What’s in a Face?

According to Jewish tradition, before each of us was born, we were visited by an angel who taught us all that is known and all that will be known. We were wise, in utero. And then, in the very last ...

According to Jewish tradition, before each of us was born, we were visited by an angel who taught us all that is known and all that will be known. We were wise, in utero. And then, in the very last moments prior to birth, that same angel (known as Lailah, “night”), tapped us between the nose and upper lip, and all the wisdom was immediately forgotten. It disappeared, leaving behind as its only trace that small indentation known to anatomists as the philtrum, and to the rest of us only as absence.1

What are we to make of this mystical and mystifying story of loss? It suggests that as embryos we were powerless but also perfect, with a knowledge and mastery denied to mature humans. Once born, we spend our lives chasing that past perfection.

How cruel.

The three authors of The Face, each charged with writing a short text about his or her own face, offer another way of thinking about faces: as a way to tell the story of your own life and of the lives that came before you. The face is not, here, the trace of an irretrievable past, but an archive and map that allows us to explore our histories. To write about one’s face is to write about one’s past.

Ruth Ozeki, Chris Abani, and Tash Aw have each written very different meditations, using the face as a guiding principle for a short memoir. Each offers a glimpse—mediated, carefully framed, and artfully described—not at their faces (which are described but not pictured, and which I desperately wanted to Google but didn’t), but into their minds. That glimpse takes in not only their pasts but also how they imagine their pasts to be embodied, physically articulated, publicly visible. As Abani writes: “Lines on the outer face lead to what lies not just inside us, but also through a dream-time to our ancestral lineage, to our culture, to the very soul of our land and our people. These lines and the other physical oddities of the face mark the terrain of self and culture, of a community or even communities, at once obvious and yet simultaneously occluded.”

What kind of a map is the face, in each of these meditations? A broad one indeed, it turns out. Each of these writers takes a very different kind of journey, guided by their maps (as they would—faces are different). But what is most striking in this collection is not how different these stories are, but the ways in which they are same. They are all stories of the personal past and the ancestral past, explorations into race and difference, examinations of a family resemblance, discussions of fitting in everywhere and nowhere at all.

For each author, the story of the face is the story of familial history. This is by no means an obvious point: a meditation on the face could easily be the story of an individual’s recent past, or of individual experiences. But each of these writers has used the face as a kind of obscured or imperfect mirror reflecting the face of family members whom they resemble, particularly their fathers.

At first I found this curious. Why so much more attention to the father’s face than to the mother’s? Is it because our biological connection to our (biological) mothers is so much more visceral? For Ruth Ozeki, it is her (white) father’s face that is more hidden in her own than her (Japanese) mother’s, so the project is one of excavation. And she finds him less in her features and more in her behavior and his imagined reactions to it. She finds him in the ways she falls short: “Dad is looking out at me reproachfully again. He doesn’t like the turn things have taken. Doesn’t like me talking about assholes. He thinks it’s rude, not in good taste.” She uses an experiment, in which she looks in a mirror for three hours and mediates on her face, as a way to find her father and locate him in her past. Of all the writers, Ozeki spends the most time on the physicality of the face itself; her piece is also the longest. She’s also the only woman so far in this collection.2

As a woman, Ozeki might be particularly aware of the determinative power not just of the face as an abstract collection of features on a distinctively pigmented plane, but of the very specific implications of her very specific face. For Ozeki, the (literal, in this case) meditation on the face pivots between studying her features in the present and recalling moments in the past. Her face, as she says, “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 all the people who’ve ever looked at me.” The journey she takes us on, however, is entirely her. And her face proves a valuable guide, charting a path through her childhood as the only biracial child in town, through her travels to Japan, where she spent time sculpting faces as masks for Noh theatre, to her ordination as a Buddhist priest.

Ozeki’s face is a map, but it is also a metaphor—for being mixed, for being subject to time, for remaining aware of the past. It also teaches her how not to look at her face—and all that it represents—every day, the better to learn anew how to see it. Ozeki’s face helps her come to terms with aging and with being someone who doesn’t look like those around her. It offers her ways to understand what we really see when we look at our faces.

Chris Abani also sees his father when he looks at his face. And it’s a troubled reflection to encounter every day, a reminder of a troubled relationship with a troubled man. Abani’s face, he tells us, is almost a copy of his father’s, except that unlike his Nigerian father, Abani fits in everywhere and nowhere. Abani’s face reflects his mixed ancestry, his mother’s Celtic and Saxon and lots of other non-specific things, his father’s Egu and Ehugbo; the latter lineage defined Abani when he was growing up in Nigeria. His mixed face makes him a kind of universal outsider, both in Nigeria and throughout his world travels, always defined as anything but Nigerian:


In taxicabs in Nigeria, or buses, people would talk about me, referring to me as korawayo, a nickname for foreigners (particularly Lebanese) who exploited and cheated Nigerians. …


When I lived in East Los Angeles, a predominately Chicano/Latino neighborhood, I was assumed to be Dominican or Panamanian. In Miami … I am confused for a Cuban. In New Zealand I was assumed to be Maori. In Australia, Aborigine. In Egypt, Nubian. In Qatar, Pakistani. In South Africa, Zulu or some other group, depending on who was talking.


But in England or America, there is no such ambiguity: “In these places I am firmly black, of unknown origin.” Despite this certainty, however, it is in London that Abani belonged least, even among his own family. “When we were kids in London,” he notes, “my mother was often congratulated for adopting us.”

Abani’s narrative is the story of belonging utterly to someone and belonging nowhere at all, and finding within that tension a way forward. Abani sees his face as both the reflection of the lives that came before his and the lives that have grown together with his, and as the repository of every touch, every gift of warmth, every interaction, every experience of love. It is also Abani’s story of locating his own “comfortable face.” And though Abani ties his contribution up neatly at the end, he doesn’t let the readers off easy. His story is the hardest to piece together in a chronological sense, making it the most difficult to follow narratively; he reveals much, emotionally, but very little in the way of facts or details. In one way, we learn much more about him than the others, but in terms of facts and chronology, we learn much less.

For each author, the story of the face is the story of familial history.

Mixed. Moving. Fitting in and not fitting in. Fathers. These themes connect Ozeki and Abani, as they both consider the biological contributions to their faces and the journeys reflected therein. So too with Tash Aw—his face-story is the story of travel, of awkward assimilation, and then of no longer fitting in as his life story changed. Like Abani, Aw is a chameleon: “East of India, my identity becomes malleable, molding itself to fit in with the people around me.” Aw isn’t sure if he enables this universality, this invisibility, this homelessness: “Sometimes, I wonder if I aid this process unconsciously by adjusting my movements and behavior to blend in.” He both laments and celebrates this tendency, locating it obliquely in the immigrant perspective that he didn’t quite inherit (but did inhabit) from his grandparents, who moved from China to Malaysia.

Aw digs deep into the meaning of this move, the meaning of Chineseness in Malaysia, the meaning of inherited immigrant markings, and the meaning of leaving the immigrant perspective behind. He charts what it looks like to reprise history, to move for greater opportunity and more education, leaving behind those with less money and shedding the ancestral memory and choreography of poverty. In a particularly poignant moment, Aw describes his holiday visits to extended family who lived far away in a small town. As time passes, Aw increasingly finds himself unable to blend in, unable to shed the markers of the rich and educated city boy. He may be a chameleon, he may fit everywhere, but really, he belongs nowhere. He may have shed the memories of his immigrant grandparents, but not their condition: he will never fit in, not even with them. Aw leaves us with an image of incommensurability, of gulfs that cannot be bridged despite common blood, similar faces, lives lived together. Of his grandfather: “The impossibility of any convergence between our respective positions became clear in that brief moment. He was an immigrant. I was a grandchild of an immigrant. We would never see the world in the same way.”

Can anyone see the world in the same way as another? These three short books of personal nonfiction don’t answer that question, or even try to, but they give us a rare and precious glimpse into what might be the best approximation: a chance to understand how each of the authors views the world. By taking us on a tour of their faces, these writers offer us a peek into their minds. Which was perhaps inevitable: the face is not an exact index to the mind, but the way we understand our faces speaks volumes about how we understand those who made them, and how we understand ourselves. icon

Featured image: Dirty Kiss (2008). Photograph by Athenas Pix / Flickr