Books

Being deaf is no tragedy – it's one of my greatest strengths

When writing her novel True Biz, Sara Novic drew on her own experiences as a young person in the Deaf community to bring a wider understanding to the hearing world.

Illustration: Poppy Lam

I was in junior high when I failed my first hearing test, a mandated screening that took place in the
auditorium of our public school each fall. I don’t remember what I was thinking as I stood in line awaiting my turn, but I know I was certainly not thinking my life was about to change.

At the time, I hadn’t really noticed things going quiet at the edges. Even today, having been deaf more of my life than not, this is a difficult thing to explain – how could I know what I hadn’t been hearing? In any case, when the woman who’d administered the test handed me a pink slip, I was surprised and ashamed. She instructed me to give the paper to my parents; I attempted to flush it down the toilet. 

I was a precocious student, and this may well have been the first test I ever failed. But more than that, I was afraid. I’d never met a deaf person before, and believed unquestioningly in the stereotypes about hearing loss I’d absorbed from the mainstream. I understood myself to be a broken version of my peers, and there was nowhere to look to tell me otherwise. Not wanting things to change, I poured all my energy into passing. 

I remained a good student, attended a mainstream college and graduate programme, and from this hearing people often seek to mine inspiration. But the things they’re impressed by – my degrees or my speaking voice – are not the things that matter. That I was so skilled at disappearing is not a point of pride, but another kind of failure: a systemic one that taught me the best thing I could possibly become was “normal-looking”, and a personal one, that I believed them for so long. 

Certain types of Deaf experiences are palatable to the hearing world: tragic ones, in which the deaf person has a difficult life. Or inspirational ones where we are cured and restored to normalcy, like in those viral videos presented as babies “hearing their moms’ voices for the first time”. The fact that those babies are not actually hearing their moms’ voices at all is rarely of interest to the hearing viewer, who is not seeking reality, but validation of his own biases. When it comes to telling Deaf stories, we are often hamstrung by the limits of the hearing imagination. 

Eventually I got powerful hearing aids, and while they remain a useful tool for me, they were not the thing to “fix” me. That healing came from finding the Deaf community, and through them, American Sign Language (ASL). Through ASL, I have 100 per cent access to conversation and information, and this frees up all the effort I was applying towards the basics of communication to do the real thinking. Achieving a deeper understanding of myself and the world around me and, eventually, the work of writing it all down.

In True Biz, one of the lead characters, Charlie, is a new student at the River Valley School for the Deaf who has previously never met another deaf person. When she was younger, she even assumed she might grow out of her deafness because she’d never seen a deaf adult (a common misconception for deaf children who aren’t exposed to deaf mentors or teachers). In some ways, Charlie is an extreme example of the failures of an oral-only approach to Deaf education because of the way her implant ultimately fails. In others, she is like many other deaf children – myself included – who learn to perform normalcy, rather than to be ourselves.

True Biz by Sara Novic is out now (Little, Brown)

When I first started writing True Biz, I wrestled with the question of how much to “teach” the hearing reader about Deaf culture. But the more I worked on the novel, the less I thought about its future audience. Just like a hearing writer, I set my characters loose on the page, followed them as they made bad decisions, did drugs, had sex, laughed and cried and got messy and weird. While they experienced adversity in the face of barriers created by society, their lives were far from tragic or limited – often, their senses of self, capacities to problem-solve and to play with language, the strength of their community, and their greatest joys, were improved by their deafness. 

In the end, I hope that True Biz became a somewhat universal coming-of-age story with which all readers can identify. But it’s not quite true that I left all thoughts of an audience behind while writing the novel. Really, I wrote it for myself, the teenage version, and for all the deaf children who’ve felt strange and isolated and are taught to hide some of their best parts. What possibilities might their futures hold if instead they can see themselves in a book? 

Sara Novic is a creative writing professor and Deaf rights activist

You can buy True Biz from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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