Remember when Jon Hamm played one of Liz Lemon’s boyfriends on 30 Rock? And after they’re broken up, she sees him again and he’s got hooks for hands. “Oh, freak accident,” he explains. “You know I work with Doctors Without Borders. Well, I was helicoptering into Zimbabwe, when I thought I saw somebody that I knew. So I waved from the helicopter, which, it turns out, is a big no-no. And the rotor took my right hand clean off. And it turns out the person I was waving to was not my old football coach.” He was confused, okay? “It looked just like a black version of him.”
Jess Row’s new novel, Your Face In Mine, is based on the same premise, but taken totally seriously: Kelly is walking down the street one day when he sees a man he thinks looks familiar. Except it can’t be the person he knew. It can’t be Martin, because Martin is white, and this guy is black. But then Kelly finds out Martin underwent racial reassignment surgery; he’s married to a black woman who has no idea that he ever used to be white, and he wants Kelly to write a story documenting this radical transformation. I talked to Row about the research behind and writing of his book and just how close we are to a world in which his science-fiction story is reality.
How did you begin writing this novel? Did you just start writing right away, or did you immerse yourself in research first?
I started writing it in a very strange way. I picked up a book in a used bookstore called Creating Beauty To Cure The Soul: Race and Psychology in the Shaping of Aesthetic Surgery, by Sander L. Gilman. It’s a history of plastic surgery, and it was especially focused on the history of the nose job, rhinoplasty, in Germany in the 19th century. I don’t know if Gilman used the phrase “racial reassignment surgery” in the book, but for some reason, it came into my mind. And I started thinking about it as a rough analogy for gender reassignment surgery. And especially the idea of someone thinking they were of a different race inside, and would have surgery to correct it. And as soon as I thought about that, I thought, I know people, personally, who would probably fall into that category. And my next thought was, I have to write a novel about this.
I relied on some combination of the kind of on the ground research that I did talking to surgeons and reading passing narratives, and there’s a terrific book, Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs, that goes back to the earliest of what we know called transgender people, including Christine Jorgensen, who underwent the first man-to-woman sex change and was a huge celebrity in the U.S. That’s very much the person Martin wants to model himself after.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Pringle
The analogy to gender, though, is a little problematic. Because race is complicated in a way that is so different from the way gender can be complicated, right? And there’s a historical identity you’re kind of adopting if you change races that is potentially a lot more layered and explosive than the history you take on through gender reassignment surgery.
Everything in a novel happens on the ground, on the strengths of the characters. So in the novel, the narrator discovers that his friend, who was white, had surgery that makes him appear as a normative African-American man. Martin is now kind of unsurprising, unquestionable, a person who wouldn’t raise red flags at all if you saw him on a normal day. He’s wearing those clothes, with that hairstyle, and so on. So what you get into is, you’re absolutely right, the analogy to gender reassignment surgery is a rough analogy, and almost problematic, which is intentional. And in both cases, you have this question of: what does it take to pass? What does it take to appear with the image that you want to project? And this is the business of plastic surgery, as I discovered in talking to plastic surgeons. A lot of it is about using certain standardized models of what people desire, and then coming up with physical surgical ways to achieve those models. So for the surgeons, it’s actually, it’s very factual. It’s very concrete. “You give me this picture, you say you want to look like this person. And I can either make it happen, or I can not make it happen.” That’s the way that I’m approaching it in the book: imagining it from the level of the person who wants to have the surgery done, what are the steps you would go about, what are the kind of models you would choose, and what’s actually conceivable? And what’s shocking is, you can achieve a lot of these results with the science and technology that we have today. It’s not as speculative as you might think.
What did you learn from your conversations with plastic surgeons that was most surprising to you?
I was really taken aback when I was in Bangkok and I told one surgeon what the book was about and he said, “That already exists, but we don’t use that word for it. Racial reassignment surgery already exists.” That was really shocking to me. And what he meant was, not the full-on surgical procedures I talk about in the book, most of which are made up, but the combination of actual, physical plastic surgery with hair alterations, skin-lightening creams, that are very common, especially in Asia but all around the world, that can effectively make a person able to pass from one ethnicity to the other. There are people who have, from an outsider’s perspective, turned themselves very much into Caucasian-looking people through some combination of these techniques. And in Thailand especially, it’s very widely accepted and embraced. There’s much more of an open culture there, when it comes to all kinds of bodily transformation. South Korea is the global hub of many kinds of plastic surgery, but especially the eyelid surgery, which is very hotly debated: is it having the effect of making Korean people conform to an Asian standard of beauty, or is it making them look more Caucasian? Plastic surgery has become so common and omnipresent there, it’s become such a major part of the popular culture. In a way that I think would never be accepted in the US, where I think there’s somewhat more of a complicated set of racial sensitivities about these things.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky
What made you decide to have the central character who undergoes this surgery be a white man who wanted to be black? It’s always a charged thing to think about, but especially with all the news coming out of Ferguson, it’s difficult to imagine the circumstances that lead this guy would make this choice.
It’s a great question. There’s a kind of literary conceptual answer to that question, and an autobiographical answer to that. The literary conceptual answer is that, I wanted to write a kind of reverse-passing novel. A traditional passing novel, like Passing or The Human Stain, those are novels about people passing from black to white in order to achieve a position of privilege and power and to escape the “stain” of blackness, or being of color. And I wanted to write about the reverse, because I wanted to illuminate the way in which white existence and white privilege, especially in contemporary America, carries with it such a high degree of self-consciousness and guilt, and also the fetishizing of others. There’s so much fetishizing and reverse-evaluation going on. On a personal level, when I was firs thinking about the novel, the first example that came to my mind were white teenagers I grew up with in Baltimore who I felt would choose to have the surgery to become black. It felt entirely naturally to me.
The surgery is so extreme, too. Just this idea that you are completely abandoning who you were and can never return to that identity, even if something happens to you that makes you think, “Oh, maybe I was better off before, maybe I was happier before.” I understand the idea of the surgery-as-fictional-thought-experiment, and I also understand the way people affect certain ways of speaking, dressing and behaving — it’s kind of like taking a vacation from who you are to a place you’d never live, but want to visit — but did you think, while writing, if this was something that people would do in real life?
I think the idea of surgery, of course, is that it’s not reversible. It’s permanent. Whether this is something that people would actually desire and if it would become a widespread pracitce if it were available, that’s difficult for me to speak to. But I think the desire to permanently change, to permanently escape your origin, and reassign yourself completely, that desire is everywhere in our culture. It’s everywhere in global culture. And as you say, sometimes it’s like a vacation of being something else. There are all kinds of instances where that desire led to a kind of permanent reversal or a permanent alteration. Just to choose one obvious example, a more traditional passing story, Anatole Broyard, who was Creole and from New Orleans, passed for white his entire adult life in a totally convincing way. And I’ve talked to people who read the novel and said they have a hard time believing this could ever happen and that someone would not wonder. But there are so many instances one could point to in the historical record of people who have altered their racial identity and lived their entire lives without being outed and exposed.
The novel takes place in 2012. I found one of the hardest leaps of faith to take, in order to go along with the story, was that Martin’s wife has no idea. She never Googled him? She’s never asked to see a baby picture? Isn’t it harder now than it has ever been to keep your past a secret?
Remember that he’s changed his last name, every element of his identity that he could change. He came back to the United States after the surgery as a passing black man, with a new passport and everything. And I tried to build in the plausibility in the novel to a certain degree, but yeah, of course, there’s a leap of faith. Just as someone who has been around a lot of different relationships, the degree of self-deception in some romantic relationships is amazingly high. In the case of Robin, Martin’s wife, I think there probably is some element of a blind spot for her: she very devoutly wants to believe in her family, and in her choices, as successful choices, and Martin’s self-presentation plays into that.
Going back to this idea of racial reassignment surgery as something people could really do, I assume you saw that New York Magazine piece about “ethnic plastic surgery.” What did you think of the story? Did it ring true to you, given the research you’d done for the novel?
I thought that article was terrific in raising the questions. The one thing I would say about it is that it seemed to reflexively think racial plastic surgery is about people of color, and white plastic surgery doesn’t qualify as ethnic or racial. And I think that’s absurd: all forms of plastic surgery have to do with conforming to racialized assumptions about idealized body types. And plastic surgeons, if you talk to them, are very candid about that. The literature all goes back to Greco-Roman symmetry.
Why do you think people — not surgeons, but the general population — are so wary of describing plastic surgery in those terms? Are we just skittish about everything having to do with race, or is there something more going on there?
I think there’s a lot of, what can we call it? There’s an element of shame, there’s an element of sensitivity, or not wanting to think through the larger implications of what you’re doing, because plastic surgery is always presented as an individual choice, having to do with what you as an individual want. It’s personal perfectability. But as a social phenomenon, it has to do with people wanting to look more like certain archetypes of what they think is desireable. And in the case of rhinoplasty and the nose job — which is the most kind of obviously ethnic or racial reassignment -– and there are critics who have written about this much more, including Gillman, it has to do with the whole question of Jewish assimilation into American culture and, before that, European culture. And in that case, it has to do with fundamental questions about, what does it mean to be Jewish? And what elements of the culture should get preserved, or do get preserved, and what elements of the culture, what elements of the physical Jewish body are desirable or not desirable?
Can you tell me more about these friends you remember from Baltimore? You say they were white kids who wanted to be black. What do you think was driving that? Do you think they understand the implications of what they wanted? Was there just something teenage and, as you said earlier, fetishizing-another-cool-culture about it? Do you think they’d still feel that way today?
I’m not sure that there was any misunderstanding at all. This is something, since the book has come out, I’ve talked to a lot of people who have said “I felt the same way.” I was talking to a reporter, a white kid who grew up in Detroit, who said a white friend of his who went to an all-black elementary school believed that he was black until the third grade. I lived, in high school, in Baltimore, and had friends who went to schools in the city and the suburbs, but anyone who spent a lot of time in Baltimore, obviously a majority black city, and felt any sense of participation in the life of the culture, which is largely African-american culture, and a sense of participation in the world of hip hop, to say that it was a matter of coolness or that it was about some kind of fandom or some sense of an affinity for black culture, that’s not quite speaking to the issue, I think. There’s an element within white self-awareness, for some people, white subjectivity, that really tries to find an escape or an outlet into something else. I would say it’s a combination of guilt, of feeling a lack of any sense of what normative white identity means, and just a sense of affinity for things that are going on in your environment that seem the most important. There’s obviously an element of wanting to have a sense of union, of oneness, with the oppressed, to deny one’s role as the oppressor, to vanish into the oppressed. If you’ve witnessed that kind of subjectivity close up, and I would say I have experienced it myself.
“With Do The Right Thing came Public Enemy. After Public Enemy came N.W.A., Niggaz With Attitude… In the early Nineties, hip-hop was everywhere but invisible–still controversial, still not quite accepted even as music, still hardly on the radio, and therefore an indispensable part of a teenager’s education.” – Your Face In Mine
Why does Martin choose Kelly, our narrator, as the person to entrust with this story? Did one of those characters come to you faster than the other?
The two characters were sort of born together. And Kelly, in some ways, is the less interesting of the two—how could he not be? He’s the subjective center of the book, he’s the emotional core. His story is the story we know we believe. So I had to come up with a scenario that sounded — again, as we were saying, you want this element of plausibility and then a leap of faith as well. So Kelly works in public radio, he has contacts in the media. And Martin, who doesn’t really have any savvy in that world at all, thinks, “I know this person who is connected to media types, he must be able to do this thing for me.” So it’s this question of two people coming together at the right time. Martin is sort of desperate enough and also, in some ways, manipulative enough, and enough of a game player, that he sees in Kelly somebody who probably has the skills that he needs, but more importantly, someone that he can manipulate. And then there’s just the history they have together, which makes Martin feel that Kelly is going to be in it for the long haul.
As a journalist, this was the part that made me want to say, out loud to the book, “There is no way some guy at a low-level NPR affiliate has the ‘media contacts’ to get a huge feature story in The New Yorker.” Of all the implausible things, that could be the most implausible of them all!
You’re not the only person to say that. It’s one of the things about civilians, outside of the media world. They can be hoodwinked into thinking things that don’t make sense.
How have readers reacted to your premise so far? The whole idea of racial reassignment surgery, are people game to go with this narrative, or are they disturbed by it?
Many people do find the idea very unnerving. And Kelly himself finds it very unnerving. At one point, late in the book, when he’s entered the stage of doing the procedure himself, he says there’s something like autoerotic – it’s sort of like incest, almost. There’s something uncanny and almost, very deeply disturbing and transgressive about it, about being able to refigure and remold oneself in this way. But as you say, and Martin’s feeling about this, is other elements of American black culture are global lingua franca –- graffiti, hip hop, hip hop dance, style, fashion –- those things have enormous cache all around the world, and if you travel around the world you see that everywhere you go. So Martin’s response to that is, what about blackness itself? How can we turn blackness itself into a commodity, a brand? He sees it from a global perspective.
What parts of the book were hardest for you to write? Were you unnerved by the surgery as you were writing about it?
The sections that I was just describing, where Kelly is contemplating the surgery himself, were probably the creepiest parts to write. Because I’d spent so much time with him as a character, it was like imagining going through it myself. Also in Chapter 7, the early section where Kelly is doing this kind of confession of his own life as an American, and his own troubled conscience about black people, that was tricky to write because it’s the most autobiographical section of the book. That had a lot of elements of my own desire for confession, and I wanted to complicate the idea of confession. So that was painful.
Do readers of different races have different reactions to the book? Are some more receptive than others?
It’s really been mixed. And I definitely would never predict anyone’s response from their background. That’s really been my experience with the book. As with any book, people bring their experience and their story to it, and sometimes people bring the pain and anger that they have in their lives, and the response to the book is inflected with the pain and anger of their own experience, and look, that’s totally fine. The book is full of different voices, it’s full of dialogue. It’s about dialogue, and dialogue is not supposed to be ‘yay! everyone is happy!’ Dialogue is supposed to be an exchange, and sometimes exchanges are painful and cutting and can reveal things you didn’t anticipate.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.