Writers and Company

Ruth Ozeki, Chris Abani and Tash Aw on faces and identity

Eleanor Wachtel speaks with three authors of the 2016 memoir series, The Face. Chris Abani, Tash Aw and Ruth Ozeki explore the relationship of our faces to identity and belonging.
Authors Ruth Ozeki (left), Chris Abani (centre) and Tash Aw (right) contributed essays to a new series called The Face. (Linda Solomon/Claus Gretter/Stacy Liu)

In 2016, award-winning writers Ruth Ozeki, Tash Aw and Chris Abani were invited to contribute essays to a series called The Face, a look at how our faces do — and don't — reflect who we are. Alternately philosophical, funny, personal, political and poetic, the short memoirs in the series offer unique perspectives on the relationship of our faces to identity and belonging. 

In this conversation, originally broadcast in April 2016, the three writers talk to Eleanor Wachtel about the deeply personal experience of writing those pieces. 

Chris Abani on the West African concept of beauty 

"We tend to think of beauty in the West in terms of composition, and I'm sure that is a fairly recent thought — as recent as the Renaissance, in terms of reason and the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci numbers and sequences, as something that there is an ideal for.

"But it's always about this external notion of beauty, whereas where I come from [Nigeria] beauty is about character, it's about the beauty of being — how one conducts oneself, how one responds to things. And so then it becomes about composure, and ultimately, a composed person is a virtuous person, he's an ethical person, because you're always aware and you're always thinking."

Chris Abani writes plays, poetry and fiction, including the novels Graceland and, most recently, The Secret History of Las Vegas.

Tash Aw on the Asian myth of constant success 

"[My Chinese grandparents] come from a very humble background, a peasant background to be perfectly honest, and people who come from that kind of background don't want to celebrate their stories. They don't think that their life stories are worth recording, never mind celebrating. And to me that has always seemed to be very tragic because Asia, certainly modern Asia, is built on the myth of constant success.

"It's built on the myth of material wealth. But we don't really know who we were before we became what we are now, and so I'm not really sure what will happen with the young people nowadays who live in big cities like Singapore or Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong, and have these incredibly materialistic lives. I don't really know what's going to happen to them 10 or 20 years from now. And partly, my discomfort comes from this sense that we're disconnected from our history. We don't know where we're from and so we're trying to reinvent from nothing." 

Tash Aw's debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, won the Whitbread First Novel award. His latest novel is Five Star Billionaire. 

Ruth Ozeki on her changing relationship with her reflection 

"I have a meditation practice, a Zen practice, so I'm a very serious meditator. One of the things that the Buddha instructed his students to do in order to work with their feelings and their fears about sickness, old age and death was to go a charnel ground, where they would meditate and view decaying corpses for long periods of time.

"And I thought this was an interesting idea, the idea that I just turned 60, so I have an aging face and I noticed that my relationship with my reflection has changed over the years, and I thought this would be like a charnel ground meditation, and it would really give me the opportunity, or force me, perhaps, to sit and look at my face and observe it and try to understand what it is that I'm feeling about this process of aging that we're all engaged in."

Ruth Ozeki's most recent novel, A Tale for the Time Being, won the LA Times Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The panelists' comments have been edited and condensed. Music to close the interview: That, Not That composed by Arthur Jeffes, performed by Penguin Café Orchestra.