Wearing a Mask of Your Own Face: On Persona, Race, and Identity
March 12, 2015 § 8 Comments
A guest post from Michael Schmeltzer:
The blank page is the first mask a writer wears. It is so adept at concealing identity we could remain hidden for the rest of our lives. The minute we begin writing we shade in our own face.
Skin is the first mask a person wears. If you understand this statement, you understand identity in ways others do not.
Before I moved to America I thought only of white skin. I thought Elk River, Minnesota, would be filled with children as pale as paper, blank pages nearly transparent. I thought they would all be blond, with large, egg-like eyes. I thought I would be the only sheet of color in class. My thick, dark hair. My dark irises. I was wrong on several levels, but right in ways I would not understand until I was much older.
The children weren’t what I imagined; they were just ordinary children. Safety scissors and glue-skin finger tips. Blond to brown to red, green to blue to hazel; I mistook hair and eye color for diversity.
My friend, about halfway through the school year, was stunned no one even mentioned I was Japanese anymore. “They treat you like you’re normal,” he said.
Normalcy – that’s what I wanted. He could never understand, this boy who looked as if he were grown from the very soil of America, how much I desired to blend in. For a brief period I thought I could blend in, a harmless animal like all of them. Truth was I stood out like a mule among horses. How much I wanted to kick and neigh with my fat braying lips.
“I was going to be noticed even though I wanted very much to go unnoticed,” Roxane Gay writes in her essay “I Once Was Miss America.”
In the fourth grade my teacher asked me what Japanese kids said instead of cock-a-doodle-doo.
Later Gay writes, “I was a different kind of American.”
There I was in class, already different, demonstrating my rooster noise differently.
Tell it slant, says Randall Jarrell speaking as The Woman at the Washington Zoo.
Tell it slant, says Patricia Smith speaking as a Skinhead.
Tell it slant, you repeat in the mirror, a mask of your own face hiding your real face.
Some of us no longer know what the word even means. Some of us simply are. We speak slant just by opening our mouths. Or, equally accurate, we tell it straight while someone looks at us with their head cocked to the side, their ears receiving our words tilted, off-kilter.
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth,” Oscar Wilde wrote.
In other words, persona is a lie that leads to the truth.
Smith speaking as a skinhead, Jarrell speaking as a woman. John Berryman shattering the mirror-self into songs. But none of these are the exact truth.
Which, I suppose, has been my point all along.
Persona, at its best, is a deep understanding of another that leads to a deeper understanding of the self. At worst it’s an act of ventriloquy, your lips moving while a puppet, mechanical and dead, stares into the audience. Everyone watching knows what you’re doing, but the saddest of them believe the wooden caricature you hold is an accurate portrayal.
“When they introduce Philip Levine to do a reading, they don’t say, ‘Here’s the Jewish-American poet, Philip Levine.’ They just say ‘the American poet.’ When they introduce me, they say, ‘He’s the Chinese-American poet.’” – Li-Young Lee
Poet. American poet. Chinese-American poet. Some of us walk this world like a masquerade ball, so many people eager to force us into these masks.
Which is another way of saying there are four points of entry into persona: the impression and expression of the writer interacting with the impression and expression of the audience. How we manipulate these four points will determine the success of the persona. It determines whether the world will cringe or applaud our efforts.
You’re from Japan. So you know karate? I was asked over and over until I graduated high school, the mask of a martial artist placed on my face by ignorance. There I was, walking from class to class, not knowing what mask I was wearing.
No one is that nice, we’ve all (heard) said. So we place a scowl on the accused, convinced there is something sinister that hasn’t been revealed yet, lurking behind the smile.
“I am a black woman poet, and I sound like one,” Lucille Clifton wrote, speaking brilliantly as Lucille Clifton.
“Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind,” Emily Dickinson wrote.
So we tell it slant. So we hold up masks that match our skin, or ones wildly different. So every person we see holds up the one they think fits us best, but it doesn’t always flatter. So we choose to destroy them, or don’t. So we wear them for a while but rip them off. So we use every mask, or none at all, or half of one.
All in order to shield us, to keep us from going blind. All in order to see and be safe. In order to find the one, monstrous or beautiful, the perfect one which is in fact no mask at all. To reveal our truest face.
Michael Schmeltzer earned an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop. His honors include the Gulf Stream Award for Poetry and the Blue Earth Review’s Flash Fiction Prize. He has been a finalist for the Four Way Books Intro and Levis Prizes, Zone 3 Press First Book Prize, as well as the OSU Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. He helps edit A River & Sound Review and has published in PANK, Oyez Review, South Loop Review, Rattle, and Mid-American Review, among others.