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Harvard professor Namwali Serpell on faces, language, and meaning

David Wilson for The Boston Globe (CUSTOM_CREDIT)

Namwali Serpell’s doctoral dissertation looked at several works of 20th century American literature and asked, she said, “whether or not reading puzzling, difficult, confusing books had ethical value for us.” (It was published in book form as “Seven Modes of Uncertainty” in 2014.)

That research led her to look at various theories of ethics, including the work of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who argued that the human face is, as Serpell put it, “an ideal locus for the ethical relationship” — the idea is that by looking into the face of another, you shift your perspective away from the self. Yet what of different faces: the ambiguously racialized face, the non-human face, the faces we see in objects? “I knew I had some interest in contesting this model of the face,” said Serpell, a professor in the English department at Harvard.


The result is “Stranger Faces,” a book of essays that ponder the faces seen in movies like “Psycho” and “Grizzly Man,” a book like Hannah Crafts’s “The Bondwoman’s Narrative,” or even one’s keyboard. Joseph Merrick, known as the Elephant Man, is at the center of one essay, which ends in an examination of the Michael Jackson video for the song “Leave Me Alone,” in which an animated human skeleton with an elephant’s skull dances alongside Jackson. This is highly intellectual scholarship that casts a smart yet playful eye on pop culture as well as literary theory.

Serpell is also the author of a novel, “The Old Drift,” published last year to rapturous reviews. (Salman Rushdie dubbed it “a dazzling debut.”) “I know that my literary writing and my critical writing speak to each other,” Serpell said, “but I’m not always privy to the conversation.”

Faces are harder to come by these days, she noted. "In our current masked society there are very interesting opportunities to probe our fixation on the face. I think it does provide a great opportunity for us to explore other ways of seeing each other and knowing each other. "


Namwali Serpell will read from “Stranger Faces” 7 p.m. Tuesday for an online event with Brookline Booksmith. www.brooklinebooksmith.com

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.