The narrator in the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been abducted and kept as one of the concubines, handmaids, for reproductive purposes by the ruling class. The novel was first published in 1985.
‘The Japanese tourists come toward us, twittering, and we turn our heads away too late: our faces have been seen.
There’s an interpreter, in the standard blue suit and red –patterned tie, with the winged-eye tie pin. He’s the one who steps forward, out of the group, in front of us, blocking our way. The tourists bunch behind him; one of them raises a camera.
“Excuse me,” he says to both of us, politely enough.
“They’re asking if they can take your picture.”
I look down at the sidewalk. Shake my head for No. What they must see is the white wings only, a scrap of face, my chin and part of my mouth. Not the eyes. I know better than to look the interpreter in the face. Most of the interpreters are Eyes, or so it’s said.
I also know better than to say Yes. Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen – to be seen – is to be- her voice trembled – penetrated. What you much be, girls, is impenetrable. She called us girls.
Beside me, Ofglen is also silent. She’s tucked her red-gloved hnds up into her sleeves, to hide them.
The interpreter turns back to the group, chatters at them in staccato. I know what he’ll be saying, I know the line. He’ll be telling them that the women here have different customs, that to stare at them through the lens of a camera is, for them, an experience of violation.
I’m looking down, at the sidewalk, mesmerized by the women’s feet. One of them is wearing open-toed sandals, the toenails painted pink. I remember the smell of nail polish, the way it wrinkled if you put the second coat on too soon, the satiny brushing of sheer pantyhose against the skin, the way the toes felt, pushed towards the opening in the shoe by the whole weight of the body. The woman with painted toes shifts from one foot to the other. I can feel her shoes, on my own feet. The smell of nail polish has made me hungry.
“Excuse me,” says the interpreter again, to catch our attention. I nod, to show I’ve heard him. “He asks, are you happy,” says the interpreter. I can imagine it, their curiosity: Are they happy? How can they be happy? I can feel their bright black eyes on us, the way they lean a little forward to catch our answers, the women especially, but the men too: we are secret, forbidden, we excite them.
Ofglen says nothing. There is a silence. But sometimes it’s as dangerous not to speak.
“Yes, we are very happy,” I murmur. I have to say something. What else can I say?”
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)