In this article I will examine the paradoxical ambivalence of the mask, particularly as it affects and expresses a range of transgressive masculinities, in Alan Duff’s Both Sides of the Moon and Witi Ihimaera’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Duff and Ihimaera deal with alternative identities and masculinities through metaphorical masking, employing divergent techniques in two very different novels. In Both Sides masking is in the form of facial tattoos (external and obvious), while in Nights the masking appears as descriptive appellation (less literal though no less obvious). What is of interest here is the dual dialectic of the mask, the contradictory yet oddly corresponding notions of concealing and revealing one’s identity or essence.
In terms of the Euro-American constructions and conceptions of acceptable ‘masculinity,’ transgression would include “any act of expressive behaviour which inverts, contradicts, abrogates, or in some fashion presents an alternative to commonly held cultural codes, values and norms” held by mainstream heteronormative (and heterosexist) society. Thus, the plural term ‘masculinities’ is used to indicate the vast array of possibilities, performances, and articulations. Although much could be written about the cultural specificities of Mäori masculinities, Mäori constructions of ‘gayness’ and masculinity, and ‘gay’ (sub)culture/s in New Zealand, this essay will focus on the idea of the mask and the act of concealing/revealing the identities of the two main characters in Duff’s novel and the narrator/protagonist of the novel by Ihimaera.
Both Sides of the Moon, by Alan Duff, contains two intertwined narratives, both the products of the narrator’s memory and imagination. The primary narrative recalls Jimmy’s (the narrator’s) adolescence during the late 1950s and early 1960s, though it is often related in present tense. The other narrative arises from Jimmy’s conversations with an elderly woman who belongs to his mother’s tribal group. It is an imagined ‘seeing’ of a time in the ancestral past immediately preceding colonisation and revolves around the proud warrior Te Aranui Kapi.
Ihimaera’s novel, on the other hand, is narrated in present tense by David Munro, its Päkehä protagonist, a gay university lecturer. Though Ihimaera is credited with writing the first Mäori novel (Tangi in 1973), Nights in the Gardens of Spain has little to do with Mäori culture. While Both Sides of the Moon includes the description of a sexual relationship between a man and a teen-aged boy and other homoerotic imagery, it is not, strictly speaking, a ‘gay’ novel. Duff is, by all accounts, a heterosexual man and his narrator is not overtly (or permanently) homosexual. Nights, however, is written by a gay author and narrated by a gay man, thus its approach to masculinities is clearly different. Another significant difference between the two texts is the masked subject: in Both Sides it is the staunchly heterosexual tattooed Mäori ancestor viewed/imagined in the past, while in Nights the narrator is unmasked very early in the narrative (though he in turn masks the people, mainly the gay denizens of the baths, with whom he comes in contact). One could also argue that the text provides multiple masks for its author. Because in 1995 Ihimaera was not publicly ‘out,’ the narrator/protagonist functioned as a mask, for he (David Munro) provided a persona through which Ihimaera could relate certain experiences and express controversial opinions while avoiding direct authorial speech. In addition, I will demonstrate that Ihimaera’s voice animates the mask of “The Noble Savage,” one which both conceals and reveals the author’s ‘true’ face.
Tattoo as Mask
Tattooing was an important aspect of pre-colonial Mäori society. Men had their faces (as well as other parts of the body) tattooed during their teen years or in early adulthood in order to make them look more fierce in battle. These tattoos, ta moko, denoted manhood and were a sign of courage, strength, and honour. Though I have used the widely understood term ‘tattoo,’ it must be noted here that there are important differences which distinguish ta moko from Western-style tattoos. The Mäori male facial tattoo is called ta moko, from ta, meaning ‘to strike’ (the method of application) and moko, meaning ‘mark.’ Traditional ta moko were more than mere pictures or designs inked on skin by multiple needles; they were intricate patterns chiselled into the flesh and filled in with pigment usually made from a soot mixture. The process of receiving ta moko was long, arduous, and painful. The marked warrior was respected for tolerating the excruciating procedure, and ta moko was not only symbolic of his bravery and prowess, but also a constant physical reminder of his fortitude. In Both Sides, Kapi (Jimmy’s maternal ancestor) proudly recalls, “these markings were endured without cry … not one sound of pain, not in the days and days of tohunga tattooist hammering and chiselling them … they are of beauty.” (BSM 257) Ta moko was also (and still is) totemic, composed of highly individualised designs and symbols with mythical significance and ancestral associations. Although some of the traditional connotations, such as status and achievement within the tribe, are no longer applicable, many others are still relevant today: it is considered sacred (tapu), it documents the bearer’s lineage (whakapapa) and distinguishes one as a member of particular family group (iwi), and it forms a kind of personal identification.
Fig. 1: Since the 1990s there has been a resurgence of ta moko.
Alternatively, in Western societies, tattoos are usually considered a type of decoration, an embellishment. Europeans have been taught to think of tattooing among non-Western peoples at best as a kind of primitive beautification, and at worst as an example or confirmation of savagery. Nikki Sullivan points out that in the West many researchers and theorists have assumed that tattoos are indicative of deviance and/or psychosis. According to Duff, however, in the classical, formal language of the Mäori, tattoos were referred to as “man’s true face.” (BSM 257) Tattoos and faces are a recurring theme throughout the text. Following a raid on a neighbouring (presumably peaceful) tribe, Kapi watches from across the river as his men hunt down and slaughter the remnants of the tribe. “His face was with sneer to see an older man with proud tattoo markings and surprising speed bring up short at his precious waters…. Upriver, on a fine-sand patch, a fine young enemy’s face turned calm as he made the decision to fight his last” and “combat was announced by facial feature” from one of Kapi’s men (BSM 128, 129). When his brother Tamatea rapes Tangiwai, Kapi’s favourite woman, Kapi metes out punishment—by impaling Tamatea on a long stake and parading him, still alive, through the surrounding villages. Kapi jabs at his impaled brother’s full facial tattoos and tells him that he has shamed his warrior markings. He also mocks Tamatea, asking why he had been unable to predict this outcome: “For surely foresight is also the untattooed mark of a great warrior?” he taunts. (BSM 64)
While I have not come across evidence specific to Mäori practice, Alfred Gell indicates that throughout traditional Polynesian societies festivities to honour the newly tattooed individual(s) often included erotic dancing and other performances. According to Gell, there is a clear link between tattooing and expressions or representations of sexuality among the various island cultures of the Pacific. Simplistically explained, as decoration tattooing can be said to beautify the body and therefore elicit or excite admiration and desire:
Marked … skin draws in the gaze of the onlooker, exercises the power of fascination, and lowers certain defences. The eye isolates and follows the mazy pathways of the design and eventually, so to speak, enters the body of the other…. Thus to view a tattoo is already to be in a position of seduction; it provokes, not an aesthetic response but a kind of bodily looking which is intrinsically sexualized…
This fascination and desire is documented in the writings of many early European explorers and settlers. In 1769 Joseph A. Banks, a scientist and historian aboard the Endeavour with James Cook, wrote in his journal about his encounter with Mäori men who had their faces tattooed:
[It] is impossible to avoid admiring the extreme elegance and justness of the figures traced, which on the face are always different spirals … resembling somewhat the foliages of old chasing upon gold and silver. All these are finished with a masterly taste and execution… 
In the nineteenth century adventurer and artist Augustus Earle remarked, “whenever we have seen a New Zealander whose skin is thus ornamented, we have admired him.” While these are examples of the coloniser’s desiring gaze, and there is no documentation of similar feelings by Mäori men, it would be naïve to suggest that Mäori did not also eroticise ta moko. Therefore, we can imagine that Kapi’s admiration of the young warrior’s “proud markings” is a look not only of respect (for the process, the pain undergone, the design, etc.) but also an eroticised gaze analogous to sexual intercourse and associated with images of the tattooing process itself as sexual subjection and penetration. As Gell points out, “even as the onlooker’s eye is drawn into the body of the other through the fascination exerted by the design, the ‘fringe’ of resonances of the tattooing process reinforces this sexualized looking.”
It is important to note that desire and sex do not always or necessarily imply or are associated with physical attraction and/or emotional attachment. One possible goal of desire is to dominate, to exert mastery over another, and sex can be the means of achieving that objective through force or violence. When Kapi impales his brother for the crime of rape, he is also committing symbolic or metaphorical rape. The imagery is eroticised; and is evoked later when Tangi is orally raped by the outcast leader. There is also sexual tension, a sense of erotic anticipation and potential, in the scenes of one-on-one combat between men. Though none of the men captured in Both Sides is actually sodomised, this is symbolically performed through such acts as eating the flesh from a prisoner’s buttocks. Gell indicates that in Mäori thought men are considered virgins because they cannot be “deflowered” in the way women are. Therefore, sexually penetrating a man, whether literally or symbolically, would be humiliating for the one thus penetrated. Violating one’s tattooed body in such a way would not only be asserting one’s supremacy and dominance over the other, but would also be a degradation of, and offence against, the moko which had failed in its purpose to protect its wearer.
Following one particularly successful massacre, Kapi sees a little boy and his mother floating down the river. They have thrown themselves in hoping to escape detection. Kapi decides to watch them drown instead of trying to kill them. He is impressed by the mother’s determined silence and unvocalised imprecations but keeps willing the child to drown. As he watches the drama unfold his thinking begins to shift—his blood lust, his hate for the enemy regardless of age, sex, or even action, his blind faith in the rightness of his beliefs, are shaken. The death of the little boy is utterly pointless—meaningless only in the sense that it can not indicate some heroic deed, has absolutely nothing to do with Kapi’s manhood, and provides no satisfaction, no reason for celebration. Kapi feels utterly humiliated. He knows he fears death; he cannot face it as the boy did, he cannot accept it as the mother did. His understanding of masculinity is fragmented, put in doubt, because the warrior mask slips. His entire existence is called into question, for he is unmasked and can no longer be a warrior. The serene smile of an innocent drowning child finally accomplishes Kapi’s defeat.
After the boy drowns Kapi realises his accepted way of life is seriously flawed. Eventually, he is unable to lead his men into battle and the enemy, alerted by Kapi’s swift retreat, attacks and decimates his company. When word reaches the village, the inhabitants decide to split into two factions. One, led by the village chief, commits the honourable, acceptable and expected action of mass suicide. The other group is led by Tangiwai, and escapes into the forest to live in self-imposed exile as outcastes. Kapi remains in hiding for over a year until he also joins a group of outcastes.
Many of the outcast people have facial deformities which indicate disease or mental deficiency—the reason they were expelled from their tribes in the first place. Principal among those in the group Kapi encounters is Mihinui Taikato, the daughter of a chief, cast out because of an apparent stroke. Half her face seems to be sliding off: “loose skin beneath the eye socket that looked worse than might an old woman’s vagina.” (BSM 255) Interestingly, this vulgar description is reminiscent of the Mbangu mask in the Pende cultures of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mbangu is a comedic character afflicted by the gods, or cursed by sorcery. Based on anthropological research, Z. S. Strother speculates that the mask’s disfiguration indicates facial palsy, the result of any number of maladies, from tumours and epilepsy, to syphilis, and even diabetes.  Kapi seems to interpret Mihi’s disfigurement in the same light. He describes her as “damned ugly,” “hideously featured,” and braces himself “for the stench of her, the foul smell she was certain to carry.” (BSM 255-258) Mbangu’s disability is his own fault, and his face is not only a reflection of his inner corruption, but also a cautionary tale to those who would try to obtain power fraudulently through the use of magic. Similarly, in the Maui version of the origins of ta moko discussed below, tattooing can represent the disfiguring strike by a god (analogous with the mark of Cain, or Jacob’s limp in Biblical tradition), “divine retaliation” for surpassing one’s superior. In Mäori cosmology, Maui is the god of change and is also considered a trickster.
Beauty and ugliness, and the contrast between tattooed and un-tattooed, appears throughout the novel. Tangi and her followers meet a group of outcasts which also includes several repulsively malformed members. Significantly, the first person they come upon is a middle-aged man with no tattoos, indicating he is not a warrior and implying he is despicable or a coward. He has “missing teeth and stumps from putrid gums.” (BSM 229) The leader of this assemblage is a huge, filthy, hairless man covered in scabby sores, yet finely tattooed—his name, Hakere, means grotesque. And here we have the conceptual shift of the tattoo from being a sign of honour, bravery, and beauty to being associated with perversion, immorality and abnormality; for Hakere is not only physically grotesque but also spiritually or intellectually abhorrent. He rapes Tangi, kills for pleasure, exults in his meanness and ugliness. For Tangi and her people, he becomes a parody and the logical extension of the proud Mäori warrior, a mirror and foil of Kapi.
Fig. 2: The more marked a body is, the more deviant the subject.
Gittleson, et al., claimed a proportional relationship between multiple tattoos and deviancy; “the more marked a body is, the more deviant the subject is likely to be.” Interestingly, Western followers of the ‘modern primitive’ movement also believe that tattoos are “external expression[s] of an (essential) inner self,” though they assert that body modification is a kind of liberation from the constraints of Western society, a redemption of the self achieved through the experience of pain. In language reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount, Michelle Delio, a tattoo enthusiast, declares her tattoos “reveal the truth to those who have eyes to see. …They tell my story.” Rather than the biblical Word becoming flesh, here the flesh becomes word.
Moreover, Sullivan employs Foucault’s theories to posit the tattooed body as more than “a text that simply externalizes the interior (truth of the) subject” and illustrates how the body acts as “both agent and effect of power/knowledge, invested with meanings in accordance with socially specific variables such as gender, ethnicity, class, and so on.” The body is the locus where the acceptable and conventional meets the unacceptable and unconventional, the nexus where these oppositions function, are separated and regulated. This is clearly evident in Kapi, especially during his transitions from warrior, to exile, to outcast and, finally, potential spokesperson for his people. His ta moko remains unchanged, but its function as a mask shifts as it conceals and reveals different aspects of his changing identities.
Masks or masking can also have a sinister dimension, particularly in relation to the anonymity provided by the disguises criminals wear. Many cartoons still depict thieves as having a black scarf or mask over their eyes, while outlaws of all sorts, from bank robbers to terrorists/freedom fighters, often sport any number of disguises (like Australian cultural icon Ned Kelly or members of the IRA, Hamas, and FARQ). Tseëlon contends that the “mask of anonymity can relax the safeguards of controls and inhibitions and shield one from one’s own morality. For many people their own anonymity or the facelessness of the other washes away all their humanity.” This brings to mind the writings of Emmanuel Levinas who proposed the immediacy of the (Other’s) face as the basis for morality. “The notion of the face … finally makes possible the description of the notion of the immediate.” The immediate is “the face of the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death. Thus, the face says to me: you shall not kill.” This is the message revealed to Kapi by the faces of the drowning mother and child; their unmasked faces mean he can no longer be a ruthless warrior.
Fig. 3: Masks can have a sinister dimension.
In the West’s recent past tattoos have often been associated with prisons and ex-cons, an idea inherited from nineteenth century pseudo-scientific pursuits such as phrenology, physiognomic studies, and racial taxonomy. Gina Lombroso-Ferrero and G.W. Grumet, among others, have expounded on the connection between lawbreakers and tattoos. Samuel M. Steward, a university professor who became a tattoo artist in Chicago, noted that in the 1950s many people still thought of tattoos as a visual confirmation of sleaziness and criminality. These ideas echo Czech architect Adolf Loos’ diatribe against any type of ornamentation as being associated with crime, a concept readily adopted by anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists.
In the postcolonial (Westernised) present of Duff’s Both Sides of the Moon most Mäori no longer wear ta moko. In addition, the tattoo markings of some Päkehä usually signify a lower class or criminal status. According to Steward, “Since a tattoo to certain levels of society is the mark of a thug, it becomes also the sign of inarticulate revolt, often producing its only possible result—violence.” This is particularly apt in the case of the modern-day gang members in Both Sides (and even more so in Duff’s Heke Family trilogy). In general, today’s mainstream Päkehä society considers full body or facial tattoos as thuggish and anti-intellectual. However, in a possibly ironic twist, violence usually lands a criminal in jail where, more often than not, he will get a tattoo. In the novel one of Jimmy’s brothers, Brian, will end up killing a rival in a fight, and instead of being honoured as a warrior by getting a facial tattoo, he will be jailed. As a criminal he will bear “a taboo scar signifying the damage he’s done to others—and himself.” (BSM 313) Thus, the prison tattoo acts as a mask, which both reveals the wearer’s identity as a convict (one who has transgressed the law) and conceals other identities (brother, friend, lover, student, etc.). The “taboo scar” is both the literal and figurative marking Brian receives in prison. The word taboo comes from the Polynesian tapu, denoting ritualised and formulaic law. Its use here is doubly significant as it links and contrasts the Mäori’s contemporary disgrace and debasement to their ancient pride and honour, bringing to mind Hakere’s corruption.
For the modern social outcast, getting tattooed can be regarded as “a voluntary act of social self-stigmatization.” In a very real sense the tattooed body is ‘tortured,’ ‘marked,’ and forced to ‘emit signs’ of its subjection. This is certainly the case with Brian, Jimmy’s brother. His tattoo will indicate that he was a prisoner; it is a self-inflicted mark-of-Cain which will forever brand him as a felon, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy setting him apart as an outsider among law-abiding citizens. It also represents an act of will over his own body which is paradoxically constrained (incarcerated), and may also be objectified and used by others (prison rape), against his will. Duff refers to prison rape in his Heke family trilogy (especially in Once Were Warriors and What Becomes of the Broken Hearted). Though it is not mentioned here, one could easily assume that a handsome young man like Jimmy’s brother would become the object of such assaults in the prison’s homosocial environment. His taboo scar is a mask that reveals and conceals more than he may be willing to disclose verbally.
That tattoos serve as non-verbal communication is evident throughout the pre-colonial portions of Duff’s text. Kapi reads and interprets these messages based on his cultural experience and knowledge. Despite having run away from battle (leading to the massacre of his fellow warriors and the destruction of his village), despite living in hiding for over a year, and despite the shocking (for him) thoughts which show him the flaws of his traditional way of life, Kapi still finds pride in his tattoo markings. He still finds it difficult to acknowledge or comprehend the new ways of thinking within the band of outcasts he encounters. He still looks for the familiar trappings of his culture, for the acceptable beliefs, for the social conventions. He assumes that the group’s leader is a tall, muscular, young man, “rather handsome, if it weren’t for absence of facial tattoos, without which no man can be considered truly handsome. No man.” (BSM 217) For Kapi it is the absence rather than a multiplicity of tattoos that marks deviance. The lack of facial tattoos on the virile young man is an interruption or occlusion of the message, which, like a blank (or even missing) page, leaves its reader confused; it provides a negative message and Kapi initially interprets its absence accordingly—until he is able to decipher this new message not as lack or deficiency but as alternative.
Kapi is surprised that the apparent leader is a middle-aged, unmuscular, unimposing man who further stretches Kapi’s incredulity by assuring him that this collective is leaderless. Wild Hair (as he calls himself) is merely acting as the group’s spokesman. They have no chief, no priest, no council of elders, and women have the same right to speak as men. But one of the most startling revelations for Kapi is that the group has no respect for warriorhood, and killing is not part of their ways.
Mihinui is unimpressed by Kapi’s tattoos. She says they are merely adornments; they cannot and do not reveal the true nature of the man behind them. (BSM 258) According to one of the mythological traditions associated with the origins of Mäori tattooing, Maui, the trickster god, was jealous of his human brother-in-law, Irawaru, who, on a fishing trip, caught an enormous amount of fish, while Maui caught none. Maui turned Irawaru into a dog and beat him on the snout with a burning stick. Irawaru was condemned to eating excrement as a result. It is interesting that an old form of facial tattooing prevalent in the south was known as moko kuri (dog tattoo) and that one ethnographic text states that a special type of soot was fed to dogs, whose excrement was used as tattooing pigment. So, in a sense, there is more to Mihi’s ridiculing of Kapi’s tattoos. When she mocks his “proud markings” she is laughing at the idea that his face is smeared in dog shit, and insulting him as nothing more than a mindless beast. Rather than denoting masculine dignity and courage, Kapi’s tattoos betray inhuman fierceness and cruelty. Mihi overturns the traditional appreciation and admiration for the tattooed warrior and the protracted pain he had undergone to receive his moko, and focuses instead on the violence he has perpetrated as a fighter: “[W]hat had he done to deserve these markings he was so proud of? … [T]o gain them it is assumed you give much excruciating pain to others.” (BSM 277-278)
Mihi’s wisdom and eloquence, her evident good breeding, her ability to reason, and her lack of fear or subservience impress Kapi. As they continue their conversations, Kapi (renamed Moonlight) gains a new understanding of the world around him and his place in it. It is as if he has awoken from a dream, as if he has recovered from serious illness. And he begins to perceive Mihi’s beauty; not only the physical attractiveness still evident in the undamaged half of her face, but also the inner radiance of wisdom, intelligence, and compassion—Moonlight looks into her face and knows love as never before. He uses the traditional Mäori way of declaring his love: “Why stars, when I have the light of … the sun, in my face?” (BSM 276) The use of romantic, metaphorical language by a warrior indicates a transition in Kapi/Moonlight; just as his new name indicates, his enlightenment reflects the attitudes and wisdom learned from Mihi. Significantly, Kapi’s conception of a ‘Mäori’ masculinity (which fits the colonial, Western model) is challenged not by contact with the settlers, but by contact with the Mäori outcasts, especially an outcast woman.
Fig. 4: Proud tattoo markings.
Seen or read as pictures, tattoos have stories to tell. In the West it is often taken for granted that tattoos speak for the person who possesses/wears them. Though the subject may be silent or silenced, his body markings tell of who and what others imagine he is: savage, uncivilised, criminal, rebel, pervert, etc. Thus, as Elizabeth Grosz would put it, Kapi’s tattooed face is transformed into text, “fictionalised and positioned within those myths that form [the Mäori] culture’s social narratives and self-representations.” Referring to Alphonso Lingis, Sullivan proposes the tattooed body be read as a map, but cautions that “tattooed bodies, and the stories they seemingly tell, are duplicitous.” Gell also suggests that the skin can be considered as a kind of “external biographical memory, a kind of ever-present, inbuilt system … for reconstructing the person as a locus of remembered events.” This can also be read in light of Foucault’s conception of the body as “imprinted by history” where the face bearing ta moko is literally “the inscribed surface of events.” Thus, Kapi’s moko “is a registration of the causal factors which produced it … a symbolic residue of the totality of causal factors, events, social obligations, individual and collective relationships impinging on the social person.” In the West, the primary reason cited for getting a tattoo is to assert or create a personal identity. Ta moko, on the other hand, places the subject within society, not necessarily as an individual but as a member of the group. When such group identification is no longer viable or possible for Kapi, his tattoos take on new meaning and significance because they do create a personal identity for him within a new context.
Given the possibility of multiple and even contradictory interpretations, it is important for the tattooed subject to regain his voice, to be heard. Mihi’s troupe obtains some books from a group of pale-skinned strangers, curious objects made of thin white layers covered in black symbols and inexplicably bound together. They believe that these objects and their symbols hold the essence of the white people’s way of life. Many of the outcasts decide to make contact with these other outsiders. Mihi tells Kapi/Moonlight that now he can justifiably be proud of his tattooed face, for the markings will be unique among the white men. She assures him that he will have “tales [to] enthral them with.” (BSM 311) Although Gell asserts that a tattoo has meaning only in relation to the specific “external social milieu” which it reflects and in which it was produced, it is possible for that meaning to be communicated outside the boundaries of the generating community. Mihi empowers and emboldens Kapi to assert or reclaim his voice and his ability/right to speak rather than to be read and interpreted by others, especially strangers. In other words, Kapi can be (pro)active in telling his story instead of passively allowing the colonists/settlers to imagine and tell stories about him. As symbols of Mäori culture his tattoos will be a link to the past, a visual record of his courage, a kind of badge of honour. They will reveal his ‘true’ self.
Nickname as Mask
Though tattoos and faces are not central in Ihimaera’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, names and naming take on a similar significance. In many cultures, personal names are indicative of character traits or illustrate a hope for the child. (Re)Naming ceremonies are often performed when a child reaches puberty or adulthood, and again after some momentous occasion such as a major accomplishment or the death of a parent or leader. In Western societies we usually do think of names as meaning something particular. Many of the characters in Nights are given monikers rather than names, illustrative epithets which say almost as much about the namer as the named. This is especially true of most of the gay men who populate the nighttime city. They are compartmentalised (or labelled as types) and de-personalised, even though each carries his own appellation. There is “The Bald One” who avoids sitting under light fixtures (and whose nickname evokes the author James Baldwin); “Wet Dream Walking,” with his washboard abs and popping pecs; “Hope Springs Eternal,” who wears glasses and never gets approached for sex; “Snake Charmer,” of Indian heritage with hypnotically suggestive eyes; “Always a Bridesmaid” and “Fat Forty And a Fairy,” the perpetually present and frequently uninvolved “aunties” of the baths; “Oh My Goodness,” David’s exaggeratedly well-endowed Canadian lover; and a host of other major and minor players.
Though such nicknaming can be considered as marginalising those named, it could also be seen as a kind of masking, a way of protecting their ‘true,’ or private, identities. According to Michael Heppell, the masked performer “enjoys a measure of license which would never be accorded him in his normal state.” The masked and nameless/nicknamed figures in Nights are freed by their masks to act in outrageous ways. As one of their number, David can also shed his inhibitions and become one of the outrageous crowd (though we never learn whether he has a nickname among that group). More important, however, is the way the narrator functions as a mask for Ihimaera himself, allowing him to explore homosexuality in a manner unthinkable for an author so closely associated with Mäori themes and issues.
Ihimaera is known as the first Mäori author to write a novel, and all his work until 1995 had been about Mäori experiences. He is also an active campaigner for Mäori issues. For the indigenous Mäori minority struggling under a few centuries of negative images of its ‘traditional’ masculinity, perpetually reinforced through the depictions of dominant Päkehä society, Mäori writers would have been expected to recover positive images. At the time of publication, David Munro, the narrator/protagonist of Nights, functioned as a mask for Ihimaera: David provided a fictional persona through which Ihimaera could speak without being too readily identified with the subject matter. Homosexuality was (and in many cases, still is) regarded as a decadent, Western import, ‘unmanly,’ incompatible with physically imposing and assertive Mäori masculinity. Depictions of ‘gay’ Mäori men would not only disturb Mäori sensibilities, but also shatter Päkehä illusions—or be perceived as giving Päkehä another reason to dismiss or ridicule Mäori. In addition, among the wider society as well as in the West, Mäori writing is often regarded as being limited to ‘Mäori’ topics. In some ways, the expectation to be ‘postcolonial’ marginalises indigenous writers by declaring their writing is about displacement, repudiation, recovery, etc. By distancing himself from his earlier writing and taking on the narrative persona of a Päkehä man (the mask through which he speaks) Ihimaera truly created for himself “a measure of license” that would not have been accorded him as the author of the first Mäori novel.
Catherine Gallagher has asserted that proper names in novels are “at first promises of characters, and their anaphoric repetition marks the primary textual sites where we expect personages to emerge.” Thus, natural-sounding names help us not only to willingly suspend our disbelief (for as Gallagher points out, the switch in naming conventions from pseudonyms and initials to proper names alerted modern readers to the illusion of, and allusion to, reality) but to also relate to and understand fictional characters in ways which are not possible with ‘real’ people. She illustrates the way in which modern novelistic names sound like real contemporary names, providing the reader with “intentional cues to different modes of reading.”
Because we are conscious of their fictionality, novelistic names not only help us to sort characters into major and minor, round and flat, serious and comic, but also prompt us to begin—or not to begin—the intense imaginative activity of reading character.
So how does the use of nicknames affect our reading of Nights? It seems Ihimaera’s technique harks back to pre-eighteenth-century romances in which pseudonyms “often referred to the moral qualities” of characters in a text. In Nights, however, the qualities referred to are, more often than not, physical, based on outward appearance or its perception. As such, the ‘non-names’ of the characters become masks.
Masks can be seen as a means of homogenising difference, or of concealing individuality in order to highlight a certain attribute. Masks were employed in ancient Greek theatre in order to identify specific characters, types, and emotions, as is still true of many forms of traditional performances, from Japan to Indonesia to Central Africa, as well as in Native American tribes and others. Throughout her striking pictorial on performance in Bali, Judy Slattum elucidates the way in which various masks expose the nature and personality of the characters they portray: Rama’s “refined features … reflect his supreme grace and nobility,” while Rawana’s “bulging eyes” and other grotesque features “betray his wickedness” and Wibisana’s mask “reveals his soul.” The audience instantly knows who is on stage, what role is being performed, and what response or reaction is expected and acceptable. Mikhail Bakhtin asserted,
the mask is connected with the joy of change and reincarnation, with gay relativity and with the merry negation of uniformity and similarity; it rejects conformity to oneself. The mask is related to transformation, metamorphoses, the violation of natural boundaries, to mockery and familiar nicknames. It contains the playful element in life; it is based on a peculiar interrelation of reality and image, characteristic of the most ancient rituals and spectacles.
At Western masquerade balls, carnival festivities, and Halloween parties the object is often to disguise the individual. Many of the available masks and outfits are stock characters. At Halloween these are usually princesses, witches, vampires, and cute little animals. But sometimes we see characters from ‘real’ life (such as George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden or Sadam Hussein in recent years) or popular entertainment (Jason of Friday the 13th fame, Scream’s ghost and Neo from The Matrix trilogy). In comedic representations much is made of the confusion of identities when more than one person wears the same costume. Shakespeare often employed this devise in his romances, which also play with gender confusion, disguise, and illusion.
In Nights, by obscuring the names of many of the men he meets, David (and ultimately, of course, Ihimaera) presents us with caricatures, stock characters in gay culture, stereotypes which we can instantly identify as any number of individuals where individuality is not so desirable. This often takes the form of exaggerated masculine or heterosexual attributes, a kind of hyper-masculinisation of certain ‘types.’ Gay subcultures are plagued by the ‘clone’ phenomenon in which ‘types’ inhabit not only media representations but also the real-life social gatherings and ‘gay ghettos’ of almost every major Western city: the military dude, the leather daddy, the hunky labourer, the gym rat or ‘muscle mary’, the fat and hairy ‘bear’, the young and cute ‘twink’, etc.—adequate variety, yet limited enough to create a perpetual cast of the Village People. In essence, the mask is of more importance here than the individual who is behind/within it and who animates it.
Fig. 5: From the heyday of disco, that 70s cultural icon, The Village People.
Lacan asserts that “the function of the mask … dominates the identifications through which refusals of love are resolved.” So it is that in Nights we do not need to know much about the pair of “cowboys” or “Italian Stallion” to realize that they are infinitely more desirable than “Beer Gut,” “Once a Beauty,” and “Hope Springs Eternal.” We get pulled into the culture of superficiality and quick sex where hard bodies, cute faces, and amazing technique are prized above good character traits and long-term committed relationships. But the constant search for excitement and incredible sex is itself a mask behind which many of the gay men depicted here hide their anxieties and loneliness. According to Butler, the mask “conceals loss, but preserves (and negates) this loss through its concealment.”
Fig. 6: Italian Stallion is more desirable than Beer Gut.
This is also evident in the gay transactions described or suggested in Both Sides. The relationship between Jimmy and Dan is not based on love or mutual admiration. It is a hunger, a need for something that is missing. For Jimmy, contact with Dan provides an emotional as well as a physical release. But it is also a form of retribution on two different levels. Jimmy is ultimately on a Freudian quest for love and acceptance. He is searching for the nurturing his mother has never provided. By having sex with Dan he penalises himself for wanting the unattainable, for being weak. In addition, Jimmy is punishing his mother for abandoning him, for not caring where he is or what he does. His Oedipal fixation is twisted and in his mind he commits the ultimate revenge—he ‘becomes’ his mother by having loveless sex with a virtual stranger.
In Nights David confesses that most of his experiences with men were “anonymous bouts.” (NGS 38) This somehow allowed him to believe that his homosexuality was just a phase. “When having sex with a man I would put up a wall between the physical act and emotional involvement.” (NGS 38) Here the ‘wall’ can also be read or (re)interpreted as another kind of mask—an obstruction behind which David hides, a façade that conceals himself from himself. However, the wall/mask to which he refers in the above quotation is not the only one he has constructed. David is also taking cover behind the masks of normality and social conformity. David Napier suggests that masks are “a means of transgressing boundaries because [they] provide an avenue for selective personification in manipulating certain recognised paradoxes.” In Nights, David Munroe dons different masks as he crosses the boundaries between ‘gay’ and ‘straight.’ For his family he had created a disguise based on denial and a fear of discovery. “I felt that with the right woman I could give up men and become a responsible, contributing citizen.” (NGS 38) He has convinced himself that he is actually heterosexual because he is also capable of loving women and because he dreams of having a family.
Nicknames/masks operate to conceal identity in Ihimaera’s novel, but do these masks also reveal identity? Paradoxically, perhaps, these appellations reveal more about the narrator (and author) who attributes them, than about the characters who are masked by them. There are only two Mäori characters in Nights, and both have only minor speaking parts. We never learn their ‘real’ names. The first was a classmate of David’s at Saint Crispin’s College, a private boarding school for boys. It seems all the other boys called him “Nigger”—and this is the name David continues to use when referring to him. The “Nigger” mask is an unfortunate projection of David’s racism, made worse by the fact that he is completely unaware of it. One could argue that by being Mäori, Ihimaera is able to use the term without negative repercussions, but I do not believe this to be the case for two reasons. First, Ihimaera has chosen a white man as his spokesperson and second, the term is not used in a friendly or endearing manner. Perhaps, however, this is Ihimaera’s way of commenting indirectly on unacknowledged and subconscious racism still present in New Zealand society.
In his seminal exposition of Orientalism, Edward Said demonstrated the gender stereotyping within colonial discourse. The colonial impetus and its justification was often couched in gendered and even sexualised terms, with the imperial power described as masculine, strong and forceful, while the colonised place was viewed as “a geographical space to be cultivated, harvested … as something inviting … penetration, insemination….” The non-European male was portrayed as either lascivious and driven by animalistic urges he could scarcely control, or ‘effeminate’, weak, and passive. “The Orient becomes a living tableau of queerness,” according to Said. Although he was not using the word ‘queer’ with its current connotations of transgressive or alternative sexuality, the statement can be easily read and interpreted in those terms. For the West, the ‘East’ was rife with ‘queer’ activity. An example of this is the feminised depiction of the male figure in Gauguin’s 1902 painting, Marquesan Man in a Red Cape, whose stance curiously mirrors that of the woman in Te nave nave fenua (The Delightful Land, 1892).
Fig. 7: The Noble Savage, according to Gauguin.
David refers to the second Mäori character in Nights as “The Noble Savage.” The implications of that soubriquet cause this reader to cringe. If we are to ignore the negative suggestion of the Mäori man as uncivilised or primitive, we are left with several options. Either David is suffering from the inbred condescension (albeit a ‘positive’ prejudice) of his European forebears, or the author is using irony to highlight the present-day status of Mäori in New Zealand. Ihimaera’s “Noble Savage” is the perfect man—attractive, intelligent, friendly, passionate. He has long black hair and looks as though he belongs in a Gauguin painting: “[He] wears a red flower behind his ear in unaffected delight.” (NGS 16) He is an activist on behalf of gay Mäori and, therefore, David regards him as out of reach: “It is bad enough to be gay in his cultural milieu, but it is doubly disempowering to have a white lover…. His people have already been fucked by whites. First as imperialists. Then as second-class gays within our own white-driven gay networks.” (NGS 17) “The Noble Savage” is a marginalised and de-faced, even though idealised, Mäori character with whom David, the white protagonist, can never have an intimate relationship. He is fetishised, and his nickname alludes not only to the romantic (even erotic) fantasies of colonial Europeans in an earlier era, but also to the contemporary fascination/repulsion with the mysterious and exotic Other.
I met Ihimaera in Auckland, in July 2003. He confirmed, as he has maintained in countless previous interviews, that all his writing is highly autobiographical. Furthermore, he indicated that he chose a Päkehä narrator as the protagonist in Nights as a deliberate strategy to create a space in which he would be heard, to distance his ‘Mäoriness’ from his message, even though David Munro and his situation mirror Ihimaera’s: “I wanted to create a hero who was an Everyman.” He had to wait until a later stage in his life before he felt able to write about a Mäori character who is also gay (in The Uncle’s Story). While it is true that Ihimaera was not using a nom de plume to disguise his identity, it is significant that he adopted a Päkehä narratorial persona. Perhaps in Nights, and in the character of David, Ihimaera is making an indictment of New Zealand’s dominant Päkehä culture (and its gay subculture). It seems to me, however, that by consciously placing himself in the role of the white man (as David the narrator) he is distancing himself, in this instance, from his Mäori identity as well as passing some kind of judgment on Mäori communities within which he does not feel free to express himself as a gay man. There is a complex sort of disengagement occurring here in which the conflicted author falls into the possible trap of writing himself out of his own story. Ihimaera wants to articulate the reality of his homosexuality yet feels he cannot do so within the constraints of his ethnicity. By downplaying (or ignoring) his background he becomes free to talk about his sexuality. This allows him to then look back at himself, to provide an image of himself from the outside or portray an idealised projection. The irony is that in the process, his ethnicity does become marginalised and cannot occupy a more important position within this new narrative.
That Ihimaera chose to write Nights in the Gardens of Spain from a Päkehä perspective was an interesting and controversial choice for something as personal as a “coming out” novel. But as the author explains, “I wasn’t ready to write a book with a central Mäori character as a gay person…. because I was also trying to work out my own identification.” In a way, there would have been too many issues involving ethnicity and sexuality to tackle in one volume. “So it was important for me first of all to write about cultural identity [in the early novels]…. I could then look at the role which sexual identity played in the making of a person.”
Fig. 8: Ihimaera as Maui, god of change.
During the interview with Ellis Ihimaera strongly inferred that “The Noble Savage” is his alter ego: when he speaks of being Mäori and gay, it is almost word for word a speech Tane (“The Noble Savage”) gives David in Nights (and repeated in The Uncle’s Story). In addition, the gay organization Te Waka Awhina Tane which “The Noble Savage” is said to have founded is an actual support group Ihimaera established in 1990. After tackling issues of ethnicity in his earlier works and establishing himself as a leading figure of the Mäori literary and arts scene, Nights in the Gardens of Spain (and later The Uncle’s Story) allowed Ihimaera to turn his attention to sexuality and explore different facets of his own identity.
John Emigh tells us that the relationship between mask and masked is a “paradigm for the relationships between self and other (and self and self) that lie at the heart of theatrical process.” In theatre masks are donned to change the actor into someone or something else, they act as a kind of conduit for a different personality or being. In some cases the mask is regarded as being inhabited by the Other which the actor/performer channels. For example, in Balinese rituals (as in those of Papua New Guinea, the Pende peoples of Central Africa, and other so-called ‘shamanistic’ performances around the world), the performers are thought of as vessels for spiritual forces which have “no material form in themselves and must take up residence” in the mask-wearers, who “provide them momentary material manifestations.” So we see that even though “in the West, the word ‘mask’ has come to connote something disingenuous, something false … in many other cultures, such connotations do not pertain, or at least are secondary to the development of personae that the masks incarnate.” The English word for person is derived from the Latin persona (meaning mask), thus linking the idea of identity to notions of performance and image. According to Marcel Mauss, the classical Latin concept of the mask also implied or alluded to “one’s role [or] ‘true’ face.”
Much has been written about femininity and homosexuality as masquerade. It has not been my intention here to show that masculinity can also be understood as masquerade (not only as the ideal against which women and gays are measured, or which femininity and homosexuality at the same time confirm, perpetuate, and subvert). Rather, I wished to explore the question posed by Tseëlon, et al: Does a mask conceal or reveal one’s identity? According to Tseëlon, “masking is an extension of the notion of performance…. [i]t evokes an idea of an authentic identity … only to dismantle the illusion of such identity.” This can be related to Judith Butler’s elaboration of gender performativity—the idea that there are specific characteristics for one’s sex which one must display and which society normalises, categorises, and regulates, especially in relation to sexual orientation.
Masks both reveal and conceal, sometimes simultaneously, as I hope I have been able to illustrate through the examples in Alan Duff’s Both Sides of the Moon and Witi Ihimaera’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. In the former, Kapi’s facial tattoos act as a mask that displays his virile masculinity and courage as a warrior, but it is not until he learns that the mask is unnecessary and likely to be misunderstood and misinterpreted that he gains a true appreciation for his heritage. In the latter, the nicknames David assigns to others mask and conceal their ‘true’ identities. Paradoxically, this masking of others reveals aspects of both the narrator’s and the author’s identities. In addition, the mask of “The Noble Savage” reveals Ihimaera’s ‘true’ face in the process of concealing the author.