5 Must-Read Books with Deaf Characters

 

Ever since I watched Why Not Theatre’s excellent ASL/English Prince Hamlet a few months ago, I’ve been on the lookout for other examples of Deaf representation in arts and culture. As a bookworm, my interest naturally fell on finding books that featured Deaf characters or touched upon Deaf Culture.

I should point out that I’m not Deaf, CODA nor hard of hearing, so I’m in no way an expert on how good or how problematic a book is when representing Deaf Culture. That being said, below are books I’ve recently discovered and enjoyed. Most of my online searches for books on Deaf Culture and about Deaf characters often showed only academic texts or children’s books teaching the ASL alphabet, so I hope compiling this list will help other interested bookworms find their next read.

Finally — I’m always looking for my next great read. If you know of any fantastic titles I can add to this list, let me know!

1. El Deafo by Cece Bell

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A birthday gift from a friend, this adorable graphic memoir is by turns hilarious and bittersweet. Based in part on the author’s own experiences of growing up, El Deafo is about a young bunny, Cece, who is the only deaf kid at her new school. Cece creates a superhero persona ‘El Deafo’ to gain confidence when trying to make new friends, and uses the super-powered hearing from her Phonic Ear to help her classmates keep out of trouble. See my full review here.

2. Signs of Attraction by Laura Brown

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A deaf/hard of hearing college student falls in love with the hot deaf guy in her class. Carli has hidden her deafness all her life, and I love how her relationship with Reed helps her come to terms with her deafness, feel okay with needing CART services or close captioning, and learn ASL. The story was a lot more intense than the light-hearted romance I expected (content warning: child abuse, violence against women, suicide), and there were plot threads that I wish had been explored more (Reed’s birth father, Carli’s mother and sisters), but overall, I really liked this book.

I also love how signs are depicted in this book – most of the signed conversations are depicted in italics, but because Carli is just beginning to learn sign language, whenever characters use signs that she hasn’t learned yet, the author also describes the gesture. The scenes involving the sign for “falling in love” are particularly squee-worthy.

The author is hard of hearing and her next book Friend (with Benefits) Zone features two Deaf main characters.

3. Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

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This funny, hipsterish middle-grade/young adult story is about a deaf teenage girl who accepts a dare to become the manager of her high school band ‘Dumb’ and land them a paying gig within a month. Fuelled mostly by passion, Dumb is great at making noise but horrible at actually creating music together. Piper’s efforts to enforce harmony amongst the members often go hilariously awry, but the novel’s heart lies in the characters’ sincere love for music, and Piper’s realization that being a good manager goes beyond just making the next quick buck.

I also really liked the family dynamics. A decision by Piper’s parents leads to a major turning point in her relationship with them, her rebellious younger brother turns out to be a staunch ally, and she confronts her complex emotions about her baby sister having cochlear implants.

4. Finding Zoe: A Deaf Woman’s Journey of Love, Identity, and Adoption by Brandi Rarus and Gail Harris

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Brandi Rarus came of age at a very exciting time in Deaf history – she was a college student during the Gallaudet University 1988 student and faculty protest for a Deaf President, and ended up marrying one of the student leaders Tim Rarus. I loved learning about her life and seeing this period from her perspective as a deaf woman who grew up oral in a hearing household. For example, she writes about how Tim snubbed her at their first meeting because, having grown up in a multi-generational Deaf family, he viewed her as “too oral.”

The section about Zoe was the final third of the book, and I liked that Rarus featured the perspectives of the multiple people involved in the adoption, including Zoe’s birth parents and the family who had originally intended to adopt her. Rarus’ love for her child and joy over welcoming Zoe into their family is beautiful and heartwarming, but I felt bad for Zoe’s birth father. BJ wanted to raise his daughter and his parents had promised their support, but the birth mother Jess refused to give Zoe up to him (because it meant that she didn’t want her child, whereas giving the child up to a two-parent household meant “giving the child a better life”), and the adoption counselor eventually strong-armed him into agreeing that a traditional two-parent household (“with a mother and a father”) would be best. Even Jess’ decision to give up her child was heavily influenced by her religious mother, who basically convinced her that raising the child herself doomed Jess and the baby to a lifetime on welfare whereas adoption was presented in ridiculously fairy tale-like terms.

5. Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks

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I discovered this book at a local bookstore and thought it was a great introduction to Deaf history. I was fascinated to learn about sign language’s roots in indigenous languages within the Deaf community, which developed as a natural form of communication despite attempts to teach Deaf people speech. I was also horrified to learn about the violence in forcing Deaf children to learn spoken languages, which delays their introduction to education in other areas.

I hadn’t realized that Sign Language used to be viewed by hearing people as only a gestural adaptation of English, until linguist William Stokoe argued about ASL having a linguistic structure and therefore being a language in its own right. I also hadn’t realized that Gallaudet University, which I’ve heard is one of the best post-secondary school for Deaf students, has had only hearing presidents until the late 1980s. Sacks covers the Deaf President Now protests, from a more detached yet detailed perspective than Rarus did, and that was my favourite part of this book.

Review | The Pitiful Human-Lizard, Jason Loo

00cover01A Toronto superhero with a dead end day job whose name would strike fear into the heart of any self-respecting bad guy… what’s not to love about Jason Loo’s Pitiful Human-LizardIt took me a while to track down a copy of this book. I went from The Beguiling to The Silver Snail to a couple of comic book stores in Kensington Market only to find out they were either completely sold out or (in the case of the Kensington stores), they happened to be closed that day. I was having a case of Pitiful Human Lizard luck myself, it seemed, but more than that, I learned just how popular and how much a phenomenon this comic book series has become. A lesson to all of you then: if you want to get your own copy of this series, snap up a copy at your local comic book store before it’s too late. (For the record, I finally found my copy in the Toronto talent section of Silver Snail, by the Eaton Centre. There were two other copies left on the shelf when I left, and the staff member who spoke with me said she was planning to check it out herself after her shift. So like I said, snap up your copy today.)

Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. This Toronto superhero story is absolutely hilarious, an everyman loveable loser-type bundle of awesome. The Human Lizard is Lucas Barrett, an office worker who can barely afford to pay for his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu lessons and who covers up his superhero exploits by telling his mother that he’s learning to play the harmonica. He signs up for a clinical trial for a super healing drug and, well, the rest is superhero history… with a pitiful twist, of course.

I absolutely love the Toronto setting. This story features a hot dog vendor, a streetcar and an epic superhero battle in one of my favourite Toronto landmarks — the Royal Ontario Museum! A ROM security guard makes a cameo in a hilarious bit that will make other museum or art gallery workers recognize a bit of themselves in him.

Loo’s self-deprecating humour is what makes this story so fantastic, and punchlines and sight gags are littered throughout. Particularly effective are Lucas Barrett’s interactions with his parents, and the scenes where the Human Lizard joins forces with the (much more traditional superhero type) Mother Wonder.

Author and artist Jason Loo was kind enough to provide some excerpts of the book for my blog, so check these out:

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The Pitiful Human-Lizard is available at various locations in Toronto: Silver Snail, The Beguiling, The Comic Pile, and Dr. Comics. You may also purchase it online and check out the Pitiful Human-Lizard Facebook page for a schedule of upcoming events and signings!

Review | Boxers and Saints, Gene Luen Yang

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I was completely blown away by Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints, a two volume graphic novel series that depicts the 1898 Boxer Rebellion in China from the perspective of both sides.

In Boxers, Little Bao has had enough of the way foreign missionaries and soldiers have been robbing and bullying Chinese peasants. Channeling the power of ancient Chinese gods, he raises an army of Boxers, kung fu-trained peasants, and they wage a rebellion against the foreigners. Despite their lack of resources, the power of the gods is on their side, and they are successful in their fight.

17210470I love how Yang keeps the story complex — it would be all too easy to simply cheer on the Boxers in their fight, but Yang shows how their anger drives the Boxers towards violence, sometimes beyond reason. The fight as well isn’t just against foreigners, but also against “secondary devils” — Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity. In a particularly powerful moment, Bao and his army “rescue” a train of Chinese peasants from foreign missionaries, violently slaughtering the missionaries and then turning to the peasants in triumph. Rather than expressing gratitude, one of the Chinese peasants picks up a Bible and attempts to continue the prayer. This not only confounds Bao, it enrages him — a Chinese turning Christian is a betrayal, and Bao’s response, coupled with Yang’s sketches of the utterly terrified peasants, is chilling.

Boxers begins as a coming of age, kung fu training story, and turns into a potent emotional wallop of political history. Bao is a complicated hero figure and ultimately a tragic figure of a man. War scars you, and Yang does not shy away from depicting this scarring even amongst the fantastical illustrations of Chinese gods. Bao’s struggles feel real, and Yang writes his character so well that you understand Bao’s choices even when you can’t agree with them.

Possibly my favourite part of Boxers is the Red Lanterns, an all-female army led by Mei-wen that joins the Boxers in their fight. It’s great seeing women warriors play such an important role in the rebellion, and shattering glass ceilings all the way back in 1898.

17210471A woman inspired by Joan of Arc is the heroine of Saints, which explores the other side of the story. An unwanted fourth daughter, Vibiana finds love and belonging with a kind Christian couple, and converts to their religion. We see the Boxer Rebellion from the perspective of Christian Chinese, to whom Bao’s army aren’t heroes but rather terrifying figures. While Bao’s position in the rebellion has always been clear-cut, Vibiana is much more conflicted, and in many ways, a much more intriguing character, torn between loyalty  to her heritage and devotion to the community that took her in.

Saints is disappointingly much shorter than Boxers — without the kung fu training montages or the need to set up the beginning of the rebellion, Viviana’s tale is kept relatively blood-free until the second half. I wish Yang had delved a bit deeper into the perspective of the Christian Chinese, particularly what so many of them had found appealing about the new religion. Still Vibiana’s story is compelling enough to give pause to Bao’s victory, and when their stories intersect — a rather brief encounter where neither knows the other’s story — Yang’s restraint in the scene belies the emotional impact of the moment.

Boxerand Saints is a powerful story and its impact is heightened by presenting both perspectives. The back of the book has the tag line “Every war has two faces” and the covers side by side illustrate this with discomfiting symmetry. Both these books bring the Boxer Rebellion to life and make this moment in history feel real and more than that, feel personal.

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Thank you to Raincoast Books for a copy of these books in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Battling Boy, Paul Pope

BattlingBoyAIn this graphic novel by Paul Pope, monsters run rampant through Arcopolis, eating the children, and the city’s hero Haggard West has been killed. Enter twelve year old demigod Battling Boy who, along with Haggard West’s sidekick and daughter Aurora, rises up to save Arcopolis.

Battling Boy is a fast paced, exciting coming of age superhero story. The young demigod is kicked out of his home to prove himself in a rite of passage that will make him a hero. Armed with the ability to harness animal powers depending on the shirt he’s wearing, Battling Boy has to defeat the Arcopolis monsters and save the city’s children in order to earn the status of adulthood and the respect of his father, a very Thor-like figure. The story hints at a far richer mythology behind that rite — perhaps even more challenges after the monsters are defeated, and sets the stage for what could be a pretty epic series.

The coming of age element is prominent — in his first battle, Battling Boy is unable to think quick enough to win on his own and has to call his father for help. His father, battling his own monster on another planet helps him out but then warns him not to call for help again. In a clear allegory for the moment young adults face when beginning to feel the demands of adulthood, Battling Boy must face the realization that his father will not always be there, and that he must learn to face his monsters alone. Pope takes this to the next level when local politicians begin using Battling Boy as a figurehead, and the demigod must learn about the hypocrisy and compromises that also constitute the adult world.

Along with the coming of age is an interesting twist on the Chosen One mythology — Battling Boy is certainly a “Chosen One” from the point of view of the city he has to save, yet from his family’s point of view, he is merely fulfilling one task among many. He is not necessarily the only one who can stop the monsters in Arcopolis — Aurora certainly looks like a more than capable hero on her own — yet he still has a mission he needs to fulfill.

Aurora’s story seems more the typical origin tale — grieving over her father’s death and desiring to avenge him and continue his work, she uses his arsenal to take over his role. I actually find her more intriguing than Battling Boy, and part of me wishes the book were about her instead. She isn’t a demigod; she’s an ordinary human girl who had been trained by her father to protect the city, and who now feels the burden of fighting on without him. While this is a task that will prepare Battling Boy for a lifetime of such missions, this is Aurora’s whole world, and so her stake in it feels much more personal and immediate.

Paul Pope is known for his frenetic artwork and action-packed storytelling, and Battling Boy certainly fits into that mold. It’s a fun, fast-paced superhero story, and a start to an exciting series.

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Thank you to Raincoast Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Blue is the Warmest Colour, Julie Maroh

9781551525143_BlueIsTheWarmestColorJulie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Colour is a sensitive, beautifully illustrated lesbian coming out story set in France in the 1990s. High school junior Clementine falls in love with Emma, a punkish, confident girl with blue hair. We know from the first page that the story won’t end well — the novel begins with Emma visiting Clementine’s parents after Clementine’s death. As we later then view their relationship unfold through Clementine’s journals, there is a bittersweet tinge throughout. We see Clementine’s first, confused, feelings of sexual attraction, and we see Emma’s reading and responding to these words.

Their romance is itself rather bittersweet. Emma has a jealous girlfriend at the time, and Clementine has been drilled to believe that homosexuality is wrong. And even when Clementine feels ready to take the plunge, Emma is hesitant to risk it. The conservatism of Clementine’s family takes a disheartening turn, and the story leaps forward several years, presenting a rather bleak picture that sadly feels realistic. The ending felt rather unnecessarily dramatic, but the rest of the story is told with such subtlety and grace that the novel as a whole is still really strong.

Maroh’s storytelling is subtle and her illustrations graceful and lovingly rendered. Even her sexually explicit scenes are more about making love than having sex. Her decision to render everything in shades of gray with accents of blue gives the story a dreamy feel; the treatment almost feels like music.

In a Q&A with the publisher, Maroh points out that even though the book is first set in 1994, the climate for queer youth in France still hasn’t improved much. She says, “The best thing this book could do is help queer youth, somewhere, somehow.” Indeed.

The live-action French film version of this novel was the winner of the Palme D’or at Cannes 2013. It will be released in North America in Fall 2013 through Sundance Selects/IFC Films (USA) and Mongrel Media (Canada). Given how musical the story felt even on the page, I can’t wait to see it translated on the screen.

International trailer with English subtitles below:

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Thank you to Arsenal Pulp Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Calling Dr. Laura, Nicole Georges

When Nicole Georges visits a psychic for her twenty-third birthday, she finds out that the father she’s always believed to be dead is actually alive. Now, having grown up in a family of secrets and lies, Nicole considers the need to confront her mother about two things: the identity of her father, and the fact that Nicole is gay. The back blurb compares Nicole Georges’ Calling Dr. Laura to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and while Georges lacks Bechdel’s sly humour, she also doesn’t get bogged down by Bechdel’s philosophizing. The result is a straightforward, rather earnest, heartfelt narrative.

Georges highlights the difference between her adult life and her childhood memories through her drawings — her life in her twenties is sketched with realistic detail, while her flashbacks to her childhood are sketched in simple, stylized shapes such as a child might draw. This shift in style highlights the child Nicole’s innocence, and thereby emphasizes the pain such a figure must undergo, watching her mother being abused by various husbands. I especially love Georges’ use of this technique in a scene where the adult Nicole has a particularly devastating piece of information confirmed, and the character shifts back to the child version for two panels, before shifting back to adult mode.

The Dr. Laura in the title actually plays less of a role in the narrative than I expected. Pressured by her girlfriend to confront her mother, Nicole finally calls Dr. Laura Schlessinger for advice. The author has included bits from the actual transcript of their conversation in the memoir, and while the radio personality seemed harsh, it seemed to be the tough love Nicole needed.

Georges does a good job illustrating the atmosphere of stress and deceit in which she grew up. She relates incidents such as stress-related bowel irregularities that lead to an embarrassing situation with a friend, conspiring with her mother to skip school as long as her stepfather never found out, and having to call 911 when her stepfather tried to strangle her mother. As she later points out, even whens he discovered her biological father was still alive, her experience with fathers hasn’t given her much incentive to find him. She struggles not just with the fear of confronting her mother, which comes hand in hand with her coming out to her mother as well, but also with the fear of meeting her biological father. The simplicity of Georges’ narrative enhances the emotional impact of her decisions; she is thoughtful without becoming too introspective. While her tone felt at times too flippant, it’s an understandable way to cope with her fear, and adds realism to her narrative.

Calling Dr. Laura is a touching tale of growing up, of coming out and of trying to make sense of one’s family. The biggest emotional wallop is reserved for the end of the book. Like the rest of the book, it is heartfelt but rendered with understated precision. It’s telling that Nicole feels most free to talk about her concerns over the phone with a radio personality or over email with loved ones. The medium provides a comfortable layer of protection, yet what comes through most strongly is Nicole’s vulnerability. Calling Dr. Laura is a sweet, simple story, surprising in how much it can reveal through so little. Well done.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel

I loved the sneak peek I got of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Are You My Mother? I was intrigued by the complex relationship between Alison and her mother, moreover, I was intrigued by Alison’s mother herself. A voracious reader and amateur stage actor, Alison’s mother had to deal with an unhappy marriage. Alison struggles to reconcile memories of her mother patiently writing down daily journal entries for her with memories of her mother being distant, no longer kissing her goodnight at a young age.

There are some genuinely touching moments in this book. The nights Alison and her mother spent, for example, writing down detailed accounts of the day in a journal. I also love the parts about Alison’s mother acting, moments of joy that stood in sharp contrast to her weary plea to a young Alison to let her have some private “me time.” The mother’s discomfort with Alison’s homosexuality, and with Alison revealing so much about their private lives in Fun Home struggle with the mother’s reticence in speaking about feelings.

Personally, I would have preferred more scenes of their interaction and a lot less intellectual reflection. This is more a matter of personal preference rather than a commentary on the quality of the book — what the author has set out to do, she does very well. It’s just too detached a treatment for me, and I got bored.

In struggling to understand her relationship with her mother, Bechdel examines the work of psychoanalytic analyst D.W. Winnicott, who studied the relationship between the child and its mother. Bechdel reflects on her relationship with her mother in terms of Winnicott’s work, for example, Winnicott’s play therapy is linked to her own memories of playing with her mother. At one point, she confesses to her therapist that she wishes Winnicott were her mother, which I guess is because she feels Winnicott understands children in a way her mother never did.

Bechdel also writes about Virginia Woolf, particularly about To the Lighthouse, and again, relates her reflections on her relationship with her mother to the Woolf novel. I like how, later on, Bechdel realizes that her mother must have read A Room of One’s Own, and how this is somewhat similar to Bechdel herself being influenced by the words of Adrienne Rich. However, as Bechdel ruminates on To the Lighthouse, I found myself tuning out again. Confession: I also couldn’t stand To the Lighthouse. I know it’s a classic work of literature and full of symbolism and so on, but I found it a boring, frustrating read. Like Woolf, Bechdel’s narrative loops, coming back to the same memories and offering a bit of new insight each time. Also like Woolf, Bechdel examines the tiniest details for significance, and then links it to psychoanalytic theory, or relates it to a dream that she recounts to her therapist. So, if you do like that style, perhaps Bechdel’s endless intellectual ruminations in Mother will also be more to your liking.

Are You My Mother? is a well-written book, and Bechdel’s illustrations are as good as ever. I liked the portrait Bechdel creates of her mother, and their scenes together are touching. I could have done with a lot less of the psychoanalysis and reflections on Woolf and Winnicott, but I can see how other readers may find that fascinating. Overall, well done, but not my kind of thing.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd. for a finished copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.