Jess Row’s latest fiction hit makes debut

By Shannon Kelly
Staff Writer

A personal identity is what distinguishes us in our society and among our peers. In these modern times, however, people have more choices in constructing the aspects of identity that were originally conceived to be unchangeable foundations.

During a reading of his new book, “Your Face in Mine,” on Tuesday, Feb. 3, in the Library Auditorium, English professor and novelist Jess Row contemplated the age-old question of humanity, but with a twist — what does it mean to be human in an age where visible identity markers such as sex and race can be altered?

“Martin is like a Gatsby character who was always holding something in,” Row said of his main character, once a white man who undergoes a radical reassessment operation to become black.

The plot of the novel follows the narrator, Kelly Thorndike, who was asked to chronicle Martin’s life in a book and expose his racial reassignment to the world. Kelly, though a bit taken aback by his friend’s changes, undertakes the task and shadows Martin to get a sense of the effects of change in racial identity. Though viewed through Kelly’s eyes, Martin becomes his own best spokesman, fully embracing his race as his own choice, as a lifestyle meant to enhance the identity he always desired.

But don’t mistake this notion as becoming fodder for the next sci-fi hit. Racial reassessment is a modern global phenomenon, and Row did his research. In Thailand and Bangkok — which the characters of the novel also travel to — skin lightening procedures are a common operation, and Row had asked plastic surgeons there to validate his ideas.

“The impression I wanted to create is that this (racial reassessment) already exists and nobody knows about it,” Row said.

These experience are commonplace tin America, though many may not perceive it as such.

“Skin darkening is common in this country — a.k.a tanning,” he said

Written in a beautiful, sophisticated contemporary style, “Your Face in Mine” unabashedly considers the effects of racial identity and privilege, of what it means to be black and white. It questions what race even is, in pondering a future where identity is a consumer and aesthetic choice while nonetheless being contextualized in racial history. Martin describes this as living not necessarily in a post-racial world, but in a “post-race as an issue” world.

Row admitted to being apprehensive about the writing this book.

“I felt a lot of trepidation,” he said. “I know part of the premise would scare people, but I had to give up being scared and live with the consequences. The characters, the story, the narrative take over, and you just have to follow it to its logical conclusion.”

And the audience, largely comprised of Row’s colleagues, responded enthusiastically. Many have read or were in the midst of reading the novel and confessed to him of being hesitant upon starting it, but were keenly interested in how he underwent the process of crafting the novel. The idea came to Row seven years ago and, despite his agent at the time trying to dissuade him from pursuing it, Row wanted to write and explore the concept of what it truly means to be human with control, for better or worse, over our visible identity.