Row’s first novel, Your Face in Mine , is about a white man who becomes black via “racial reassignment surgery.”
Where did you get the idea for the book?
I’d been writing about racial and ethnic difference, and I went to high school in Baltimore and was haunted by the racial stratification there. As a white teen I was very drawn to hip-hop culture, almost to the point of disappearing in it—there was a sense of having no sense of authenticity except this one that wasn’t mine. I kept coming back to the question of what would happen if that disappearance became permanent.
You’ve said you want to write fiction in which “there is friction and discomfort—specifically along racial, ethnic, cultural, [and] linguistic lines.” Why?
It’s a product of the world we live in, even for white people who are profoundly uneasy about talking about these questions. There’s a book about how to deal with race in the classroom called When Race Breaks Out, which makes race sound like the measles; there are lots of people who are afraid of what happens when the subject of race comes up. It’s destabilizing, embarrassing, and threatening, and they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.
Given that, what did it take to write the book?
I had to give myself a kind of permission, and in fact, other people had to give me permission. Someone I knew advised me not to work on it, saying, more or less, you don’t want all that trouble. But I had a new agent, Denise Shannon, and she read 20 pages and said this is what you should be working on. Her conviction was very persuasive.
The works mentioned in the acknowledgments [Cornel West’s The Gifts of Black Folk in the Age of Terrorism, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, among others] gave me the courage to try to do what I wanted to do, especially James Baldwin, who said that the pain of racism is as much a problem for whites as for blacks. This idea changed my life: it changed my perception of history in this country and of how people in my family behaved, and got me thinking about the desire for racial transformation as a desire to escape both the boundaries of acceptable white behavior and white guilt.
The book talks about “white dreamtime.” What is that?
White Americans’ ability to dissociate themselves from worrying about race, for years or decades. They can move to a place where there are no blacks, but it’s also a psychological state where they don’t see themselves occupying a certain racial position or identity. It’s a fantasy in which whiteness is transparent.
Is friction necessary to puncture that fantasy?
I think novels—or any art form—can have a powerful impact on people’s perceptions of race, particularly if they draw attention to the absurd inconsistencies and stereotypes we all carry around with us and don’t want to think about. We live in an age that’s very suspicious of preachy political rhetoric, which means that there’s room for art that approaches these issues from the side—as satire, as parody, or as a kind of outlandish speculative proposition. This is a great time to be producing art that makes people uncomfortable.