Literary characters as masks: A reflection on identity during a pandemic

student wearing a dark mask with pom-poms with words #IRunWithMaud
For the final project in a Penn English course on young adult literature, Amy Juang created masks for characters in five books. A double major in English and visual studies from Minneapolis, Juang graduated in May. 

What mask would Jane Eyre wear? 

It would be simple, but elegant, like the heroine in the Charlotte Brontë novel, thought Penn student Amy Juang, choosing a muslin with a delicate gray floral pattern to create one of five masks for the final project in her English course on young adult literature. 

On the other end of the literary spectrum, what would warrior Katniss Everdeen in the dystopian adventure “The Hunger Games” use? A white sport sock, what she had available at the moment, Juang decided.

A May graduate with an English and visual studies double major in the College of Arts & Sciences, Juang says she has always liked to make things. So when faced with the challenge of a final project for the course Young Adult Literature: The Eternal Awkward, she turned to her sewing machine. 

“I was thinking about the pandemic and identity, which is an important theme in coming-of-age novels,” Juang says. “If these literary characters were living today, how would they show their own identity if everyone was wearing a mask?” 

The course was meant to be “critical-creative,” and Juang embodied that spirit in several ways, says Melissa Jensen, who has been teaching at Penn for 12 years. Jensen was taken especially with the asymmetrical black-on-black mask with red sequins that Juang made for vampire Carmilla, a dark-haired, mysterious beauty in the novella by the same name written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

“‘Carmilla’ is really about young women’s sexuality during Victorian times, so for Amy not just to get that essence of ‘Carmilla’ and the character but to show it in such an absolutely timely, topical way, was impressive,” Jensen says. “She absolutely hit the critical-creative target. She nailed it.”

A mask made of muslin fabric with a floral design in grey
A mask for Jane Eyre, the heroine in the Jane Austen novel, simple and elegant. 
a mask made from the heel portion of a sock
A mask for heroine Katniss Everdeen in the dystopian novel “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins is made from a sport sock. 
a black mask with sequins
A mask for heroine Cramilla, a dark-haired, mysterious beauty who is a vampire in the novel by the same name. 
a mask with many ribbons in the middle and jagged teeth on the edges
A mask for the shape-shifting monster girl character in the fantasy “Nimona” features floating ribbons.
Amy Juang created each mask as a reflection of a particular character in literature. Clockwise from top left: Jane Eyre in “Jane Eyre,” Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games,” the shape-shifting monster girl in “Nimona,” and Carmilla in “Carmilla.”

Jensen encouraged her 26 students to find creative way to interpret the literature they read throughout the semester. They produced a film, a screenplay, a stage play, and even a computer algorithm to analyze young adult literature. “The class did extraordinary work during this period of upheaval and anxiety,” Jensen says. 

In approaching her project, Juang says she was also thinking about cultural differences: why in the United States some people are resistant to wearing masks. In Asia, she says, wearing masks is more acceptable, something for survival. American culture, she says, is centered around individualism, and a mask can be viewed as a visual marker of uniformity and encroaching on individual freedoms. 

But a mask can also be used for individual expression, she says. 

The mask she created for the shape-shifting monster girl in the fantasy graphic novel “Nimona” by Noelle Stevenson features brightly colored floating ribbons that can move and pink felt triangle teeth along the edges. 

Marjane Santrapi in the autobiographical book “Persepolis” wears a Malcom X button on her denim jacket, which creates controversy. Juang added #IRunWithMaud to the mask of thick dark navy fabric in reference to the campaign to honor Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was allegedly shot and killed by white men while jogging in Georgia. “I wanted a contemporary twist to her mask,” Juang says. 

Juang has been living with her family in Minneapolis since the pandemic restrictions started in March, so she had the sewing machine and fabric and supplies at the ready. She learned to sew when she had just become a teenager herself, and liked to make quilts. She is planning a move to San Francisco as soon as that is feasible to start a new job with Adobe

“I really love to make things with my hands. Now that I’m home, I do a lot of planting and cooking and sewing and painting. I also picked up fishing, which is really fun,” she says. “I think that gave me the confidence to do a project like this and whip out the sewing machine.”

Student sitting outside in sunshine
Amy Juang