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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Jess Row explores race and identity

Jess Row signs a book for Rosie O’Brien ’16. Photo by Sydney Steinle
Jess Row signs a book for Rosie O’Brien ’16. Photo by Sydney Steinle

Last Wednesday, Nov. 5, author Jess Row read from his latest novel “Your Face in Mine” as part of the Writers@Grinnell series. Professor Dean Bakopoulos, English, introduced Row by telling the large number of students and faculty who turned up for the event, “A good writer is always asking, ‘What if?’”
Row’s latest novel does exactly this. “Your Face in Mine” follows a young white man who undergoes “racial reassignment surgery” in order to become black.
“This is a brave book, it is tough to take on race in a novel,” Bakopoulos told the crowd before Row took the stage.
Row read from the first two chapters of his book, narrating a scene where the protagonist Martin is at first unrecognizable to his childhood friend because Martin is now black due to his surgery. Row also read from a chapter midway through the novel, in which two characters discuss Obama, telling the crowd he chose to read this chapter because of Tuesday’s midterm election results.
When asked after his reading why he set the novel in Baltimore, Row explained that the novel could not have been set anywhere else, as it is based on the experiences he and his friends underwent growing up in the city.
“My friends were really wrapped up in hip-hop, to the extent it took over their personality,” Row said. “I had always wanted to write a book about these particular friends of mine, and this particular moment in our lives.”
When asked about his identity as a white person in writing a book that deals directly with race, Row acknowledged feeling uneasy writing about race in America.
“The whole book is my reservations about being white, I try to put those reservations on the page and make them self-evident,” Row said.
Row described how in all of his writing, “There is always an element of racialized awareness”—an awareness that he thinks much fiction in the United States lacks. He recounted taking the short story “The Swimmer” by John Cheever, where the only characters of color are the servants, and adding a “comma, a white person” after every proper name in the story.
“That is hundreds and hundreds of ‘Catherine, a white person,’” Row said with a laugh.
But his demeanor became serious when describing his motivation for rewriting “The Swimmer” in this way.
“What is the response when you take a normative, influential, canonical text, and superimpose in a very exaggerated way the whiteness of the characters? What does it do to your consciousness?”
Row pointed out that while the United States is “supposed to become less than 50 percent white around the middle of this century,” fiction still often either ignores the issue of race completely or makes racial conflict the central topic.
“If you describe a character and you don’t give them a racial identifier, they are assumed to be white,” Row said. “I am trying to write fiction where race is just another part of a character’s identity, but this is really difficult in an American context. We need to draw attention to how structures of privilege in America are reproduced in literature.”
Row recounted an unexpected reaction to his novel that came from his friends of color.
“I have not gotten negative responses, the level of praise and encouragement from black writers and friends of mine has been surprising. I have been taken aback by their enthusiasm.”
When asked if he felt that it was a writer’s obligation to send “a good message,” Row joked that if one wants to send a message they should send a telegram.
“Fiction is not about sending messages. Dealing with race in fiction doesn’t automatically mean you are sending a message,” he said.
A student asked a follow-up question about whether Row thinks it is a privilege to be able to write about race and not deem it political. After thinking for a moment, Row responded with a fervent nod, “the answer to your question is an absolute yes.”

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