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Displaying 1 - 30 of 42 reviews
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,438 followers
January 13, 2016
The work of Chris Abani crosses national boundaries. He calls himself a “global Igbo,” referring to his lineage, and to the fact that he has so many foreign influences on his experience as a Nigerian. Brought up privileged in an educated middle-class household with a white British mother and an Oxford-educated Igbo father, Abani had access to western music, American novels, Bollywood films, Indian mysticism as a youth. He was a precocious fourth son, starting to write in his early teens.

His face, which he talks about in his memoir, The Face: Cartography of the Void, has a kind of universality so that people often mistake him for Lebanese, Arab, Indian, Dominican, Cuban, Hawaiian, or Maori. When his Korean manicurist in L.A. called his face “comfortable,” Abani writes
"Comfortable face. I liked it. Made me think of a well-worn armchair that I’d like to collapse into after a rough day. A face made for sitting in. Where one could sip a sweet spicy ginger tea and talk about love and books and karaoke. A face worn in by living, worn in by suffering, by pain, by loss, but also by laughter and joy and the gifts of love and friendship, of family, of travel, of generations of DNA blending to make a true mix of human. I think of all the stress and relief of razors scraping hair from my face. Of extreme weather. Of rain. Of sun. I think of 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.
Comfortable face."
It is not just the face of Chris Abani that is comfortable. He makes us comfortable about ourselves, about the world, about our fears and aspirations. Abani’s fiction reveals the insides of characters who are often different in some way, their very differentness expressing their underlying and universal humanity. We are all different from one another. It is our differentness that makes us the same.

At the same time, Abani makes us uncomfortable. In an essay for Witness magazine entitled, “Ethics and Narrative: the Human and Other,” he writes
"In making my art, and sometimes when I teach, I am like a crazed, spirit-filled, snake-handling, speaking-in-tongues, spell-casting, Babylon-chanting-down, new-age, evangelical preacher wildly kicking the crutches away from my characters, forcing them into their pain and potential transformation. Alas, or maybe not, I also kick the crutches away from my readers. And many have fled from the revival tents of my art, screaming in terror."

When we go to dark places in ourselves, Abani suggests, we can come back, better. “When you are at your worst, you can see yourself most clearly.” At your worst, you can see your choices most clearly, and choose goodness, compassion. This is a man who has seen the darkness in humans and who still [mostly] likes us, who can laugh, make jokes, love others deeply. We feel safe with him, and if he can’t save us when something bad happens, at least we shared something real with another for awhile. Abani writes fiction and poetry—how real and important can that be? Quite real enough to reveal both the dark heart and warm center that most humans harbor.
“Language actually makes the world in which we live.”
Language, and literature, at its best, can be transformative. We can create our world anew by what we say, what we think, what we read, what we write. But we therefore have an obligation to use words [and actions] that do not harsh the environment, but gentle it, that explain and improve the world.

Abani is a black man, but his writing has few markers for what passes for “black” in America. In a 2014 interview with Rumpus Magazine Abani tells Rumpus interviewer Peter Orner that having grown up in a black-majority country, he was not defined by his race until he left Nigeria and went to Britain and the United States.

Though he has lived in the United States for some ten years or more, Abani does not write in the style of white or black America, though he clarifies in an NPR interview, “Africa could never have the literature it does without the influence of black Americans.” African literature makes no attempt to fit into the Western canon: African writers are having this conversation over here, and if you want to join in you must make accommodation. Interestingly, Abani finds writing in America freeing, partly because of the language, which is constantly influenced by our immigrant population, and because of the vitality and variety of experience and geography.

Abani’s students, and we readers, often “forget he is black” because he assumes the right to speak with his own voice and deals with universal themes. But Abani observes and occasionally writes of the oppression of black people in this country: "Slavery [in Amerca] is not really over". In this memoir he mentions that when he is stopped while driving, the cops seem surprised and almost “offended by his [British] accent.” He recognizes that as an educated middle-class African, he has a privileged position in American society. “Race in America has more to do with social position than it has to do with biological race.”

Abani now teaches writing at Northwestern University in Chicago. Daria Tunca of the University of Liège in Belgium has compiled a wonderfully complete bibliography of Abani’s work (and short biography) which includes links to interviews, readings, and Abani’s website. I share my favorite links below because I feel his work is essential reading/listening. Somehow the issues we face in the world are pointed to by this big man with the small voice and small toes. And he gives us some answers: You reflect my humanity back at me. Ubuntu.

A few links to important talks, essays, writings:

NPR Illinois Radio Interview (2006)

Kate Durbin Interviews Chris Abani (2007)

TED talk on the Stories of Africa (2007)

TED talk “On Humanity” (2008)

Witness essay, “Ethics and Narrative” (2009)

Chris Abani with Walter Mosley in Conversation (2010)

The Rumpus Interview with Peter Orner (2014)

Becoming Abigail (2006)

Hands Washing Water (2006)

Virgin of Flames (2007)

Song for Night (2007)

There Are No Names for Red (2010)

Sanctificum (2010)

The Secret History of Las Vegas (2014)
Profile Image for Ona.
12 reviews9 followers
January 31, 2020
Short, poetic and beautiful. This was amazing writing. I admit that his Nigeria may not be the Nigeria of today, but it was wonderful to glimpse the view of identity and being from some before me.
Profile Image for  The Black Geek.
60 reviews99 followers
June 20, 2017
Abani is an extremely gifted essayist. This poetic memoir deserves to be read multiple times throughout the year...
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,735 reviews2,336 followers
November 11, 2017
Chris Abani's essay is a meditation on his family history, through the lens of his own face - the face of his father, his grandfather... He briefly speaks of the history of his English mother, tracing back to the Norman Conquest, and shifts to the history of his Nigerian father, and the country of his birth and youth. Abani uses humor, mythology, and linguistics to define beauty in a West African context:"In West African thought, compusure creates beauty. Balance. Equanimity. Serenity. The essential nature of a thing...Beauty lies in recognizing and respecting the uniqueness of all things and all people."

I've read all three of The Face series now, and enjoyed each one. After reading Abani's piece, I am eager to read more of his work, particularly his poetry.
Profile Image for George Ilsley.
Author 12 books237 followers
February 17, 2023
Chris Abani is a major writer (see, for example, GraceLand).

This book is a small format 70 page essay on the meaning of "face": the face you present to the world, the face people see, the face we seek to save, and all the issues we must face as humans. I tagged poetry here as well because some of Abani's little lists are magical.

Too bad he ended up not being able to use all those bad jokes collected by his brothers.
Profile Image for Jo.
667 reviews68 followers
August 13, 2021
The second volume I’ve read in the three part essay series that asks authors to write about the face. The structure of this one didn’t work quite as well for me as the Ruth Ozeki volume but I still really enjoyed Chris Abani’s take on the subject. He describes how as a mixed race person he constantly gets mistaken for someone he is not, a refugee from Chad in Nigeria his home country, a Maori in New Zealand, an Aborigine in Australia while in Europe and North America he is simply black. He looks at the idea that we look at someone’s face and immediately make a judgement about who they are from that. This becomes personal when he writes about the fact that he looks like his father with who he had a complicated relationship. His father could be violent and dictatorial and the fact that he looks like him makes him wonder how that makes others view him, how he views himself.

Interspersed with these thoughts are descriptions on Igbo and Yoruba culture and what beauty means for them with less of a focus on the superficiality of beauty. He writes about scarification of warriors in ancient tribes and the faces of Benin bronzes and what these faces stand for, there was lots of googling to see these for myself and the bronzes are beautiful. There are also pages where his brother tries to tell him jokes about faces, perhaps to lift the primarily serious tone although the ending is an uplifting one. Fascinating and thought provoking.
Profile Image for Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac).
684 reviews602 followers
January 11, 2017
The face is culture, genealogy, emotion, a target, a sight for sore eyes, a wall; Abani explores the multifaceted dimensions of his own visage with candor, humor and wisdom. This was my first Abani and I'm eager to read more!
Profile Image for Charles Dee Mitchell.
853 reviews59 followers
December 28, 2017
What Abani labels his Caveat could serve as instruction for essay writing --

Everything in this book is true, even when the facts have been blunted by time and memory; even as I misremember, even as I misrepresent.
Everything in this book is a remembrance, so none of it may be true at all.
But it doesn't matter.
Profile Image for Iva.
769 reviews2 followers
October 29, 2016
Abani's fiction is sharp and observant. This is a non-fiction treatment of his face, a mixture of Celtic, German and Igbo and others. African history is woven into his story while examining the role of culture, race, language and country. Abani reaches into his own life to further explore the topic. A compelling and fresh view of the face in our world. Abani has given us a gift.
Profile Image for Kolumbina.
824 reviews23 followers
April 18, 2016
A beautiful little book.But a big heart from Chris Abani makes it a big, great book. A book that I am definitely going to re - read many times.
I love this book. Fantastic. What a MASTER PEN! Beautiful.
Profile Image for Anetq.
1,058 reviews42 followers
January 14, 2017
Abani meditates on the idea of the face: the image you present to the world as well as the front-facing part of his own head - Ancestry, beliefs, language family and history rolled into one. It is a beautiful book - and beauty itself is more than looks as one can learn here.
Profile Image for Puja.
8 reviews
March 26, 2020
Just read it for the philosophy of beauty and the variety of ways in which it can be understood--- as balance, as collected-ness, as being true to one's own essence. A perfect companion to Chinua Achebe's Home and Exile, perhaps.
Profile Image for Ashley T.
420 reviews2 followers
October 25, 2021
A really good balance of cultural history and personal history. Some lines about his dad made me teary-eyed (particularly “37. My father is easier to love as a spirit, a ghost, than as a man.”) but were also well integrated with his personal introspection. The definitions of the different types of conceptions of beauty are incredibly interesting.
Profile Image for Zezee.
622 reviews43 followers
February 16, 2021
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.”

OVERALL: ★★★☆☆

A short, thought-provoking read about race and identity and how people interpret both from our faces. I highly recommend it.


“…our identity is as much about the dead as it is about the living.”

As posted on Zezee with Books.
Profile Image for Karen.
642 reviews98 followers
May 15, 2016
The second in this series that I've read. It's a great idea--small, smart-looking books by interesting people, each one containing a single essay about their face...and by extension, all the history, family baggage, political ethnography, and everything else that goes along with it. A face connects to just about everything, if you come at it right.

Abani uses his essay to write about his mixed-race heritage (his mother is a white Englishwoman, his father a black Nigerian), his complicated family dynamics, and aesthetic and moral ideals in West African cultures. In a small number of pages he brings to life a family that's hard to envy but not impossible to understand, a history of colonialism, and a world philosophy that's fascinating and foreign to me, a Western reader.

I didn't really understand the title of this piece, except in the most general sense of mapping what's unsaid and unseen. But I was amazed at Abani's ability to convey complex, interesting idea structures briefly and accessibly. This is one to re-read, probably more than once.
Profile Image for kirsten.
319 reviews4 followers
December 6, 2014
Love Chris Abani. Love this.
"There are no easy ways to speak these words. No way to honor love and truth without something getting lost in translation. It is made even more complex when one party is dead, silent to this world. And how do you tell a story that is commonplace and felt by all without giving in to sentimentality. But the thing is that, in the end, we each must decide how comfortable we are with how much we hurt other people."
Profile Image for Karin.
1,224 reviews31 followers
June 1, 2017
A short little book for #1 of the year. This memoir covers Chris's relationship with his father, how he is always misidentified by people, Igbo traditions. He cuts right to the heart of things and doesn't waste a word. I would like to read more by this author.
Profile Image for Jennifer Myers.
864 reviews9 followers
July 13, 2021
September 2021 Book Club. Many good reflections (pun not intended) about how your face is a mirror, a map, a history and a future. Our identity is many things and our face represents some of those things outwardly.
Profile Image for Sara.
170 reviews3 followers
February 10, 2015
I read this on MLK day, seemed appropriate. It is good, but I expected more exploration of the author's actual face. More of an exploration of his roots. I did rather enjoy his brothers' face jokes.
Profile Image for Patty.
186 reviews51 followers
June 28, 2016
Super short & sweet non-fiction. Nice little series by Restless Books.
Profile Image for Yordanos.
334 reviews61 followers
February 19, 2021
This is a generous and delicate offering. Chris Abani captures much in poignant and poetic ways within a short distance. This feels like an intentional mirroring (to me), the self-reflexive nature of the topic, writing, and execution parallel what you may experience when you encounter a new face — certain things you may infer, deduce, assume, and/or learn from the limited cartography on display; however, the genuine counteract to the void of all that you’re missing is through the conversations that then are prompted, the real life experiences shared, stronger bridges cutting the divide, while the extra dimensions enrich the space and markers that cover it all.

This book felt like just the right length, but I’m also now wishing Abani had written a longer book expounding upon some of these themes in more depth. As it stands, I’m liking what I’m discovering this far in/from Chris Abani, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his writing.
Profile Image for Kerry.
222 reviews3 followers
April 3, 2021
I loved the last essay best, and the portion on the Yoruba words for beauty. The landscape of his face and the pain and power of it were beautifully told. And I loved the different framing of it in each chapter.

But how are you go write an entire book about your face- about the pain of being your father's son, about ancient tribal legacies and the jokes of your brother- without talking in depth about your mother?! She made you, and suffered the pain of you to be omitted like that? Is the omission intentional? what of her face? Her whiteness doesn't need its own red carpet, but her face's absence in this book was so obvious, especially since she was only described in comparison to other people.
Profile Image for Andrada.
Author 3 books48 followers
February 2, 2020
This was an interesting essay by Chris Abani analysing the heritage of his own face that serves as a constant reminder of his abusive father that he both loved and hated, but also weaves the complex tale of his Nigerian ancestry and the face’s religious and ceremonial meaning in the community he grew up in, all interspersed with an amusing dialogue in which his brother pesters him with jokes about faces.
Profile Image for talia.
Author 0 books10 followers
January 24, 2018
I liked some of the content, but other parts struck me as gimmicky (especially all the lists). Abani is a talented writer, but some of the essays veer between multiple topics in a confusing and unfocused way.
Profile Image for Amy Cooke.
3 reviews
January 18, 2021
Powerful portrait of legacy and lineage

What do we claim from our fathers? What do we release? In wearing his father’s face Chris Abani comes to claim it as his own, comfortable as an armchair, marked as a scar.
Profile Image for samuela_b.
9 reviews
August 30, 2023
This was my AP Lang Summer reading assignment, but I honestly really enjoyed this. There were some major points that hit so hard and that resonated with me, it was funny at some parts, and it was really interesting to read in general. This ate 😜💕
2 reviews3 followers
February 13, 2017
Quick read, but very meaningful. Abani's relationship with his father really hit home (no pun intended). So many quotable lines for such a short work.
Profile Image for liv.
20 reviews4 followers
June 21, 2017
I think I'll appreciate this text on a second read, later in life.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 42 reviews