She’s best known as the sublime fiction writer behind The Old Drift, but Namwali Serpell is also a distinguished critic and essayist. For starters, the Zambian novelist, an associate professor of English at UC Berkeley, published her first book of literary criticism Seven Modes of Uncertainty in 2014 and then won The 2019 Brittle Paper Award for Essays. Now her second book of essays is forthcoming from Transit Books. Stranger Faces will be released on 29 September 2020. Here is a description from its publisher.
If evolutionary biologists, ethical philosophers, and social media gurus are to be believed, the face is the basis for what we call “humanity.” The face is considered the source of identity, truth, beauty, authenticity, and empathy. It underlies our ideas about what constitutes a human, how we relate emotionally, what is pleasing to the eye, and how we ought to treat each other. But all of this rests on a specific image of the face. We might call it the ideal face.
What about the strange face, the stranger’s face, the face that thwarts recognition? What do we make of the face that rides the line of legibility? In a collection of speculative essays on a few such stranger faces—the disabled face, the racially ambiguous face, the digital face, the face of the dead—Namwali Serpell probes our contemporary mythology of the face. Stranger Faces imagines a new ethics based on the perverse pleasures we take in the very mutability of faces.
Stranger Faces is part of the Undelivered Lectures series from Transit Books.
On her website, Serpell details some of her subjects:
I examine an eclectic set of “stranger” faces across media from the nineteenth century to now: the “disfigured” face in “The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick,” the so-called Elephant Man; the “biracial” face in Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative; the “object-face” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho; the “animal face” in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man; and the “digital face” in emoji. In each case, we yearn to read a face—for intention, for affect—but we fail; we compensate for that failure by taking a fetishistic pleasure in it.
Pre-order Stranger Faces HERE.