White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imaginationby Jess Row

This tough, serious essay collection considers whiteness in American fiction and culture, and the inextricableness of the two, with exhortations for change.

Jess Row (Your Face in Mine) takes on ambitious material with White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination. He points out a societal need for reparative writing, examining the role of imagination in real lives, both in “straight” fiction (novels, stories, films, plays) and, in a larger sense, “in which our collective life is a series of overlapping fictions, fantasies, dream states.” The first kind “reflects and sustains” the second, so that novels are never “just” novels, but rather serve to uphold institutions and ways of thinking that have consistently and systematically hurt nonwhite Americans. The title refers both to the real estate pattern of movement known as “white flight,” and also to flights of fancy, such as imagining that ignoring race and racism means they’ve gone away.

In seven essays, this book argues that imagination is as much part of the problem as real-world actions and prejudice. Its main concern is whiteness, in and out of fiction; when it examines specific marginalized groups, they tend to be African Americans and Native Americans. Row undertakes close readings of Marilynne Robinson, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Dillard, Richard Ford and more: these white writers may be among his own past literary heroes, but they nonetheless come under scrutiny for the whiteness, or sheer emptiness, of the spaces they create. On the other hand, he examines James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Chang-rae Lee, Colson Whitehead, Amiri Baraka and Ta-Nehisi Coates for the examples they offer of more inclusive fictional spaces. Row consults music and films, as well.

In challenging ways of writing–even, for white writers, the choice to write at all–Row is careful to acknowledge that, as a white man, he can merely ask questions and grope for progress, rather than offer a solution. He also mines personal material, including his childhood in the Black Hills of South Dakota, land that by treaty belongs to the Lakota and is illegally occupied by white people (like Row’s own family).

This intelligent collection is often deeply engaged in realms of philosophy and literary theory; it approaches an academic writing style. Its subject matter may be discomfiting for white readers and writers, and readers less familiar with Wittgenstein, Derrida or Edward T. Hall’s theory of proxemics will likely find this book challenging. There is something for every reader, however, in the message that fiction not only reflects but acts upon real life, and that each of us is obliged to act for justice, in reading and writing as in life.


This review originally ran in the July 2, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 references.

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