Sometimes, being a deaf writer presents a unique set of challenges that hearing writers might not be as concerned about. Some of these challenges might seem obvious, some of them less so. For example, dialogue can be something I struggle with – developing someone’s voice, the way they speak, without coming across as stilted or character voices being too similar. A less obvious issue would be whether or not to write stories with deaf characters. Is it necessary to always write characters that are deaf, or just happen to be? Does it immediately follow that I will need to learn how to convey a world-view that shows what someone can and can’t hear or understand?
Some of my fiction has been an attempt to write stories with deaf characters. Some of my experiments have been more successful than others – some have become too complicated, whilst I’ve recently finished a short story with a deaf teenager that turned out well. Maybe now is the time to say that one of the protagonists in my novel happens to be deaf, but it isn’t a story that overtly deals with deaf issues, though these will be revealed in the way she moves through the narrative anyway. I don’t set out to write stories that have deaf characters in them, though sometimes a story will occur to me arising from something I’ve experienced or a ‘what if’ moment sparked by an experience or character.
So much of my world is connected to the hearing world. It’s impossible for it not to be – I’m a lifelong reader, and most of, if not all, of the characters in books I love are hearing. I love music, and all my family (apart from my sister) are hearing. My husband is hearing. I don’t make distinctions like this when I love somebody, when someone is a friend, or a family member, though communication is important, and sometimes I do feel ‘deaf’ when I can’t follow something. I have to make it known that I can’t – by asking for repetitions, by asking for subtitles or captions, by reminding people that a deaf person is trying to follow.
I am deaf – but I don’t go around constantly saying this – simply because it is something that is a deep, intrinsic part of my everyday experience. I accept it, and often revel in it because it opens up a different human experience. I don’t always wear my hearing aids at home, though I do love the sound that I can hear with my hearing aids. I have bad days and amazing days – days when I wish I could hear something more clearly, that there was more access, then days when I connect with people, when I’m happy simply to be who I am and not somebody else.
Like any person – hearing or deaf – I’m a complicated mess of contradictions. So it comes as no surprise that the fiction and non-fiction I write – like the things I read – is also a mass of different situations, issues, characters, ideas and world-views. Fiction is the act of placing ourselves into the shoes of another person, in another place, doing something that might be very different to what we do. Some days, I might want to write about a vampire who joins the circus, another day I may want to write about a deaf teenager who has auditory hallucinations.
I know that deaf characters are few and far between and maybe I do feel a particular responsibility to make sure the world knows what it’s like to live as a deaf person. But I also don’t feel that I have to limit myself to just writing about deaf characters and issues. It’s the same as being a woman – I’m a feminist and I know that writing well-rounded, complex female characters is important. It’s the same as writing male characters, though – for them to be compelling, you have to flesh them out. This doesn’t mean I need to write fiction that is specifically about feminist issues – by just writing a well-rounded, complicated female character, I am already moving beyond stereotypes.
I do have a strong attraction towards writing about characters that are rebellious, who are different in some way, outcasts or outsiders. Maybe because at different periods of my life, I have felt like an outsider – at school, in relation to society, even within the deaf community. I know what it’s like to not feel as though you ‘fit’ or that there is something marking you as different in some way. Sometimes people can’t get over the idea of deafness or disability, considering people as ‘other’. Or they are even someone who decides to mark themselves as ‘other’. I deeply understand these issues and it is likely to have an effect on what kind of stories I write, or how I write them. Many authors do the same – in fact so many fantastic books deal with the theme of outsiders, outcasts, people who live on the fringes.
The more superficial and technical aspects of being a deaf writer come about from writing itself. I do struggle sometimes with dialogue – with writing a character’s voice, with portraying the way they speak, or how their attitude comes across in speech. I’m not one of those writers who can go to a café and eavesdrop on interesting snippets of conversation or listen to the way people speak. I can pick up different accents when lipreading, but this doesn’t mean I can then portray the cadences, slang and ‘sound’ of someone’s accent.
However, because dialogue in fiction isn’t the same as actual speech, I can get around this. I can say something along the lines of ‘he/she had an Irish burr’ or drop a couple of regional slang words into dialogue without going overboard. I also play around with grammar, figure out how someone likes to express themselves (do they use expletives a lot, or are they blunt or long-winded?), and look to other books for inspiration. It takes a little more thought and once I get a handle on a character, it becomes easier to express who they are and how they talk through dialogue.
Even though it’s early days, I also worry about how I can access writer’s conferences, conventions and even book signings/question and answer sessions/author events. I’m always on the lookout for author talks that provide speech to text or captioning. I’m not fluent enough in BSL (British Sign Language) to rely solely on this for events. I will get around these issues in some way – but sometimes this also restricts what events I can and can’t go to, conventions and conferences being a particular worry. With events solely for myself, I would probably use a STTR (speech to text reporter), notetaker, or lipspeaker, but larger things where you request access from organisers can be a bit hit or miss.
I was inspired when I attended Louise Stern’s interview and Q&A at the Cambridge Literary Festival earlier this year (she has a new book out, called Ismael and His Sisters). She uses ASL (American Sign Language) so she had her interpreter, who translated and did voice over for the hearing audience and interviewer, whilst the BSL interpreter translated the voice-over for the deaf audience members. Though there wasn’t STTR, it was something to ask the organisers about in the future, and it was promising to actually have a deaf author giving an interview at a literary festival. With event organisers, it is sometimes up to the deaf and hard of hearing audience to make their access requests known – to educate rather than criticise, and open a dialogue about access for deaf and hard of hearing people.
Similar issues arise with going to writing groups, especially established groups where you won’t want to disrupt their way of doing things. It would be expensive and impractical to ask them to provide access, and expensive for you to fund the access yourself. This is why online writing groups are so good, and why blogs and Facebook support groups are important. I have a huge collection of writing books, and constantly look for ways to improve my own writing, to learn from writers who have come before me, and to connect with other writers online. There might not be many of us, but I also know some other deaf writers and bloggers, so I know I’m not alone when experiencing some of these issues.
As with anything, the point is ultimately to make good art. Access at events, to vlogs (often un-subtitled), to writer’s groups, take a little more effort to sort out, but it’s do-able, and I’m constantly learning how to be a better writer when it comes to dialogue and characterisation. No doubt in a few years I’ll revisit the issues in this post with more insight and solutions.