I read this book a while ago, but I’ve been feeling slumpy on and off lately, which is why I’m just now posting this reflection on it. It was a good read, but I think I read it at the wrong time. You know how it is to read a book, even a very short one, when you’re feeling slumpy: The mood makes it seem as if you’re taking FOREVER to finish it.
Nonfiction — memoir
A profound and gorgeously wrought short memoir by acclaimed Nigerian-born author and poet Chris Abani that explores his personal history and complex sense of identity through a meditation on the face.
In The Face: Cartography of the Void, acclaimed poet, novelist, and screenwriter Chris Abani has given us a brief memoir that is, in the best tradition of the genre, also an exploration of the very nature of identity. Abani meditates on his own face, beginning with his early childhood that was immersed in the Igbo culture of West Africa. The Face is a lush work of art that teems with original and profound insights into the role of race, culture, and language in fashioning our sense of self. Abani’s writing is poetic, filled with stories, jokes, and reflections that draw readers into his fold; he invites them to explore their own “faces” and the experiences that have shaped them.
As Abani so lovingly puts it, this extended essay contemplates “all the people who have touched my face, slapped it, punched it, kissed it, washed it, shaved it. All of that human contact must leave some trace, some of the need and anger that motivated that touch. This face is softened by it all. Made supple by all the wonder it has beheld, all the kindness, all the generosity of life. The Face is a gift to be read, re-read, shared, and treasured, from an author at the height of his artistic powers. Abani directs his gaze both inward and out toward the world around him, creating a self-portrait in which readers will also see their own faces reflected. (Goodreads)
As soon as I completed this short book (just 89 or so pages), I knew it was one I’ll need to reread. I read this during my summer reading slump, which was a bad decision because I didn’t retain much of what I read. The mood was all-consuming and even this short, interesting read couldn’t pull me out of it.
Chris Abani’s Cartography of the Void is part of the Face series, three short books (so far) by different authors about their faces and identity. I read Ruth Ozeki’s A Time Code, which is part of the series, a while back and loved it because of the structure she uses for the book. Chris Abani’s was just as fascinating, but, unfortunately, the mood I was in didn’t allow me to fully appreciate it.
In Cartography of the Void, Abani tells us about his background — his mother was a White Englishwoman and his father was Igbo — and how his mixed-race background causes people to read a variety of identities in his face wherever he goes — except the U.S., where a glance at his skin firmly identifies him as “black, of unknown origin.”
“To wear the face of someone you can’t help loving as you can’t help hating them, is to be caught in an infernal struggle for your own soul.”
Abani also tells us about Afikpo culture, like how important sons are in it — so important that if a rich man doesn’t have a son, he will borrow one as a surrogate and pay for his initiation into manhood, thereby advancing his own status as well as a man who birthed a warrior. Abani is his father’s fourth son, but their relationship has always been contentious since Abani always goes his own way. Even so, Abani acknowledges that his father was a complex man and despite how different they are, they share some similarities — and a face.
As I keep saying, this is a short but very interesting read, and I’ve learned a good bit from it, especially about Afikpo culture. I think my favorite part is when Abani tells us that in Afikpo culture the face is considered a stage upon which the consciousness behind it performs. I like that:
“The face and its value lay in its ability to reference and perform, which is to manifest the true nature or character behind it.”
A short, thought-provoking read about race and identity and how people interpret both from our faces. I highly recommend it.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
I think it’s worth collecting all three books. I only have two, so I need to get Tash Aw’s Strangers on the Pier.
Quotes from the book
“…our identity is as much about the dead as it is about the living.”