‘The vehicle for my feelings’: how sign language helped a deaf author find her voice | Books

In the years since I wrote my first book, deaf creatives have undeniably gained mainstream visibility, particularly in film and television. Thanks to the tireless work of deaf and disabled advocates, the majority of deaf characters on screen are now being played by deaf actors. From the Oscar-winning ensemble of Coda and superheroes in Marvel’s Eternals to the recent Spider-Man video game and reality stars such as Nyle DiMarco and Rose Ayling-Ellis, deaf performers have repeatedly smashed through longstanding barriers. Deaf screenwriters Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern even showcased dual talents by starring in and writing the Sundance television series This Close.

In literature, too, 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 authors – DiMarco and me – on the New York Times bestellers list.

But it hasn’t always been this way. I wrote my first novel, published in 2015, while I was a student on a graduate 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 discern what constituted a book or story’s “worth”. I was the only deaf person there.

I spent most of my time trying to mimic the voices of the authors we read rather than trying to find my own. I suspect this is true of lots of young writers, but for me there was an added layer of separation from self – my Deaf identity (generally we use the big D to denote Deafness as a culture / community, versus the lowercase-d deafness as the audiologic state) was increasingly important to me, but there were no deaf writers or characters in the books I’d read. Slowly, I’d come to assume they just didn’t exist.

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

It was ableism, first systemic, then internalized, that made me think this way. The isolation I was experiencing might sound naive to Deaf people who grew up with the privilege of a robust Deaf education or a nearby creative community. For me, though I always loved learning, it had long been synonymous with a certain degree of solitude. Having been taught exclusively hearing works in hearing classrooms, I believed writing belonged to the hearing world, and I was unsure if I would be able to break through.

Then, about halfway through my graduate studies, a professor assigned us The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I still remember the flutter of excitement in my stomach the moment I realized those characters were deaf.

The thrill was shortlived. Quickly I learned that literary fiction was an inhospitable place for deaf people. The character of John Singer was less human being than he was receptacle for the thoughts and feelings of hearing characters, and by the end of the novel both he and his only friend, Spiros, also deaf, were 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, ingested lectures from intelligent professors, and made a handful of hearing friends who ventured to learn American Sign Language (ASL) in order 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 done, I remained haunted by the ghost of John Singer. I didn’t want to be a vessel for hearing stories, and I didn’t want to be alone any more. I had Deaf friends, but they were not writers.

Fortunately, the revelation that I needed to commune with Deaf writers happened at exactly the right time. It was around 2015, and social media was burgeoning; Twitter in particular allowed me to connect with the Deaf writing community. In virtual spaces, we could parse out what it meant to be a Deaf person working in English, discussing the importance of intersectional representation of deaf people in literature. Mostly, though, being with other Deaf writers gave me exactly what hearing writers get from being in the community with one another: the courage to sit down and tackle the book I really wanted to write.

True Biz, my new book, is a thoroughly Deaf novel, in character, plot and form. Lately, as I travel and speak with readers about True Biz, I’ve finally been able to verbalize what has always been true, even when I was unwittingly fighting against it: I wouldn’t have become a writer without ASL. For some, this seems counterintuitive, since I write in English. But language bears more than the work of communicating with the mainstream world; it is also the internal vehicle for our thoughts and feelings, the mechanism through which we understand ourselves. Without first having had ASL, I would not have understood myself as a person with a story to tell.

Deafness isn’t a monolith, of course, and writers and creators have only just scratched the surface of the deaf experience. There is still much work to be done to amplify the diverse voices within our community. Deaf and disability inclusion isn’t a box to be ticked off an equity checklist – it’s a state of constant progress. It’s my hope that the current increase in representation will not be viewed as a fad or a “moment” for deaf people, but the new normal. While the level of deaf visibility may feel new to most, as it did once to me, we need to understand that scores of talented deaf writers and creatives have always been there, and have always deserved to be heard. What’s changing now is the hearing of the world’s willingness to listen.

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

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