"The Face: A Timecode," by Ruth Ozeki. "The Face: Cartography of the Void," by Chris Abani. "The Face: Strangers on a Pier," by Tash Aw. With these three short, pocket-size titles, Restless Books is launching a series: The Face.
It's a jazzy concept: Give hugely talented writers the same basic notes (their own faces), turn them loose and watch them riff seemingly endless melodic variations on the theme.
The prompt is diabolically clever. We all fell in love with faces when we were newborns and spend much of our time thereafter attempting to read the mind's construction in a face: Does she love me? Is he lying? What has she suffered? And, of course, who am I?
Like most people, I suppose, all three writers have ambivalent feelings about their faces; unlike most people, they use these feelings as a springboard into deep, intricate, often funny, and genuinely moving meditations on family, ancestry, race, ethnicity, culture, aging, past, present and future. Ruth Ozeki, a Zen Buddhist priest, sets herself the task of staring at her face in a mirror for three full, uninterrupted hours; her ruminations ripple out from personal and familial memories to wise and honest meditations on families and aging, race and the body.
Chris Abani describes his face as "a mixture of two races, of two cultures, of two lineages" (he was born in Nigeria to an Igbo father and English mother), writing with humor, anguish and acceptance about ancestry and family and "wearing" his father's face. Tash Aw, too, focuses on ancestry and family, on the tension and irreparable ruptures that occurred through the rapid transformations of East Asia in the 20th century.
If Restless Books can sustain this level of quality throughout the series — I loved all three — I'm in for the long haul.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.