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Broadening the Bookshelves: Getting to know deaf literature

This month, we’re focusing on deaf literature.

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Note: In conversations with our experts for this installation, we learned that there is some question still about whether it’s more appropriate to use capital-D Deaf, lowercase-d deaf, or some combination of the two. We also learned that the National Deaf Center has chosen to use the lowercase-d version of the term, which is, in their words, inclusive of “people who may identify as deaf, deafblind, deafdisabled, hard of hearing, late-deafened, and hearing impaired.” In our interviews, however, we have opted to honor the usage that each interviewee preferred to use, so you may see some discrepancy between our experts.

 

When I first started planning this column, I sent a call out to my network to ask what literatures they would like to see covered in it. One answer, from a colleague in the work I do in inclusion education, stood out to me: “May I suggest a column on deaf literature?” 

My knee-jerk reaction got the better of me, and I quickly replied, “Of course!” But really, I had no idea what that actually meant. Deaf literature! Surely deaf literature is the same as hearing literature. Since deaf people can read, could it possibly be all that different? 

A quick internet search proved me wrong right away. I stumbled onto a post by Dr. Kristen Harmon, who teaches creative writing at Gallaudet University, a bilingual American Sign Language (ASL)-English university. “None of my students at that time included sign language or Deaf characters or ways of being in their stories,” she writes, noting that this is a clear sign of the dearth of deaf characters in American literature.

I wondered if there were specific markers of deaf literature that I, as a hearing individual, might be overlooking or underappreciating or, more likely, some combination of the two. I reached out to Jenna Beacom, who is a sensitivity reader for deaf literature and a writer herself. We started out by talking about what makes deaf literature deaf literature. “First of all, I’d say it has to be a deaf author,” she said. “If not, it has to be someone very experienced with deaf culture. I did a sensitivity read for a book that was written by a hearing, long-term educational interpreter. She knew her stuff.” But Beacom underscores the importance of “centering the deaf experience.” “Some hearing people have enough knowledge to write this well, [but] I still think they should defer to deaf authors,” she said. 

Dr. Michael Skyer, who teaches deaf pedagogy at Rochester Institute of Technology, agreed. “The ‘line’ between biography and literature is thin in deaf literature. Most deaf rhetors/authors/artists draw heavily on personal narratives and their own formative experiences to craft their works; others look to document or understand a diverse cross-section of other deaf community members, perhaps in an effort to synthesize diverse narratives into typical ones,” he wrote me. 

So far, this is all tracking with what I think I know about most marginalized literatures. But I know I’m missing something, and Skyer illuminates for me: “Deaf literature is often wrongly characterized as visual. While it is visual, it is not only visual but multimodal. This multimodality includes traditional memoirs, novels, and poems, but also sign language poems and longer narratives captured on video or film,” he told me. “The aesthetics of deaf art are multimodal and visual and bodily and kinetic; whereas many traditional nondeaf authors are aural, linear, ‘black and white’ (in a literal sense), and ultimately focused narrowly on language as the mode of expression. Deaf rhetors/authors/artists are eminently multimodal; the most talented of them eschew language as a singular container of meaning-making, and this is the key draw for me.”

Beacom points out another characteristic of deaf literature that hearing writers may not pay as much attention to: close detail in terms of action blocking or description. She noted, “One [difference] would be an emphasis on describing the scene and how people relate to each other. Can they see each other? Are their hands busy? Does it make sense that they are doing X and signing at the same time?” 

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Our discussion quickly moved onto a darker side of these differences: “One of the single things that make me realize that I’m reading a deaf author and not a hearing one is whether the deaf character exists in a vacuum. This is a very common trope for hearing authors. There is this whole hearing world and then, oop! One single deaf person, who is fluent in sign and loves their hearing friends and is not interested in finding any other deaf people. Deaf authors have deaf friend groups. We know how important we are to each other in a hearing society.”

Beacom, who also has a master’s degree in deaf education, points out that, aside from being an annoying, unrealistic trope, this kind of writing has what she sees as dangerous linguistic implications: “There is a deaf character, who has been deaf from birth and is fluent in sign language, and has no deaf friends or family. How did they become fluent in ASL? Why do they not display any cognitive delays? It assumes that a deaf child has full access to language when there is no sign around that deaf child. This is a narrative convenience but leads hearing people to think that deaf kids just have this language in them, ready to go, that doesn’t have to be nurtured or taught…A deaf child without access to spoken language and without a rich sign language environment will not learn language and will experience language deprivation and cognitive delays. This is the kind of background thing that can seep in and have real-life consequences. A hearing person reads a bunch of books like this and later has a deaf kid. That person can be even unconsciously influenced. ‘Oh, the kid will be fine. No need to teach ASL.’ Kids must have ASL early, or there can be serious consequences.” 

This takes me back to Skyer’s comment that deaf literature is multimodal, and I’m reminded that he includes “rhetors” and “artists” in his discussion of deaf literature. In general, he told me, he believes that literature should include more forms of modality. “But it is not only the number of modes but the quality of the modes used. It is not just the quality of their use but the depth and intensity to which end or through which means that they are employed. Deaf people are usually and reductively classified as ‘visual’ people; and that is true on the surface, but as my 600-page PhD dissertation suggests, visuality is always subsumed within a larger rubric of multimodality. As we increase visuality, we also increase multimodality. Both are good and ethical as well as aesthetic,” he said. “One challenge deaf literature poses to the canon is enlarging what (deaf) literature is and does and what it is not and cannot do,” he added, citing visual vernacular, an art form pioneered by the deaf artist Bernard Bragg, which uses sign language, mime, poetry, and cinematography as an example of how far literature can go. (Skyer also refers to art by artists Christine Sun Kim and David Call, “who very often create visual art forms, including words, texts, and depictions of signs or handshapes in isolation or in conjunction with other imagery.”)

Armed with this broader definition of literature, I wonder if Skyer feels like deaf literature, ends up being more inclusive or more collaborative than hearing literature. “I think participatory is perhaps a better term,” he told me. “As viewers of deaf art/writing, we not only consume and critique but also interact with the art and texts; the actions taken on the part of the audience (as consumers or as critics) can be at least as important as those of the artist who produced them, but surely they are of a different character.” 

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Both Beacom and Skyer see deaf literature as being more in need of authentic voices. Of the six manuscripts Beacom was vetting the month we talked for this column, none was written by a deaf person. And Skyer worries about a “key dilemma” for the genre overall of deaf literature: “Aside from other deaf readers/viewers and students of sign language or deaf culture or deaf education, who reads/views/participates in/with deaf literature?…Do nondeaf persons actually care about deaf experiences and deaf lives and deaf worlds (or is deafness, for them, another identity de jour?)…I think a major point of transition will be needed where deaf authors/rhetors/artists are capable of creating art, music, poems, literature that has nothing at all to do with the traditional tropes of deafness….Can we imagine a deaf writer who does not write about deafness directly at all?” 

 

Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA program at Bay Path University and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.

 

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