LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Next we have a new book which is getting a great deal of attention. It's called "Your Face In Mine." And it is at least partly about a man who changes his race from white to black. "Your Face In Mine" assumes a reality where something called racial reassignment surgery is possible. Jess Row has won awards for his short stories. He's published two collections, but this is his first novel. He joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome to our program.
JESS ROW: Thank you for having me.
WERTHEIMER: We meet a man whose name is Kelly Thorndike walking across a Baltimore parking lot - this is the very beginning of the book - when he sees someone he thinks he knows. They are, or they were, high school friends. But Martin has somehow become black. You could explain how.
ROW: He has a kind of a revelation experience that he is a black man inside. And once he's had that experience, he does research and he finds a surgeon in Thailand who offers something called racial reassignment surgery which is a secret. But he's able to track this person down. And the surgeon transforms him into a person who appears in every way to be an African-American man.
WERTHEIMER: Let me ask you why you wanted to write a book. I mean, where did the idea come from to write a book about a man who wanted to change his race?
ROW: The way this book came about was very strange. I stumbled on a book in a used bookstore called "Creating Beauty To Cure The Soul." And it's a history of the origins of plastic surgery in the West. And it came to me just while I was leafing through the book. What if there was a procedure that went way beyond these sorts of relatively small modifications and was a kind of racial reassignment surgery like gender reassignment surgery where a person, believing that they were of a different race inside, could be completely transformed?
WERTHEIMER: You wrote in an essay in Guernica magazine, which was published this week, that American fiction and poetry remain relentlessly segregated spaces. Could you explain that and explain how that relates to this book?
ROW: I think that when we're talking about American literary fiction, there really is a divide between a very broad multicultural group of writers who almost always are assumed to be writing autobiographical and representing their culture as well as themselves. And then on the other hand you have a great deal of white novelists who are assumed to be representing the art form of the novel. And there is a real critical bifurcation. There really is a kind of very relentless segregation. And writers of color are given certain messages - explicit or implicit - about what they're allowed to write about or what will be successful if they write about it. And white writers are given another set of implicit and, sometimes, explicit messages. I was given the explicit message in the early stages of this book that I shouldn't write it.
WERTHEIMER: Because you're white.
WERTHEIMER: Did you think that somehow by writing this book you could sort of crash into that set of rules and knock some of them around?
ROW: That's exactly what I intended to do. And that's what I hope I've done. And when you crash into that set of rules, people get uncomfortable. And a number of the reviews of this book have said, you know, this book made me very uncomfortable. This was a difficult book. This is a book you have to read more than once. I wanted to create a book that really challenges our preconceptions - even preconceptions we didn't necessarily know we had - about who gets the write what and who gets to tell what story.
WERTHEIMER: I read that you very much admire the writer James Baldwin.
WERTHEIMER: Especially his novel "Another Country."
WERTHEIMER: Did that suggest - do you think - this novel to you?
ROW: It absolutely did because when I was introduced to Baldwin's works in my early 20s, I had never encountered a black writer who spoke so directly to white Americans in interviews, in his essays but also in his fiction and who tried to capture the hardest realities of interracial life that is the life shared by black and white people when they are linked by friendship or love or violence or circumstances. When I read "Another Country" when I was in my early 20s, you know, as soon as I put the book down, my first thought was I will never be able to write a book like this. And my second thought was I really want to try writing a book like this for the 21st century.
WERTHEIMER: Now one of the things that I wanted to ask you about is, you know, it is difficult to get away from the big idea of the book - that Martin wants to change his race. But the book is fascinating in many ways. It's fascinating because of the very personal stories, the intense level at which you go into the biography of these people. But because their stories - however interesting and compelling they may be - you know, we're all talking about the big idea. I mean, I think your idea sort of hijacked your novel is what I'm saying.
ROW: (Laughing) There's always that danger when you're writing a piece that is taking a concept that is outside of the world we live in. That was the risk that I took, and I have to tell you, I'm comfortable with that risk because a lot of my fiction deals with life lived on the individual level. And that's very important to me. And in some sense, that's the wellspring for a lot of the stories that we want to tell.
But there seems to be this assumption in American fiction which makes American fiction virtually unique in the world that somehow we're not permitted to talk about ideas. The fiction is supposed to be driven by the personal and intimate to the exclusion of political, social, socioeconomic questions. And to me, my feeling about that is the way that intelligent people live their lives is not exclusively in one realm or the other but in passing between those realms. And so that's the kind of book that I wanted to write.
WERTHEIMER: Jess Row's book is called "Your Face In Mine." Thank you very much for this.
ROW: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.