Jess Row’s debut novel, Your Face in Mine, stars Kelly Thorndike, a thirtysomething white Baltimorean. Not long ago he lost his Chinese wife and their young biracial daughter in a tragic car accident. Now he works in a thoughtless radio job and wanders through life in a depression-tinted haze. Until he runs into his high school best friend, Martin.
Martin used to be a scraggly Ashkenazi Jewish kid but is now somehow a business-minded Black man, all thanks to racial reassignment surgery. He hires Kelly to help write his biography and introduce the radical medical technique to the world. Martin’s version of truth and reality are as flexible as his definition of race. Both he and Kelly long to be part of something they aren’t, and as Kelly descends into the rabbit hole of twisty logic and misunderstood cause and effect, his role as biographer begins to take on the traits of a new recruit.
One of the reasons I raised my hand to cover Your Face in Mine is because of my own multiracial heritage. My mother is Black and Cherokee, and my father is white, meaning I’m fairly light skinned. I have spent most of my life in my almost exclusively white hometown, a place so overwhelmingly Caucasian that locals more often assume I’m a white girl with a tan and a great perm. Back in the 80s and 90s, most forms only let you choose one race option, and if you were more than one you had to choose “other.” For a while, I chose white simply because it was easiest and I hated being “other.” But I always felt closest to my Black heritage. All day, everyday, I was surrounded by white people, but my Black family brought the most psychological impact. I may have lighter skin, but consider myself Black.
In the book, Martin tells Kelly he felt African American his whole life, he just didn’t realize it until he was older. He cites a Black woman who influenced him at an impressionable age, feeling contradictory emotions during the LA riots, etc. Does that put Martin and I in the same boat? Absolutely not. Empathy isn’t the same as experience, and socio-cultural heritage provides that experience.
Being a Black American today means carrying with you the stories of your slave ancestors, of your parents and grandparents and great grandparents who suffered and died under Reconstruction and Jim Crow, who fled the repressive South for the oppressive North in the Great Migrations. True, I personally have it easier than many other African Americans. I benefitted from an abundance of opportunities (ones my single mother worked her ass off to provide me with), and deal with microaggressions rather than overt racism. But what makes us brothers and sisters is our shared past, present, and future. Blackness isn’t just skin color or cultural accouterments. It’s more than dark skin and curly hair and hip-hop and soul food. That’s what Martin fails to understand, and why Your Face in Mine is so compellingly discomfiting.
Martin and the other transitioners frequently assert that racial reassignment is the same as sex reassignment. They argue that they were born in the wrong race, and the surgery corrects a genetic mistake. But here’s where they’re wrong. Racial reassignment isn’t the next step after sex reassignment; it’s the next step from cultural appropriation. Martin doesn’t become an African American simply because he looks the part. He is an imposter and a thief. He stole a heritage that doesn’t belong to him. And that’s the key thing to remember about Your Face in Mine. It’s not a book about race, per se, but about the interpretation of race. It’s about what a person of one race thinks another race is about. All of the transitioners have morphed into racial groups they believe are more welcoming than their own, but their perceptions are—ahem—colored by their own interpretations and ethnic pop culture obsessions. The truth is a lie, and the lie is the truth.
Your Face in Mine is ostensibly sci-fi-ish, but the reality is people have been altering their appearances to look one race or another for years. Iron Eyes Cody (the crying Indian for all you 70s kids) was Sicilian. Ward Churchill put on a pair of sunglasses and pretended to be Native American to get a cushy academic job. Julie Chen famously got plastic surgery to look less Burmese Chinese. And Rita Hayworth literally electrocuted and bleached her body to stop looking Spanish. The questions posed by Your Face in Mine aren’t that futuristic. I don’t doubt that there are plastic surgeons out there taking steps to make this hypothetical a reality.
Row’s topic isn’t new, but he does posit some intriguing and difficult questions. He pushes the reader to think about race in a way most people don’t, to consider a different aspect of racial identity, to apply new theoreticals to old conceptions. If you could change your race, would you? Should you? Is it a moral imperative to attempt to become the race you always wanted to be? Immoral? Amoral?
Your Face in Mine is an uncomfortable book. This is no breezy beach read or epic dystopian sci-fi thriller. It’s ambitious in its query, but disinterested in coming to a conclusion or decision. It’s been nearly a week since I finished it, and I’m still poking at it. Structurally speaking, it meanders a lot, with side stories meant to influence the main arc but feel rather aimless by the end. The first half is all story and little plot, and the back half is all iffy, under supported plot twists. Row’s stylistic choice not to use quotation marks makes it hard to discern between conversations and internal monologues. There’s a lot of theory packed into not much story, more than the pretension can support. It wasn’t what I expected, and I’m still unsure if what it is is better or worse than what I thought it would be.
This is one of those novels that, as a librarian, I’d recommend with several caveats and only to certain readers. It isn’t a book that will appeal to a broad audience, and I suspect a fair number will probably abandon it a few chapters in. That’s not a criticism, mind. Your Face in Mine is intelligently written, and forces the reader to keep up with the story or fall behind. Not all fiction can or should have mass appeal. For every NCIS and Big Bang Theory, the world needs at least one The Leftovers. And, like The Leftovers, your mileage with Your Face in Mine may vary.
Your Face in Mine is available August 14th from Penguin.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.