Issues 54-55 (July-October 2020): Special Feature “Masks”
Editorial: Is There a Face behind This Mask?
by Tammy Lai-Ming Ho
From mid-April this year, I was harassed for nearly five weeks by an individual who masked himself (I am almost certain it was a man) behind a number of fictitious social media accounts. The harrying was intense and constant and during that five weeks, I felt distressed, anxious, and distrustful of people who contacted me out of the blue. Fortunately, the harassment died down. I count myself relatively lucky, compared to many others who have been horrendously intimidated and psychologically abused for years.
When we think about “masks”, we often understand them to be metaphorical, denoting dissimulation, a reluctance to show one’s true face to the world for whatever reason. Xi Chuan, in the present issue of Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine: “Others of the new era, internet trolls online, are probably wearing facemasks too. To post anonymously is to post while masked.” Poets love to use “masks” as shorthand for the duality of our inner self and exterior appearance. Walt Whitman: “Out from behind this bending, rough-cut mask, / These lights and shades, this drama of the whole, / This common curtain of the face, contained in me for me, / In you for you, in each for each.” Whose face is not “rough-cut” at some point or other?
Some in history have felt the need to put on metaphorical masks to veil their emotions and expressions because of prevailing mores, be they related to race, class or gender, or simply to protect themselves from political repression. Paul Laurence Dunbar: “We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes— … / With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, / And mouth with myriad subtleties.” This brings to mind Winston Smith in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, who has trained himself to wear “the expression of quiet optimism” when facing the seemingly omnipotent telescreen, an instrument of the all-seeing Big Brother. You might say there is a spectrum, perhaps, of totalitarianism, felt by individuals.
In Hong Kong, wearing masks—physical ones—has taken on multiple meanings, including political ones. Throughout the protests last year, many demonstrators took to wearing masks because of a fear of reprisals from authorities using facial-recognition technology. Masks also had their practical use, to protect people from the regular barrages of tear gas that were unleashed, even in residential neighbourhoods, by police. Last October, the Hong Kong government banned the wearing of masks, a decree that was later judged unconstitutional by the Court of Appeal (though subsequently validated when applied to illegal gatherings). Within four months, the Hong Kong government, even as it was appealling that ruling, was asking citizens to wear face masks to help stem the spread of COVID-19.
In my own writing, “masks” have begun to appear more frequently, because of the pro-democracy protests and the pandemic. Here, in a nightmare sequence:
are singing or praying,
but no sounds come out from their mouths.
Some have hands
that are no longer shaped
like hands. Some have broken
collarbones on which industrial face masks grow.
Some lose their sense of smell
and lick graffiti on cement walls.
We have become a city of freaks.
Face masks grow on people’s collarbones, becoming part of the human body. If we all pay enough attention to others’ faces, will humans, globally, evolve to become a highly facially literate species? I fear one day only lovers will unmask and kiss, and hum half made-up songs, and do things with each other’s mouths, lips. Chin to chin. In another poem, more optimistically, I have written:
Fearful but defiant trapped birds,
we are in a deadlocked situation,
but still tuned to the tone
of freedom, dreaming of breathing
free, sighting streets of regular traffic,
each others’ faces.
May we meet again on the other side of the mask.