The Face: A Time Code

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“Often I give up when I feel the explanation of where I’m from and who I am might seem to complicated. Sometimes I just pretend to be whatever someone assumes I am. Sometimes I’m from Shanghai. Sometimes I’m from Taiwan. Sometimes I’m Muslim (because I’m Malaysian). If I could speak Japanese I’d be tempted to be from Kyoto.”

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Ruth Ozeki’s The Face: A Time Code is a novella-length essay on her face. Yes, apparently this is a literary tradition. Replacing Buddha with a mirror on the meditation altar, Ozeki looks at herself for three hours. The result is an autobiographical narrative bridged with time coded observations of the physiological aspects of her features. Her childhood growing up mixed race, her parents and grandparents are traced, her reckoning of being an artist with being a daughter, and an in-depth description of the making and meaning of Japanese Noh masks are sewn together with her opinion of cheekbones, crooked-smiles, eye-brows, and jowls.

Time Code seems like a simple idea, perhaps it’s greatest strength—the face as anchor to narrative digressions—is actually a profound and engaging essay that covers race, immigration, feminism, Noh Theatre and Zen Buddhism. At fifty nine, with three-books under her belt, filmmaker and ordained Zen priest, Ozeki is writing at her peak, her simplicity is disturbingly brilliant and we learn: Let’s not be misled, because, when all is said and done, all we really know is this: are eyes are horizontal and are noses are vertical. Just this.

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