Review of White Flights: Race Fiction, and the American Imagination, by Jess Row: Part of the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2019 year in books:

Cultural appropriation, diversity, representation: These concerns dominate today’s literary conversations, for good reason. According to the 2019 Publishers Weekly survey, the publishing industry is 84 percent white. So, how do we go deep with these conversations, and stay connected, in this age of Twitter-conditioned reactivity?

Within an atmosphere of tension, justified anger and “cancel culture,” I found myself transfixed by Jess Row’s “White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination.” Calling whiteness a category “both laughable and lethal,” Row undertakes a writer’s “white autoethnography,” tracing “how I learned, without consciously learning it, to represent whiteness and identify with whiteness, while at the same time believing I was practicing something called ‘imaginative freedom.’ ”

Row puts forward an idea of “reparative writing,” but just as crucially, he models a manner of open-eyed discussion, in essays that are humble, vulnerable and intellectually rigorous. Boldly but never accusingly, he examines how writers from Annie Dillard to Richard Ford have fled from the complexities of race in their work, and how writers ranging from Ben Lerner to Gina Berriault might model a way out of this avoidance. Influenced by Row’s practice of Zen Buddhism, ultimately “White Flights” is about cutting through delusions. To be “impolitic” in these political times, Row proposes, may be the answer: “The impolitic happens when power relationships are exposed as they really are.”

— Rachel Howard, author and Chronicle contributor

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