By Samuel Oluwatobi Olatunji
There have been much ado about my face. Quite a number of people think I look like Igbo. Some say I look Hausa if they heard I was born in the north. Someone once said I look like a Calabar boy, although I think it is mainly because of my height. Another said I look like someone from Ghana. All these result from just seeing my face, and sometimes hearing my voice. A lot of people are shocked when I tell them my surname because they believe that I don’t look like a Yoruba boy. This to me is the ambiguity of the face from a personal experience. When I heard that someone wrote a book that is a long essay on his face, I just had to get and read that book; my personal experience stirred the curiosity in me. The book turned out to be none other than Chris Abani’s The Face: Cartography of the Void. This is not the first of Abani’s books I would be reading. I had read his novel, Graceland, and I know him to be a very fine writer.
His fine writing is also reflected in The Face: Cartography of the Void. This book portrays the face to be not just a hub of history but also an archive of ambiguous identities. In the words of Abani, “Most of the confusion about who I am is a product of how my face is read. Thus it is perceived to be where it is thought to belong. And how it is supposed to look.” The whole book is considered an extensive essay with subheadings. Abani begins by orienting the reader on the concern of the book: “This essay is not just an exploration of my physical face; it is about the face we all identify with. It is about more than just what flesh covers bone structure. It is about reflection too. What we see or want to see in the mirror.” This provides insight into the intellectual embodiment of this book.
Abani then begins a historical journey of self-identity. We find him to be a child of miscegenation. Thus, his face becomes “a mix of two races, of two cultures, of two lineages.” This realization of his ancestral identity becomes a foreground for him to delve into the intrinsic genealogy of his English origin from his mother’s blood as well as his Afikpo origin from his father’s blood. Although he presents a brief history of the English people (“a mix of Celt and Anglo Saxons”), he afterwards focuses on his father’s lineage, which he claims he “know[s] for sure. The Egu and Ehugbo.”To a great extent, this book, using the synecdoche of the face, is a recount of his experience of and his relationship with his father, his father’s culture/lineage and his father’s people. Traces of paternal and social bully are also evident in the book.
Affirming the ambiguity that the face is likely to exude, Abani writes “I was often confused for being Lebanese Indian, Arab, or Fulani. But not in England or America. In these places I am firmly black, of unknown origin.” This expression further asserts that the veil of racism blurs away this multiplicity of identity meanings into nothing but black. He further writes that “No one accepts my Nigerianness, not without argument. In fact, the two things I have been rarely taken for – Nigerian and white – are the very things that form my DNA.” This may be considered as the irony of his identity: nobody imagined him to be who he truly is.
Aside the prosaic narration, there is the use of recurrent playlet dialogue, which serves the function of comic relief in the book. There is also a sprinkling of Igbo proverbs as well as Yoruba proverbs. The use of traditional rituals can also be seen in the narration. All these add to the aesthetic value of the book. The book ends with Abani accepting, after acknowledging, his history and identity. He accepts his face as a place of comfort, which is welcoming to everyone.