BOOKS: ‘The Face’ speaks of culture, identity and relationships

Saturday November 23 2019

'The Face: Cartography of the Void' by Chris Abani.

'The Face: Cartography of the Void' by Chris Abani. PHOTO | TEA 

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Nigerian-American author Chris Abani presents a different style of memoir in his book The Face: Cartography of the Void.

At just under 100 pages, the book seems to end when you have hardly begun. Using the study of his face as a kind of living map, Abani opens up about his childhood, culture, identity and a troubled relationship with his father.

Abani was born and raised in Nigeria, the fourth-born son of an Igbo father and British mother. His father was a violent man and an unfaithful husband, yet an upstanding citizen.

At the beginning of the book, Abani hints at its purpose, writing that this is a “way to honour love and truth without something getting lost in the translation”. It is not a chronological account, and the storyline moves between the present, past and historical events in a disorienting way.

The Face looks at the face value of identity. Being mixed race, Abani struggled with being viewed as different both in Nigeria and abroad.

At home he was mistaken for a foreigner and subjected to badmouthing by strangers. Being darker, chubby and kinky-haired he was often compared to his skinny, fair, straight-haired brother.


The study of the face is also an exploration of family lineage, especially of the Igbo culture of his father, and what traditionally defines a son, a man and status in society.

He makes comparisons with Western descriptions of the human being, such as the one-sided ideal of beauty versus the “complex concept in West Africa”.

The Face broadens our definition of identity, partly through reflections of Nigerian traditions that see the spirit and mind as equally important parts of an individual as their face.

Abani quoted a friend when he said, “the cause of all our trouble is the belief in an essential, pure identity: religious, ethnic, historical, and ideological”. He himself is multi-talented, being a novelist, poet, screenwriter, photographer and musician.

I found the the paternal recollections most heart-breaking, with the ghost of Abani senior hanging heavy throughout the book.

His father, whom he closely resembled, called him a disappointment and tried to beat the artistic leanings out of him. It was a love-hate relationship. Only separation, time and his father’s death brought some measure of reconciliation.