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Meet an Author: Jess Row, three-time anthologized in Best American Short Stories

Jess Row, author, "Your Face in Mine" (Riverhead, 2014)

Jess Row is the author of two short story collections — The Train to Lo Wu andNobody Ever Gets Lost — and the novel Your Face in Mine. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tin House, Ploughshares, Granta,American Short Fiction, Harvard Review, etc., have been anthologized three times inThe Best American Short Stories, and have won two Pushcart Prizes and a PEN/O. Henry Award, among other prizes. In 2007 he was named a “Best Young American Novelist” by Granta. He is currently teaching at The College of New Jersey and is a faculty member of the MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong.

Book available at The Bookworm:

Your Face in Mine (2014)

Events at The Bookworm Beijing:

Saturday, March 12, 6 pm: Your Face in Mine, moderated by Uchechi Kalu

Sunday, March 13, 2 pm: Brevity is the Soul, with Jon Bilbao, Robert Drewe; moderated by Bradford Philen

Your Face in Mine

Your Face in Mine Epigraph:



Words are soon exhausted

Hold fast to the center of all things.

— Tao Te Ching, V

Opening of Your Face in Mine:

It doesn’t seem possible, even now, that it could begin the way it begins, in the blank light of a Sunday afternoon in February, crossing the parking lot at the Mondawmin Mall on the way to Lee’s Asian Grocery, my jacket in my hand, because it’s warm, the sudden, bleary, half-withheld breath of spring one gets in late winter in Baltimore, and a black man comes from the opposite direction, alone, my age or younger, still bundled in a black lambswool coat with the hood up, and as he draws nearer I feel an unmistakable shock of recognition.

Says Uchechi Kalu, moderator for Jess Row’s March 12 book talk:

First and foremost, Jess’s writing is beautiful. When I’m reading, the pages seem to turn themselves. 10 pages become 30, become 75, become 100 all in one sitting. Especially when reading a book as challenging this, the elegance of his prose helps to breathe life into the novel.

Your Face in Mine digs deep into uneasy questions on race: Can race be as fluid as, say, sexuality? Or is it an essence that you’re born with, like gender? Should it be a product, to be bought and sold and commoditized? Like a good work of philosophy, the book makes you ask yourself questions that you might have never thought of. But like a good novel, it keeps the pages turning until suddenly the whirlwind is over and you’re left wondering how exactly to recover.



The novel’s setup is, in itself, a direct narrative provocation, a willfully grotesque premise that is both openly confrontational and yet strangely resistant to straightforward interpretation. Kelly Thorndike has moved back from Massachusetts to his hometown of Baltimore, still grieving the recent loss of his Chinese wife and their daughter in a car accident. On the novel’s opening page, he is walking back from the grocery store when he crosses paths with a black man he has never seen before, and yet who strikes him as unaccountably familiar. “I’m looking into the face of a black man,” he tells us, in the immediate present tense that is the novel’s dominant narrative mode, “and I’ll be utterly honest, unsurprisingly honest: I don’t know so many black men well enough that I would feel such a strong pull, such a decisive certainty. I know this guy, I’m thinking, yet I’m sure I’ve never seen this face before.” When the stranger addresses Kelly by name, he immediately realizes who it is that is standing in front of him. It’s Martin Lipkin, one of his closest friends from school—who was, the last time our narrator encountered him, 19, and Jewish, and unambiguously white.

The New York Times:

This novel more than fulfills the promise of [Jess Row’s first two books]. It puts him on another level as an artist.

In “Your Face in Mine,” he doesn’t shy away from the hard intellectual and moral questions his story raises, or from grainy philosophical dialogue, but he submerges these things in a narrative that burns with a steady flame. You turn the pages without being aware you are turning them.

The Los Angeles Times:

The key phrase of course is “choose not to remember” — a reminder of what we like to call free will. That’s the currency of modernity: “Erasing our histories,” Row puts it. “You could call that a kind of romance.” At the same time, it raises certain questions about whether history is personal or collective, a matter of our responsibility to others or our responsibility to ourselves.

“Your Face in Mine” is at its best — at its best? More like: flat-out brilliant — when it takes on these issues, which come up mainly as Kelly wrestles with himself. He is an astonishing character, tormented, compromised but self-aware enough to know it, cynical but without self-deceit.

Jess Row is an author participating at the 2016 Bookworm Literary Festival. To read about other participating authors, please see our Meet an Author series.

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