cover image Stranger Faces

Stranger Faces

Namwali Serpell. Transit, $15.95 trade paper (196p) ISBN 978-1-945492-43-3

Novelist Serpell (The Old Drift) delivers a brilliant essay collection that, informed by semiotics, proposes a way of thinking about the human face that views each person’s countenance as possessed of culturally and individually constructed meaning that can change radically according to the beholder. To develop this idea, Serpell offers different examples of “stranger” (in the sense of both “uncanny”and “unknown”) faces. In the first essay, she discusses Joseph Merrick, the Victorian man known as the Elephant Man for his severe deformities. She asks what would happen “if we chose not to treat Merrick’s non-ideal face as a problem that stumps our aesthetic, affective, and ethical beliefs?” Each subsequent essay has a similarly bold question at its core. One muses over the dispute over the racial identity of Hannah Crafts, author of the supposedly autobiographical 19th-century slave narrative The Bondwoman’s Narrative, and what this says about readers’ desire to “put a face to the name” of an author, as they say, and, in this case, “a race to the face.” Another considers the different meanings assigned to the “blank stare” of bears by different participants in Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, and why some people find sublimity, and others, terror, in the essential unknowability of wild animals. Serpell’s vital treatise is one readers will find themselves returning to again and again. (Sept.)