HITTING SHELVES #8: Your Face in Mine by Jess Row

Your Face in Mine

Your Face in Mine by Jess Row comes out today!

It’s the story of Kelly Thorndike, a Baltimore native who bumps into an old friend on the streets. His friend used to be Jewish, but now, thanks to a near-impossible medical procedure, he has been transformed into an African American. Enlisted in the cause, Kelly becomes the doubting Boswell to his friend’s Dr. Johnson, charged with writing the official story of the world’s first “racial reassignment surgery.” But Kelly is distracted by his own issues: his Chinese wife and their young daughter died recently, and he still grieves for them, and for the culture he left behind as an expat in China. Kelly is faced with some big questions. Is race a personal choice? Should it be? Is that even possible?

Your Face in Mine is a searing account of race in America today. It might be the best book I have read all year. It’s certainly the most thought-provoking. Run to the store, buy it, read it, and watch the future unfold in its image.

We asked the author one question.

How are celebrating the publication of Your Face in Mine?

Jess Row: I’m going to launch Your Face in Mine at the wonderful Book Court in Brooklyn, and I’m hoping it will be a great time. But before I get there, I’m going to have what I hope will be a pretty ordinary day, starting with biking my son to his preschool summer camp on St. Mark’s Place and First Avenue. It took me almost a year of living in downtown Manhattan to build up the courage to buy a bicycle—let alone start biking with a small child in tow—and it now it’s my favorite thing about living in the city.

On the way to my son’s preschool we pass the New York City Marble Cemetery, one of the few surviving graveyards in lower Manhattan—a long stretch of grass behind a wrought-iron fence, studded with white monuments and plaques and obelisks, many worn down to nubs, their lettering long since faded away. There are actually two marble cemeteries, a block away from one another—only one is visible from the street. The non-visible one houses, among many other 19th century dignitaries, Charles Scribner, founder of the publishing house.

Jess Row

Jess Row

Much of the more recent history of downtown has been erased by gentrification—CBGB, which is only a block away, or the Five Spot, where Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy played much of their best music, which stood at the Bowery and 6th Street. But these cemeteries aren’t going anywhere. This may sound strange, but on the day my book is published, I’m going to be thinking about the capricious nature of memory, reputation and fame. There are no historical markers for Monk or Dolphy; even the sign for “Joey Ramone Place” that used to mark the site of CBGB is gone. But the grave of the merchant Preserved Fish remains. That was his real name.

People who create art for a living (or as a vocation, if not a living) make a weird pact with history. We all know that we have no control over how (or, more likely, if) our work will be remembered in five—ten—twenty-five—a hundred years. We all want to be remembered in a hundred years, but there’s no possible way, from our vantage point, to have a grip on the immediate future, let alone the remote future. We all know of writers who were hugely successful fifteen or twenty years ago and now are almost forgotten; or writers who worked in obscurity their whole careers and achieved great success late in life—or posthumously. Or, of course, never. It’s too painful to contemplate. So, it seems to me, we concentrate on tiny, incremental movements. I’m not just talking about writing itself (which is all about tiny, incremental movements) but the things we do to build our careers and reputations: giving readings, applying for fellowships, asking for blurbs, updating our websites. There’s all this necessary busy-ness in the life of a working artist. (I know writers who live in solar-powered shacks in the woods, use typewriters, answer email once a month at the library, only rarely make public appearances, and still complain about being too busy.) But whatever relationship we have with the publishing business or the literary world, we all know that fundamentally, in the long term, we have no control over what’s going to happen to us.

So on the day Your Face in Mine comes out I’m going to try to embrace the freedom of not knowing what’s going to happen. I’m also going to try to take a few minutes to work on my next book. In a famous letter to Agnes DeMille, Martha Graham once said that the artist’s job is “to keep the channel open.” So that’s it. Open.

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