Writer Sara Nović’s sophomore novel, True Biz, released this year, is set in the halls of the River Valley School for the Deaf and was optioned for a series adaptation well before its publication date. I asked Nović to provide us with five books she loves by deaf authors.
Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, Haben Girma (Twelve, 2019).
This memoir, by a White House Champion of Change and recipient of the Helen Keller Achievement Award, begins with the terrifying moment when the then-7-year-old Girma’s father is arrested by Ethiopian soldiers, leaving her alone on a plane to London, and culminates in her time at Harvard Law School, where Girma is also the first-ever deafblind graduate. “I think this book is an important one because it is modern and [also] gets into the nitty gritty of how Girma navigates everyday, and not so everyday, activities,” Nović says. “This seems to be information that the younger generation – who is only exposed to Deafblindness via a black-and-white photograph of Keller in a textbook – craves, and I think Girma provides that while steering away from the ‘inspiration porn’ trap.”
Continuum, Chella Man (Penguin Workshop, 2021).
Man, a deaf trans masculine activist, model, and actor, penned this memoir as part of Penguin’s Pocket Change series, a collection of books that discusses activism, sexuality, and intersectionality in the literary world. “Man’s journey is so fascinating and singular, and in my opinion would absolutely merit a memoir anyway, but in terms of leveraging the industry’s reach, this is where the celebrity power kicks in,” Nović tells me.
Deaf Republic (Poems), Ilya Kaminsky (Graywolf, 2019).
This “parable in poems,” according to the book’s marketing materials, starts when the inhabitants of an entire village lose their hearing after soldiers shoot and kill a deaf boy. It won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, among others. Kaminsky is hard of hearing and has also translated several works of Russian poetry and is also the author of Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press).
“I don’t really think there’s a single way to characterize deaf poetry, really – though I do think that the rich imagery and the way he leans into rhythm in many of his poems speaks to Kaminsky’s point of view as a hard-of-hearing person. But what I really love about this collection is that it is all about deafness itself as a means of revolution. And, as a fiction writer myself, I’m a sucker for a book of poems that also has a narrative throughline.”
The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure, Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, Ceil Lucas, Robert Bayley, and Joseph Hill. (Gallaudet University Press, 2011).
An artifact of Gallaudet University’s Black ASL Project, this book collects stories and languages of the Black ASL community. “So much of the field of Deaf Studies centers whiteness,” Nović told me, “and Dr. McCaskill gives readers a whole new way into understanding Deaf culture and history in this book. The segregation of deaf schools alongside hearing ones is something that gets whitewashed just as it does in hearing culture, but BASL is stark and beautiful proof of that history and a good starting point for learning about the rich Black Deaf culture of today. For true ASL/Deaf culture novices, it might be worth pairing this book with a more general overview of Deaf culture, like Carol Padden’s Inside Deaf Culture, but in either case, everyone has a lot to learn from this book.”
Chattering, Louise Stern (Granta Books, 2011).
This collection of short stories is populated by people who have grown up deaf (Stern herself grew up in an exclusively deaf community; she is fourth-generation deaf on her father’s side and third-generation deaf on her mother’s side). “One of the things I love most about this book,” notes Novic, “is that it’s filled with women protagonists. And, because the nature of a short story collection allows for a reader to explore multiple characters, situations, and settings across a single work, we get to see multiple ways of being deaf and communicating with the hearing world, resulting in a more holistic view of the deaf experience. I remember being struck by the imagery in these stories, and vivid visual descriptions are what I cherish most about reading other deaf writers.”