Sunday, December 28, 2008
Deafening by Frances Itani
Growing up as a hearing child and then experiencing hearing loss in midlife it's hard for me to understand what it might be like to be deaf as a child. When I visited my local public library and saw Deafening by Frances Itani as a featured selection, I knew I had to read it.
Deafening tells the story of Grania, a Canadian girl who becomes profoundly deaf at the age of five from scarlet fever. Suddenly the world which was just beginning to open up to her becomes much more difficult to navigate. School is a nightmare. Her older sister is unable to be of much help there as she is grouped with the children her own age. At home life is difficult as well because her mother refuses to accept her deafness continually praying for a miracle to restore her hearing. Her father is clueless that his mustache interferes with her ability to know what he's saying. Only her beloved grandmother Mamo seems to understand how to help her. She is the one who insists that Grania attend the Ontario School for the Deaf even though it breaks her heart to be parted from her. There Grania learns sign language and makes a best friend with whom she can finally communicate freely.
The story continues with Grania growing up and falling in love with Jim Lloyd, a hearing man she meets through her job at the school hospital. Jim is fascinated by her world of silence and tries to explain the world of sound to her. The two marry but are soon separated by World War I when Jim goes overseas to work as a stretcher bearer in an ambulance unit. Letters and memories are all that connect them through this difficult time. Jim is trapped in a world of horrific battle sounds while Grania is confined to an unbearable wait for his return home to her.
To be completely honest, I skipped over some of the war parts. I was much more interested in reading about Grania's relationships with her beloved grandmother Mamo who teaches her to read, her sister Tress who uses home signs with her, and Fry her best friend from deaf school and the first person she can fully communciate with since becoming deaf. I liked the early part of the book the best. I felt so bad for Grania when she was sent to public school with her sister and the teachers had no idea how to help her learn. Her sister tried to help her not become isolated from the other children but the difference in their ages made that difficult. I was glad when Mamo convinced Grania's parents she needed to go to deaf school but was saddened when it meant a lengthy separation from the family and no visit home at Christmas.
My absolutely favorite lines from the book were these sentences: "Her hands, to her surprise, and jerkily at first, begin to send ideas out. Her face and body punctuate; her eyes receive. She is falling into, she is entering a new world. She is joining the larger conversation of hands." [page 84] This book is definitely pro ASL! I also didn't know before reading it that Canadians used ASL.
Very interesting to me was the discovery that the author herself is not deaf. Before writing this story, Frances Itani studied ASL and participated in the Ottawa deaf community. Her own grandmother was deaf but this is not her personal story. It's a novel not a biography.
For those interested in learning more about Deafening and Frances Itani, check out these links:
1)Christian Science Monitor's eloquent book review.
2)Washington Post transcript of an interview with the author.
3)another book review. This one directly speaks to the author's use of language.
4)a brief 44 second video of Frances Itani talking about the book.
It isn't captioned so for my deaf readers I've typed out what she says here: "The reason I wrote my book Deafening is because of my long association with my deaf grandmother. She was born in 1898 and died in 1987 and I loved her very much. And that is the reason I began to write this book. It's a book about Grania, a five year old child who becomes profoundly deaf from scarlet fever. It goes through her childhood at a school for the deaf up into her adulthood where she meets and falls in love with a hearing stretcher bearer. It's a book about World War I. It's a book about love and loss, about hope and despair, and about love in its many guises. Love between the main characters, love between grandmother and child, and between sisters and war buddies."
This book is definitely worth reading. I highly recommend it to you.