some scientific, medical procedure can alter human life and culture is clearly rooted in that 19th century space.

OKP: You said that you were waiting for someone else to come out with a book like this…but in a way this premise has already been written about in a hoax-y way with the book Black Like Me

Read A Book: Jess Row Discusses 'Your Face In Mine' + The Possibility of Racial Reassignment Surgery
Book jacket cover of John Howard Griffin’s controversial 1962 Book Black Like Me

JR: Oh absolutely. And there’s an even earlier book called Black No More by George Schuyler. George Schuyler was a black writer of the Harlem Renaissance. He was mostly not a novelist, he was a newspaper commentator and a cultural critic, but he wrote Black No More as a sort of satirical novel about a technology that could turn black people into white people, and then all of the social havoc that that would cause.

And then yes there’s Black Like Me, there’s the movie Soul Man, there’s the movie White Chicks, which is the opposite…

OKP: Even those were both kind retreads of older things, there’s the Melvin Van Peebles film Watermelon Man, and then there’s what may be the ultimate Eddie Murphy skit of all time…a whole secret history of racial reassignment as an idea.

JR: Well, in some way it all goes back to the tradition of minstrelsy in the 19th century and the tradition of racial pantomime and blackface and the way that that was used for comedy but also social commentary and, of course, exploitation. In any time you have that masking, all of those things get included–it’s going to be comic, it’s going to be socially revealing in some way, and it’s probably also going to have some tinge of exploitation in there too.

OKP: Did you draw on that history of the idea in crafting the book–or did you kind of want to leave that aside and not be cluttered up with that trope as it’s been portrayed before?

JR: I considered referring to it openly in the book, but then I thought that the book itself is an artistic representation of this process. The characters in the book take it very, very seriously and they don’t see it as a one-off or a skit or a kind of thought experiment. They see it as the future reality. So I chose not to refer to it in a self-aware way, but it was definitely on my mind.

And especially the deep question about what does it mean for someone, the silliness and awkwardness of the blackface tradition. What’s behind that is the feeling or observation that on one hand people find it entertaining and interesting and maybe even desirable to present a take on a racial identity that they don’t have and then on the other hand there’s the deep question of “What is that about? Where does that desire come from?” And if you have a case where someone actually wants to pass as the race that they are not, which of course American history and literature is full of cases of racial passing, what’s that about?

We usually think of passing, when we use that term, we’re usually thinking of black people passing as white people, and there’s lots of famous examples of that. We think of it kind of a one-way street, where a black person is passing as a white person in order to gain the privileges of being white. And so we interpret that as this person’s desire to leave behind their identity because they’re sick of being discriminated against and they’re sick of the troubles of being African American or Latino or whatever it is and they want to pass for white.

But on the other hand you see lots of examples, especially in contemporary America, of people wanting to go the opposite way. Of white people trying to be something that they are not. And so what is that desire about? In some ways to me that’s the most fundamental question [of the book], that’s the question of Martin as a character. What is that desire about?

OKP: So…what is that desire about?

JR: Well, I don’t think there’s any one good answer. I was reading a really fascinating review of the book yesterday by an African-American woman, and she liked the book but was writing about how she felt so disloyal when she was reading Martin’s character and reading the things that were coming out of his mouth. Because here is a person who has been surgically altered to be black, but he’s not a black person, he’s still Martin. And he’s taken on African-American identity without having any of the growing up experiences of being African American. In other words, in her mind, he’s taken on the identity without having suffered the oppression and the threats and the racial violence of all kinds, and to her it felt very, very painful to listen to somebody who was effectively pantomiming or who was playing a sort of visual trick.

And I was very moved by that because that gets to the sort of fundamental question of what happens when you have someone who lives in a very privileged identity and wants to take on a less privileged identity? And for him, what he claims is that he feels that it’s not a matter of choice–just like a transgender person would say that they are the other gender–he feels that he is black inside and that he could never be happy as a white person because he has this core identity which is different than the skin he was born in.

And then you have to think about the sort of complicated mixture of guilt and the white impulse to self-abnegation or to sort of run away from one’s own white identity. You’re also thinking about the sort of cultural attractiveness of black culture, black music and the things that really inspire him. And you have to ask this fundamental question of “Is that kind of thing justifiable, or is it even psychologically possible?” This is the part where I have to turn it over to the reader and ask them to respond. There’s a famous line by Chekhov that says “Fiction writers and novelists ask questions and don’t propose answers.” That’s their job. For me, that’s what Martin is all about–he’s a big, big question that I don’t have all the answers on.

OKP: Just as an aside, before I forget, you might be curious to know that having grown up as a white kid in Detroit, I’ve known some people who are very Martin-like. My good friend’s older brother went through a phase when he was very young and just starting grade school where he was convinced he was black (he was actually of Irish and Eastern European descent). It wasn’t a pose or an adopted thing–every other kid in his class was black and he had sort of a mirror/body-image disconnect with what his parents were telling him and thinking ‘no, that’s not true’. It was a phase, he grew out of it, but it was this kind of weird thing that he got over and was slightly embarrassed to talk about. But the character of Martin very much reminded me of him…

Read A Book: Jess Row Discusses 'Your Face In Mine' + The Possibility of Racial Reassignment Surgery
A still from Melvin Van Peebles 1970 Film Watermelon Man

JR: Well, thank you for sharing that story with me. I’m not at all surprised because I’ve heard some more stories but it’s always interesting to hear from someone who’s had that direct experience. The thing is that so much of people’s racial identities is culturally constructed. So much of it has to do with the cues that we take on from our environment, and one of the things that was interesting to me about Martin was that this is someone who, like a lot of people that I know, grew up white in a mostly black environment and took a lot of cues from that.

And so you see this thing that looks like dissonance from the outside but isn’t so much dissonance from the inside in some ways.

OKP: This is obviously in some important ways a “literary novel” but in another sense that premise takes it into the realm of speculative fiction. It’s not quite sci-fi but parts of it have this very cyberpunk sense of disorientation—is that something you’ve played with in your other work?

At the time that I started writing the novel it was very new to me. I had never worked in anything approaching science fiction. And since writing Your Face In Mine, I’ve written some other pieces that are more in that vein. Last summer I wrote a short story that takes place in Vermont in a kind of post-apocalyptic [world] where the power grid has collapsed and people are living as locovores with nothing except the immediate. And one of the sort of hooks of that piece is that in Vermont there’s lots of “local” everything, produce and meat and all. But the one thing you can’t produce is any source of caffeine, so the one thing everyone is so desperate for is old Lipton tea bags. Everyone’s dying because they don’t have their iced coffee.

OKP: I also wanted to ask you about the musical cues that set scenes in the novel. Both for Martin, in consciously creating his story, and the narrator recalling his adolescent experience in Baltimore–certain musical cues set the scene. There’s this whole scene with the one biracial girl at this school who gets mad at him for listening to rap music, saying (basically) “De La Soul’s okay, but stop listening to this other stuff—it’s not for you.” There are a lot of other places in the novel where Bob Marley and Miles Davis and other musical cues sort of set the theme or the tone of scenes. I’m just wondering if any of this is your own musical experience coming out?

JR: It was really integral to the book because so much of how I built the narrative comes out of my own experience of relating to black music and how hugely important it was for me. There’s that chapter where Kelly talks about how his life was changed by Do The Right Thing and that was me. That’s autobiographical. The details have been changed but the basic story is totally me. At that time in my life I was living in Phoenix, Arizona in 1989. I had moved away form the East Coast and I was about to move back to the East Coast, but at that time I really had no contact with what was happening in black culture other than reading about it and hearing the rap that was around at that time. And then I went to Do The Right Thing and heard “Fight the Power” and it just changed my life. Everything about that movie changed my life.

And that experience of listening to Public Enemy and the political rap of that era, which I listened to all through high school, the super militant stuff like Paris and the Black Panthers and the N.O.I. and the Fruit of Islam and all the rhetoric of white devils and blue-eyed devils, listening to Ice Cube–I internalized all that stuff in high school. And at the same time there was the Native Tongues stuff, the stuff that was supposed to be more acceptable to the white suburban audiences. But my preferences where always for the harder stuff, the stuff that caused more friction within me. I was drawn to the friction like a lot of white suburban kids, drawn to the friction of listening music that actively denounced me as a human being.

And that’s a kind of inexplicable thing, but it’s very deeply rooted in a sort of conflict-ual impulse within myself and I would never have written this book If I didn’t have that impulse and that draw toward that kind of music. It had a huge effect on me. Chuck D in that era said that hip-hop was the black people’s CNN. And for me it was sort of the white teenager’s CNN, too. It provided a window onto the L.A. riots and a window onto the Central Park 5 and the other things happening in those days.

And then, like the narrator too, I had this experience of going to an Ivy League college in the mid-’90s and feeling shame about the cognitive dissonance of liking hip-hop and then dropping it out of my life, and I didn’t come back to it until really 10 years later. I missed Biggie, I missed Tupac, I missed everything that happened in rap and hip-hop after about ’94, for almost ten years. And then I sort of went back and listened to all of it again. And at the same time when I was in college I connected to reggae for the first time and connected to Bob Marley in the first time. In a sort of very stereotypical way. And I started to listen to jazz intentionally.

For me the book is written around, you could say, a triangle between three very emblematic pieces of music. You have the Bob Marley song “Exodus” that Martin talks about as being such a formative song in his life. And the beat of that song, the feeling of listening to that song, it has this amazing rhythmic structure that’s like no other reggae song. It’s almost a little more like disco, and in fact it was a big disco hit when that song came out.

OKP: Although, ironically, that rhythmic portion might be orchestrated by a white guy. I can’t say that with certainty, but that’s definitely one of the songs where it’s a bit controversial with reggae purists because it’s been alleged that Chris Blackwell went in and pitched up or disco-fied that song to make it more palatable for the global audience.

JR: : …And they did something similar with “Buffalo Soldier.”

OKP: Exactly.

JR:  Yeah, but so obviously Martin doesn’t know that (laughs) but the beat of that song and the feeling when you listen to that song, that that beat could just go on forever. That, which is exactly what the exodus is supposed to be about, the Rasta version of the exodus and that it’s an imminent thing, something that’s always happening, a process that’s internal and external and always going on. There’s that piece of music and then there’s “Fight the Power” which is so central to Kelly’s experience…

Read A Book: Jess Row Discusses 'Your Face In Mine' + The Possibility of Racial Reassignment Surgery
Public Enemy, circa 1989.

And then there’s also, you could say, the Miles Davis – “Porgy and Bess” that Kelly is listening to later in the book, when he’s in Bangkok at a sort of crucial point in the story. And there you have the lament and the very deep meditative feeling that’s not blues–it’s Gershwin of course–but a very deep and rich orchestration that’s not beat-driven, it sort of just surrounds you and enfolds you. That’s the kind of–in some ways the whole book is about those three moods in a way. The beat of “Exodus,” the disruptive friction of “Fight the Power” and then the deep lament and longing and space of “Porgy and Bess.” That’s the way I would describe it.

OKP: That draws me back to some of the bigger questions the book raises for me–because intertwined with the idea of minstrelsy is this very American tradition of racial transgression which has something to do with an attempt to express things that are either racialized or you feel constricted by your racial identity when expressing. I often think of the Boston Tea Party–there was something about that revolutionary moment that required these New Englanders to dress up in redskin paint and Native American feathers in order to express that “fuck you” to the colonial power…they couldn’t just do it as themselves, they had to adopt this new racial pose.

JR: That’s a terrific analogy, I never thought about that but of course it gets lost in the whole rhetoric of the Tea Party, that it was a racial masking at the same time.

OKP: Whereas, with Martin, it’s not so much that he has a particular side of himself that he has adopt a pantomime or role to express–and then step back. He is constructing a permanent new identity for himself.

JR: Well that’s right and that’s why minstrelsy doesn’t really come up in the book. For him (Martin) it’s so deep and there’s the sense for Martin that the last thing he wants is to stand out. The last thing he wants, or wanted originally, was to make a spectacle of himself. What he originally wanted, at least what he says, was that he wanted to have the surgery and then come back to America and then disappear within the black community. To just become a sort of ordinary–successful, prosperous–but totally ordinary black man in Baltimore’s black community. And that’s what he’s done.

And then somehow later, because of greed or a design, or whatever, later he hatches the design of making himself a public figure in order to sell this product and connect with the zeitgeist. For me, it almost has Gatsby-esque dimensions. He’s a sort of communion figure who’s got very deep plans but he himself–there’s something about him that’s always behind the curtain in a certain way.

OKP: And I think that’s a little bit why I thought of Black Like Me, because there’s a kind of hoax or publicity stunt element to it. At some point, whether it was his original intention or not, Martin is selling the story of himself as the one who crossed the line–which is also very American and very Gatsby-esque as you’ve said.

JR: A lot of people when Clinton was President said that he was the first black president because of his relationship to the black community. And now you have Obama who is visually African American but also has an ambiguous relationship with the black community.

In both cases you’re talking about people whose stories are stories of self-invention and reinvention. And Martin sees a certain–he talks about at one point in the book Obama and getting inside the mind of Obama and how he’s a sort of tragic president because he knows that he’s always set apart, that he’s always distant from the fray in the certain way. And that there’s some part of him that he’s giving up in order to do that, and in an indirect way Martin sees a parallel with his own story.

OKP: It’s funny while reading I kept returning to this phrase that Obama has used to describe race in America–“empathy gap.” One thing that strikes me is that for a novel with race at the center, there is not much attempt made to cross that empathy gap between black and white. You have at least three main white characters, sometimes struggling and sometimes succeeding, grappling with this kind of uncomfortable identity and an urge to escape their whiteness.

The expectation for a white writer writing about black characters, is a sort of empathy gap test: “How to I get in the mind of someone who’s dealt with this experience when I haven’t? How do I do it authentically?” But apart from the flirtation with Robin [Martin’s African-American spouse], there is never this kind of “Okay, I’ve crossed the empathy gap and I can see things from the other perspective.” Did you think about that consciously, where that line was?

Read A Book: Jess Row Discusses 'Your Face In Mine' + The Possibility of Racial Reassignment Surgery
LP art for Bob Marley – Exodus, 30th Anniversary Edition

JR: Yeah, I did think about it a lot and at a certain point I realized that Kelly was falling in love with Robin as I was writing those scenes. It was not in the cards originally, and then it sort of came to me that this was really a necessary component of the novel, that that kind of love–that feeling of really connecting with Robin and her perspective, but also the feeling of romantic attraction, was crucial because of what you’re saying about the empathy gap.

Otherwise you have Kelly, who very much has his own problems, his own life, he’s already had this experience of living in China and wanting to be Chinese. Having a biracial daughter, all of these experiences, and then losing that part of himself. When the novel begins he’s a walled-off character, and his connection with Robin is the way the novel breaks through that walled-up sense of his grieving self.

Also I think the element of eros, of romance, was so necessary, because to me it seems that the relationship between (and this is not at all an original thought, far from it) white and black Americans is one of a frustrated love or a frustrated, not doomed necessarily, but it has this element of a family bond or a romantic bond that’s always frustrated and feels impossible but nonetheless at a high level of intensity.

It’s in our literature in very, very deep ways and in our culture in very deep ways, but we don’t want to confess to it somehow. And I felt like that element had to come into the book at some point, that it was a almost a sense of an impossible relationship that began in exploitation and genocide and is now much more in the sense of people left together in a certain space, having this long and terrible history, but having to make something of their relationship and their unique bond and mingling in the present. And not having the tools to do that.

OKP: Toward the end [*very mild spoiler follows*] there is a sort of fever-dream sequence where Kelly is beckoned back to that other storyline by his daughter, who is dead. And he makes a choice, kind of the way Martin made a choice about which narrative he’s going to be a character in. Which seems to be something–that the characters grappling with narrative seems to be something at the core of this book.

JR: Yeah, there’s that moment where at the end, where he’s asleep and he forgets what narrative he’s part of. Part of what I was trying to do in the book was create the sense of a dream-like quality throughout the whole story, starting in the beginning so that we feel like we’re plunging into an alternate reality. And part of what I wanted to do is have the reader by the end of the book have a feeling–when Kelly is asleep and is in these alternate realities of his own–that we’re about to emerge from this dream-state. I wanted that to be kind of a self-aware process of thinking about this as a dream-state that is so close to the world we live in and has so many parallels to the world we live in, yet it’s a dream. It’s a fiction.

The one thing I really want readers to have the experience of, in some way, in the book, is personally asking themselves the question of “What would you do if presented with the opportunity of racial reassignment surgery? Who would you choose to look like and would you actually do it?” It’s a really interesting thought experiment. I’ve asked those questions to a lot of people and it’s so interesting to hear what people come up with about their alternate racial selves.

OKP: Which opens up this play of narratives and suggests to me a kind of larger statement about where we’re at in literature at the moment. Maybe I’m asking too much to ask you to stand in or speak for literature as a whole but I have a sense that the literary marketplace for the white writer’s voice has altered–been discredited–in a way that parallels the characters’ urge to escape whiteness. Not to take shots at any particular writer or publishing house, but if you are, for instance, a British citizen of Nigerian or Bengali descent, there is a certain marketplace for your story and your experience, partly because it is new to white, Anglo-Saxon English-speaking book buyers. There’s sort of a hunger for that story told in straightforward narrative way, in a way that there’s not for a white writer telling their story in a “straight” way.

In a way, this narrative sort of explodes or escapes from that double-standard in a weird way. Even though there’s a lot of autobiographical stuff in this book, it’s never framed as “this is my story.”

JR: It’s really interesting what you’re saying and I really connect to it, and I’ve written about it too. I have an essay about it that came out last year on my website, it’s called “White Flights” and it’s about how much contemporary white American fiction is about escaping from spaces in which there are people of color. SO much contemporary white American fiction largely takes place either in the wilderness or the scene of a kind of suburb, or Maine or Vermont, and how much that has to do with the sense that white characters and white narratives can only be interesting if they’re not juxtaposed with other narratives.

It’s fascinating and complicated. I think that you’re absolutely right–to my mind what has happened is the publishing world has really bifurcated between an interest in autobiographical or semi-autobiographical fiction by people of color–there’s tons of that from all over the world that’s very rich and resonant and amazing. And then on the other hand you have, when you’re talking about literary fiction, white authors who often tend to be or are expected to be formally experimental and inventive, and not so much straightforward autobiography. More straightforward autobiography by white writers tends to be pushed into memoir and becomes non-fiction. It’s very interesting that you see tons and tons of memoirs by white writers and tons and tons of autobiographical fiction by writers of color. It’s an interesting paradox.

It contributes to writers of color not being taken seriously as artists, and it also contributes to white writers not being called to account for their existence in the poly-cultural world that we live in. To my mind the problem with that is that those two worlds of publishing and contemporary fiction–in terms of readers and audience and critical reception and awards–are really bifurcated. They’re like two different worlds and that’s very troubling to me.

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