Revisiting the Vibrancy of Deaf Culture: A Reading List

Updated 7/17/18: Over the weekend, an astute reader noticed a reading list I wrote in 2015, “Deaf Culture and Sign Language,” which purported to celebrate Deaf culture, didn’t feature any pieces written by d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing authors. I apologized. I should have elevated the stories of Deaf people directly, rather than those speaking on their behalf. My editors and I decided the best course of action was to update this list to make it more representative and inclusive, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to rectify my mistake. Many thanks especially to Sara Nović for her advocacy and reading recommendations and to Katie L. Booth for her idea-bouncing and guidance.

1. “At Home in Deaf Culture: Storytelling in an Un-Writeable Language.”  (Sara Nović, Lit Hub, June 2016)

Sara Nović writes about living at the intersections of three languages and how different facets of her personality manifest in each one:

What does it mean to be a writer whose language negates the possibility of the written word? On one hand, perhaps this is part of its pull—I exist in the present in ASL because the anxieties of my work are bound up in another language. On the other, writing, books, the things I have loved most since I was small, are at odds with my body. On days like today, when writing is difficult, this feels like a loss. The one language in which I am fully comfortable I cannot write, not exactly. But without it I would certainly be a lesser storyteller.

2. “How the Deaf and Queer Communities are Tackling Oppression Together.” (Alex Lu, The Establishment, June 2016)

Alex Lu, a Deaf-queer academic, presents a compelling argument for the increasing interdependence of the queer and Deaf communities. I especially appreciated Lu’s analysis of the impossibility of (white, straight, cis) interpreters’ objectivity.

3. “Distantism.” (John Lee Clark, August 2017)

DeafBlind poet John Lee Clark created the word “distantism” to describe “the privileging of the distance senses of hearing and vision” and gives several piercing examples of the insidiousness with which distantism permeates hearing and sighted societies and affects DeafBlind folks.

4. “My Dream Play.” (John Lee Clark, Scene4 Magazine, April 2015)

Many DeafBlind people avoid theatre—including interpreted theatre—because of its inaccessibility, explains John Lee Clark. Instead, Clark proposes several examples of what a Pro-Tactile play might look like, including a stageless “mingle” in which actors make contact with every member of the audience to communicate their part in the plot:

The actors’ task is to build the same basic story in the minds of everyone they meet. They have a set of messages to get across while working the room. Say you have a love-triangle story. We get to meet all three parties, listen to them rationalize or wax lyrical or bad-mouth another party. We get conflicting stories. We are asked what we think, to take sides, to give advice, even to intervene.

5. “The Conveyor Belt.” (Louise Stern, Granta, February 2016)

Short fiction from Louise Stern, who is fourth-generation Deaf and an accomplished author, playwright, artist, filmmaker and magazine publisher.

6. “Christine Sun Kim with Jeffrey Mansfield.” (Coronagraph, March 2015)

In my original list, I included an interview with Christine Sun Kim, but her interviewer was hearing. This time, the interviewer is Jeffrey Mansfield, a deaf designer who participated in Kim’s sound installation 4×4. It’s a detailed, fascinating look into the way Kim explores and expresses sound across different mediums:

In Stockholm, the attendees ended up hearing noises as the result of both space and voices. They knew those voices were present but distorted, and with 20 Hz being the limit of normal human listening, those voices, which were sounded out as low frequency (7-35 Hz) were mostly imperceptible by ears. The voices then became a visible and felt vibration within the space itself and the sound engineers tuned and calibrated these long sound waves to bring out the architectural features’ resonant frequencies. 7 Hz at the front window, 10 Hz on the back wall, and so forth.

Original, September 2015: While learning about language for last week’s Reading List, I read a number of stories about the Deaf community. Deaf culture is unique and thriving. As Sujata Gupta puts it in her essay for Matter:

Very few hearing people are aware of the vibrancy and depth of Deaf culture. It’s a world with its own etiquette and norms. It has languages—the many different forms of sign—as rich and nuanced as any spoken tongue. Like any culture, it has its own interpretation of history. There are Deaf theater companies and Deaf film festivals and Deaf comedy shows. And these are not facsimiles of hearing-world versions, with speech replaced by sign. The shared experience of deafness, and the physical nature of sign, make Deaf arts distinct in a way that most hearing people cannot appreciate.

The following four stories demonstrate this vibrancy and history — the enduring presence of Deaf culture and its advocates.

1. “A Linguistic Big Bang.” (Lawrence Osborne, New York Times, October 1999)

“No linguist could create a language with half the complexity or richness that a 4-year-old could give birth to.” In 1980s Managua, deaf schoolchildren developed their own sign language from scratch. Subsequently, Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN) is transcribed by its student inventors, developing its own dialects and changing the field of linguistics. Lawrence Osborne travels to the Escuelita de Bluefields to meet Dr. Judy Kegl and her signing students. (Something that struck me in this essay: Kegl’s students do not learn any other kinds of sign language, in order to preserve their indigenity.)

2. “The Silencing of the Deaf.” (Sujata Gupta, Matter, April 2014)

Cochlear implants make hearing accessible, but will their proliferation eliminate Deaf culture? Meet Derek and Christine Reid, hearing parents whose daughter, Ellie, was born deaf. Christine and Derek are good parents facing a big decision: give their daughter the ability to hear, or encourage her to embrace sign language? Science writer Sujata Gupta intertwines the Reids’ story with a brief but thorough history of American Sign Language, a visit to a Cochlear implant conference, and interviews with Deaf and hearing folks on both sides of the debate.

3. “Deaf Artist Christine Sun Kim is Reinventing Sound.” (Cassie Packard, Vice, April 2015)

Christine Sun Kim eschews the idea that vibrations are the only way Deaf people can experience sound–indeed, she seeks to expand the definition of sound itself.

Piecing together a tangle of overlapping languages and systems, including musical notation, body language, and American Sign Language (ASL), which she describes as similar to sound in its intrinsic spatiality…Experiencing her work is similar to the moment when one realizes listening to the same song in the dark is different than hearing it in the light.

If you’re as intrigued as I was after reading Kim’s profile at Vice, read this interview with the artist at Medium.

4. “The Sign for This.” (Katie Booth, Vela, June 2015)

Katie Booth is the hearing granddaughter of Deaf grandparents–the only granddaughter who learns Sign, who learns it at such a young age, she becomes the object of study for a local university. Booth writes about the harsh conditions of boarding schools for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing, where Sign was forbidden and speech enforced, under penalty of physical abuse. But Sign endured, and Booth concludes that her grandmother was one of the brave students who spread her language and culture. I am taking a writing class right now, and this is the sort of essay I’d like to write one day. It is a collision of love and craft.