The Face: A Time Code
Restless Books, 2016
The Face: Strangers on a Pier
Restless Books, 2016
The Face: Cartography of a Void
Restless Books, 2016
There are two kinds of essayist: the explorer and the explainer.
The explorer makes a story out of the mess of their own search for the truth. They may reach conclusions, sure, but if they do, those conclusions are of a tentative and an experimental variety: they walk unsteadily on the ice.
Explainers, meanwhile, arrive with conclusions in-hand. They’ve had a look through the data, crossed-out the tricky parts, tricked out the dull parts, skipped over the bits that don’t fit. If they tell stories those stories will be illustrative, built-to-order.
The explorer is talking with you, puzzling things out over coffee. The explainer is issuing a report to the board.
Two of the three premiere entrants in Restless Books’ new series of short memoirs The Face — a line of individually-published essays about a given writer’s relationship to their own face, family, and culture — fall decidedly into the former camp: Ruth Ozeki and Chris Abani are explorers. Tash Aw, meanwhile, explains.
The trick about explorers and explainers, is that one may appear dressed in the clothes of the other, briefly throwing us off our guard. J. M. Coetzee seems at first glance to be an explainer, but soon admits to feeling just as lost in the world as his reader. Daniel Mendelsohn, meanwhile, often wants to persuade us that he’s still in process of settling his mind; but do not be deceived.
“I am in a Taxi in Bangkok,” Tash Aw begins his entry in The Face series, Strangers on a Pier, followed in a few lines by “I am in Nepal,” and “I am boarding a Cathay Pacific flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong.” It’s a deliberate trope, and not a bad one. He’s setting up stories about the way the neutral features of his face tend to be taken for native in East Asia. He behaves, too, as the locals behave, begins to speak in their accents. “East of India,” he writes, “my identity becomes malleable, molding itself to fit in with the people around me.”
This ability to chameleon one’s personality speaks to an inchoate sense of self, one that was prevented from forming its own sharp edges. Aw explains how such a self came to be formed — or, rather, not formed — via the story of his own prehistory.
Both of Aw’s grandparents emigrated from South China sometime in the 1920s; both eventually found themselves in Malaya; both worked as hard as you can work to blend in and survive.
Historical research takes the place of introspection in Aw’s often interesting book, and the story of his clan becomes, quite consciously, the story of a generation, and then of several generations, and then — ambitiously – a definition of the Chinese mind. “For most people unfamiliar with China and its culture,” he tells us, “the dominant assumption is that of homogeneity.” The Chinese government promotes this idea, but it does not represent Chinese reality:
But when you get down to the detail, once you get past the pleasantries and start talking about yourself, all Chinese people want to know is where you’re from, how you’re different from them.
Aw’s capacity to speak sweepingly of, and for, all Chinese (the above is just one of a score of instances) is substantiated by our faith in his expertise. The introductory trope — naming places distant from one another in East Asia and then briefly summing up their respective weltanschauungen — is frequently repeated throughout the short text: “Whenever I’m in China …” “I’ve been to Hong Kong three times in the last year, and each time …” “At a literary festival in Tokyo last year I realized …”
The reader is put in mind of a Thomas Friedman or Malcolm Gladwell: a thoughtful man in a business suit makes notes on a plane, a man whose busy audience appreciates their facts pre-chewed. Trust him: this is what he does. Aw’s audience is happy to accept the idea that the specific does not poetically suggest the general so much as directly model it. It goes down like fresh juice: sugary, not entirely good for you, but not entirely bad for you either; there are vitamins in there.
Like Aw, Ruth Ozeki tries on masks in A Time Code; unlike Aw, she reports not only about the mask but about what’s behind it, finding not a pattern, but a person:
When I was young, my half-Japanese face signified a self that was at odds with who I felt myself to be. My face was a surface onto which people, especially men, projected their ideas of race and sexuality, Asian-ness and femininity, ideas that had little or nothing to do with me. I grew up wearing a mask on my face that I didn’t know was there, but over the years. Of course, the mask shaped me.
Her face, over time, has aged into a new sort of mask, one festooned with “lines and scars and creases.” When she sits before the mirror, “I don’t quite recognize myself in my reflection anymore,” and so she experiences her face at a remove. She points no finger at us, but we nonetheless recognize ourselves in her bewilderment. As Scott Fitzgerald put it, “Begin with an individual, and before you know it you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find you have created — nothing.”
Could we posit that the cover of a book is a sort of mask for its contents? In any case, these first entrants from the series suggest such a metaphor by printing simple, quasi-Warholian portraits of each writer on their covers. (They are a bit shorter than a mass-market paperback and a bit wider). The books themselves can be read in a sitting, but Ruth Ozeki’s and Chris Abani’s little volumes deserve to be carried around for a few days and read more than once, and in various orders. These are masks we’re invited to try on ourselves.
In Ozeki’s case, her name itself is a mask. Born Ruth Lounsbury to a well-known anthropologist at Yale, Ozeki began using a pseudonym (a mask that has become her face to the world) when she asked her father whether publishing her first novel under her given name would cause him any embarrassment. Not him, he apologized, perhaps disingenuously, but maybe his sister …
“Name is face to all the world,” Ozeki’s mother once told her, and so her daughter chose a name that belonged to neither parent: “Ozeki is my face, the face I chose, a nominal face that keeps them safe from me, and me safe from them.” She was embarrassed for her father’s bashfulness but she loved him. Like the rest of us, Ozeki sees her parents looking back at her in the mirror more and more as she ages. And, like the rest of us, she knows them a little better the more the mirror shows them (even if we were adopted we know our birth parents a little — how could we avoid it?).
At over a hundred (small) pages, Ozeki’s essay is the longest of the three inaugural issues in the series. It’s structured as a gathering of reflections on various faces (like those on the masks in Noh theater, which she studied in Japan, or on the surgically preserved eyes and lips of famous actresses) occasioned by reflections on her own face in the mirror. She chronicles this time spent face-gazing, significant if only for its duration: she sat staring at herself for three straight hours. The experiment is inspired by an essay of Jennifer L. Roberts’ about “the pedagogical benefits of immersive attention.” Apart from one small break for coffee, Ozeki immerses herself in the glass, then breaks it into pieces for us.
Chris Abani also fragments his exploration in his volume Biography of the Void, though not via the use of so convenient a device. His own investigations can at first glance (and at second) seem a little scattershot.
Fragments of his own biography appear alongside his brothers’ bad jokes, ruminations on Igbo scarification (ichi), visits to an aboriginal museum in New Zealand, Yoruba philosophies of beauty, and several numbered lists: Abani includes among these lists a series of statements about his father that are true (“My father often beat my mother. Often. I still carry the guilt of my helplessness.”), lists of things that may or may not be true (“I have forgiven myself for being a bad son, for being his son.”), lists of things that he hopes may come true in time to come (“That I can overcome my DNA”).
A great deal of nonsense is spoken by slapdash writers about “the reader collaborating to shape the narrative,” but in the case of Abani’s little book, the injunction is not only necessary but important. Might his short and lexically dense pages on scarification be a metaphor for his own hard rearing? Or his father’s? Or for the Nigeria (and Biafra) where both grew up? Or the regional capital of Afikpo? All of them? None?
“My dead father and I look alike. I wear his face,” Abani tells us. Family remark on it. He’s nicknamed ogbonnaya by his aunts, an Igbo phrase meaning either a close friend or resemblance of his father:
… but it can also refer to a male friend who is specifically within one’s own age grade, making them part of the same expression of time as you, bound by a communal obligation that lasted for life … [it] could imply that you were in fact your father’s clone, you were his favorite son …
From Abani’s perspective, this is laughable. He was a fourth son, an accident, and may have been suspected by his father to have been the product of an affair (that he was the old man’s spitting image made no difference).
Abani presents us with evidence that his father may, anyway, have loved him, after a fashion, and part of the meaning the reader must construct here is the organizing and the weighing of that evidence. Were his father’s beatings proof of that love, “a stunning blow that might protect you from finding blows later in life that might kill you?” Or might this all be a sort of wishful thinking? And who are we to say?
“Who doesn’t yearn for their father to love them?” Abani asks, “and who doesn’t decide how or when they should be loved and what the proof is? But in the end, who can control it?”
Because Abani’s approaches are so varied, readers of Biography of the Void may at times feel at a loss about who is where and when. Abani’s hometown was involved in a vast civil war that began the year after he was born. Depending on who you ask, it might be referred to as a war of independence or of revolt, the liberation and reconquest of Igbo-speaking Biafra from control by the Western-Backed Hausa to the North. There’s no way this conflict failed to be formative for Abani, and yet he barely mentions it. Where were his father’s loyalties? Was it something they fought over later, or merely wordlessly agreed upon? We don’t know. Perhaps we’re expected to be familiar with the author’s larger body of work, where he does discuss the Biafra war, but non-African readers could have used a gloss here too.
“And maybe here’s a bit of an insight,” Ozeki writes in A Time Code:
My face is and isn’t me. It’s a nice face. It has lots of people in it. My parents, my grandparents, and their grandparents, all the way back through time and countless generations to my earliest ancestors—all those iterations are here in my face, along with the people who’ve ever looked at me.
Who hasn’t had occasion to see some of those people — or to be them — and so hate our own face in the mirror? Who hasn’t mugged and posed to the point of laughter? Who hasn’t been curious enough to sneak a look at their own face when crying?
Does our face determine our destiny, or do we evolve the faces we deserve? Does one cause the other? We all wear the answers. We can’t say what they are.
John Cotter is Executive Editor at Open Letters Monthly and author of the novel Under the Small Lights.