‘The vehicle for my emotions’: how sign language helped a deaf writer find his voice | Books

In the years since I wrote my first book, deaf creatives have undeniably gained mainstream visibility, especially in film and television. Thanks to the tireless work of deaf and disabled advocates, the majority of the deaf characters on screen are now played by deaf actors. From the Oscar-winning ensemble of Coda and superheroes in Marvel’s Eternals to the latest Spider-Man video game and reality stars like Nyle DiMarco and Rose Ayling-Ellis, deaf artists have repeatedly smashed through long barriers. Deaf screenwriters Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern even showed off double talents by appearing in and writing the Sundance TV series This Close.

Also in the literature we have seen prominent works by deaf writers. In poetry, the brilliant Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic was published to widespread critical acclaim, and Raymond Antrobus became the first poet ever to win the Rathbones Folio Prize. Last month, there were two deaf writers – DiMarco and me – on the New York Times’ order list.

But it was not always so. I wrote my first novel, which was published in 2015 while I was a student on a diploma writing course. Each day, my classmates and I gathered on the fourth floor of Columbia University’s Dodge Hall to be taught the craft of writing and distinguishing what constituted a book or story ‘worth’. I was the only deaf person there.

I spent most of my time imitating the voices of the writers we read, instead of trying to find my own. I suppose this is true for many young writers, but for me there was an extra layer of separation from myself – my deaf identity (generally we use the big D to denote deafness as a culture / society, versus deafness with small letters like the audiological condition) became increasingly important to me, but there were no deaf writers or characters in the books I had read. Slowly I came to assume that they just did not exist.

Smashing through barriers… Ellis with her dance partner, Giovanni Pernice, winners of Strictly Come Dancing 2021
Smashing through barriers … Rose Ayling-Ellis with her dance partner, Giovanni Pernice, winners of Strictly Come Dancing 2021. Photo: Guy Levy / BBC / PA

It was abilityism, first systemic, then internalized, that made me think this way. The isolation I experienced might sound naive to deaf people who grew up with the privilege of a robust deaf education or a nearby creative community. For me, although I have always loved learning, it had long been synonymous with some degree of loneliness. Since I had only been taught hearing aids in hearing classrooms, I believed in writing belonged to to the hearing world, and I was unsure if I would be able to break through.

So, about halfway through my graduate studies, a professor awarded us The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I still remember the tension in my stomach the moment I realized the characters were deaf.

The tension was short-lived. I quickly learned that literary fiction was an inhospitable place for the deaf. The character John Singer was less human than he was receptive to the thoughts and feelings of hearing characters, and by the end of the novel, both he and his only friend, Spiros, were also deaf, driven insane, and died.

As abrasive an introduction to deaf characters as it was, it would also come to ping something latent in me. I continued in the program, read many beautiful books, took lectures from intelligent professors, and got a handful of hearing friends who dared to learn American Sign Language (ASL) to share the work of conversation. Often it was a positive environment and I learned a lot. I finished writing my first novel there.

That book, Girl at War, was personal and important to me, but after it was finished, I remained haunted by John Singer’s ghost. I would not be a vessel to hear stories, and I would not be alone anymore. I had deaf friends, but they were not writers.

Fortunately, the revelation that I needed to communicate with deaf writers happened at just the right time. It was around 2015 and social media was budding; Twitter in particular gave me the opportunity to get in touch with the deaf writing community. In virtual spaces, we could analyze what it meant to be a deaf person working in English, discuss the importance of intersectional representation of deaf people in the literature. For the most part, though, being with other deaf writers gave me exactly what hearing writers get by being in common with each other: the courage to sit down and grab the book I really wanted to write.

True Biz, my new book, is a completely deaf novel in character, plot and form. Lately, while traveling and talking to readers about True Biz, I have finally been able to state what has always been true, even when I inadvertently fought against it: I would not have become a writer without ASL. For some, this seems counterintuitive as I write in English. But language carries more than the work of communicating with the ordinary world; it is also the inner tool of our thoughts and feelings, the mechanism by which we understand ourselves. Without first having ASL, I would not have understood myself as someone with a story to tell.

Deafness, of course, is not a monolith, and writers and creators have only just scratched the surface of the deaf experience. There is still a lot of work to be done to reinforce the different voices in our society. The inclusion of the deaf and disabled is not a box to be checked on an equity checklist – it is a state of constant progress. It is my hope that the current increase in representation will not be perceived as a fashion phenomenon or a “moment” for the deaf, but the new normal. While the level of deaf visibility may feel new to most, as it once did for me, we need to understand that dozens of talented deaf writers and creative writers have always been there and always deserved to be heard. What is changing now is the willingness of the hearing world to listen.

  • True Biz by Sara Nović is published by Little, Brown for £ 18.99. To support Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery costs may apply.

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