In the years since I wrote my first book, Deaf creatives have undeniably gained visibility with mainstream audiences, especially in film and television. Thanks to the tireless work of Deaf and disabled advocates, the majority of Deaf characters on screen are now portrayed 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 artists have repeatedly broken down long-standing barriers. date. Deaf screenwriters Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern even showcased dual talent while starring in and writing the Sundance TV series This Close.
In literature too, we have seen outstanding works by deaf writers. In poetry, Ilya Kaminsky’s brilliant Deaf Republic was published to wide critical acclaim, and Raymond Antrobus became the first poet to win the Rathbones Folio Award. Last month, there were two deaf authors — DiMarco and I — on the New York Times bestseller list.
But it has not always been so. I wrote my first novel, published in 2015, when I was a graduate student in writing. Every day, my classmates and I gathered on the fourth floor of Columbia University’s Dodge Hall to learn the art of writing and discern what constituted the “value” of a book or story. . I was the only deaf person there.
I spent most of my time trying to imitate the voices of the authors we read rather than trying to find my own. I suspect this is true for many young writers, but for me there was an added layer of separation from me – my deaf identity (generally we use the capital D to denote deafness as a culture/community , as opposed to lowercase deafness like audiological status) was 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 didn’t exist.
It was ableism, first systemic and then internalized, that made me think this way. The isolation I experienced may seem naive to Deaf people who grew up privileged with a solid Deaf upbringing or a nearby creative community. For me, even if I have always liked to learn, it has long been synonymous with a certain loneliness. Having learned aural works exclusively in hearing classrooms, I believed that writing belonged to the hearing world, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to break through.
Then, halfway through my graduate studies, a professor gave us The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I still remember the excitement fluttering in my stomach as I realized these characters were deaf.
The thrill was short-lived. I quickly learned that literary fiction was an inhospitable place for the deaf. John Singer’s character was less a human being than he was a receptacle for the thoughts and feelings of hearing characters, and by the end of the novel he and his only friend, Spiros, also deaf, were driven mad and died. .
As abrasive as it was, an introduction to deaf characters, it would also sting something latent in me. I continued in the program, read lots of great books, ingested lectures from smart teachers, and made a handful of hearing friends who ventured to learn American Sign Language (ASL) in order to share the work of conversation. It was often a positive environment and I learned a lot. I finished writing my first novel there.
This book, Girl at War, was personal and important to me, but when it was finished, I was left 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 anymore. I had deaf friends, but they weren’t writers.
Fortunately, the revelation I needed to commune with deaf writers came at exactly the right time. It was around 2015 and social media was booming; Twitter, in particular, has allowed me to connect 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 literature. Most of the time, however, being with other Deaf writers has given me exactly what hearing writers get from being in community with each other: the courage to sit down and tackle the book that I really wanted to write.
True Biz, my new book, is a completely deaf novel, in character, plot and form. Lately, as I travel and talk with True Biz readers, I was finally able to verbalize what has always been true, even when I was unknowingly fighting it: I wouldn’t have become a writer without ASL. To some this seems counter-intuitive, since I write in English. But the language carries more than the work of communication with the dominant world; it is also the internal vehicle of our thoughts and feelings, the mechanism by which we understand ourselves. Without having had ASL first, I would not have understood myself as a person with a story to tell.
Deafness is not a monolith, of course, and writers and creators have only scratched the surface of the deaf experience. There is still a lot of work to be done to amplify the diverse voices within our community. Deaf and disability inclusion isn’t a checkbox on an equity checklist – it’s a state of steady progress. I hope that the current increase in representation will not be seen as a fad or “moment” for deaf people, but the new normal. While the level of Deaf visibility may seem new to most, as it once was to me, we need to understand that dozens of talented Deaf writers and creatives have always been there and have always deserved be heard. What is changing now is the willingness of hearing people to listen.
True Biz by Sara Nović is published by Little, Brown at £18.99. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.