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 | Gender Failure, Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote

18406194Gender Failure is a beautiful, candid, moving account of Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote’s “failure” to fit into the traditional gender binary. Its roots as a stage production are evident — the tone is conversational, even intimate, and you can almost imagine the authors telling you these stories in person. Photos from the show are interspersed throughout, and I wish I’d seen the production live, as it must have been an even more powerful experience than reading it on the page.

The casual tone of the narration belies the depths of emotion that Spoon and Coyote express. Spoon recounts the experience of a man approaching them after a show and laughing because he’d originally thought Spoon was “a dude,” until they started singing and he then “knew you were a chick.” The man appeared to expect Spoon to share in this hilarity, even grabbing them by the arm in a show of comradeship. Spoon’s response struck me: they walked away, and only then corrected the man that he’d been mistaken both times. The need to walk away before correcting the misconception speaks to Spoon’s awareness of their vulnerability. Not only do they experience “a feeling that I have failed to be seen” every time they are misgendered, they are also all too aware of the dangers in revealing themselves as trans.

Both Spoon and Coyote share their fear of public washrooms. Coyote writes about developing the skill to hold their pee for hours, in the hopes that they may not need to use the wheelchair-accessible gender-neutral stall and potentially inconvenience someone with mobility issues. “[Women] are afraid of men in a women’s washroom, because of what may happen,” Spoon says. “I am afraid of women in a women’s washroom because of what happens to be all the time.” Experiences include being assaulted with a handbag and being dragged out from a stall by security guards, not to mention the less physical but no less violent experience of being glared at in disgust. Spoon’s frustration is evident when they say that they can’t even react in anger, “because if I get angry, then I am seen as even more of a threat. Then it’s all my fault, isn’t it? Because then there is a man in the ladies’ room, and for some reason, he’s angry.”

Coyote writes about their difficulty in trying to get medical approval to have their top surgery funded. Ironically, their difficulty lay in finding a psychologist who could provide an unbiased assessment on whether Coyote was “trans enough” for the procedure, because most of the psychologists had studied Coyote’s work when training to make such assessments. They also speak about the intrusive questions people feel entitled to ask. In one interview, for example, the reporter tried to be coy around the question of sex assignment surgery, and when Coyote told her to just come right out and ask the question, they realized that the reporter didn’t even know what sex Coyote had been assigned at birth. “She couldn’t even be sure what I might want removed or added on to me,” Coyote says. “But still. She had to know. She just had to ask.”

The section about the Trans Day of Remembrance is especially moving. The event honours those who have died by reading their names aloud, but as Coyote notes,

What will be missing are these women’s stories… What will also be missing is a discussion about the difference between excluding someone and actively including them, and intentionally making space. And the day after we are suppose to remember, most of this will be forgotten.

In particular, Coyote remembers their friend Rosie, a trans woman who left town and is presumed dead, and whom Coyote memorializes in this book. “I refuse to reduce her life to nothing more than a name on a list of the deceased,” they say. “I will remember so much more about Rosie than just her absence from my life.”

Gender Failure is such a powerful, beautiful book. Spoon and Coyote have moved me, and I can only imagine the impact their stories can have on transgendered readers, particularly those who are young and still trying to figure things out. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I’ll just end this here, with Coyote’s words:

I realize that the English language is sadly devoid of names for people like me. I try to cut the world some slack for this every day. All day. And the day after that, too. But the truth is that every time I am misgendered, a tiny little sliver of me disappears, A tiny little sliver of me is reminded that I do not fit … I remember that the truth of me is invisible, and a tiny little sliver of me disappears. Just a sliver, razored from the surface of my very thick skin most days, but other times right from my soul, sometimes felt so deep and other days simply shrugged off, but still. All those slivers add up to something much harder to pretend around.

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

Review and Giveaway | Free Days with George, Colin Campbell

Heads up, dog and animal lovers! You’ll definitely want to check out Colin Campbell’s charming memoir Free Days with George, about how his giant Newfoundland dog George changed his life. I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I heard about it at the Random House blogger preview, where to my relief, I also learned that unlike so many dog books, George does not die at the end and in fact will be accompanying the author on his book tour.

According to Campbell’s grandfather,

A free day is when you spend a whole day doing things you love to do — like building sand castles, flying kites or going swimming. And when you do those things with people you love who love you, you don’t grow old that day. [p. 6]

Later on in the book, Campbell observes that he’d just spent a free day with his dog, and he didn’t quite realize it until that moment. Perhaps that’s another important aspect to note about free days as well — they kinda sneak up on you, and it’s only looking back when you realize how amazing an experience you’ve just had.

23209939Free days can sometimes be hard to come by, though. In Campbell’s case, his story with George begins when his wife leaves him for no discernible reason. He insists on couples therapy, but the truth is, she simply doesn’t want to be married, and there’s not much he can do about that. A friend suggests he gets a dog to help stave off the loneliness.

Enter George, a black and white 140 pound Newfoundland labrador with soft brown eyes and a deep-rooted mistrust of men. Campbell learns he may have been mistreated by former owners — likely men, as George has no problem warming up to women. Apparently, because Newfoundlands are such a large breed, many people want to train them to be guard dogs, not realizing that they are extremely gentle creatures. And once they learn that no amount of abuse will turn this type of dog vicious, they give them up to shelters. It’s a tragic situation, and it was almost painful to read Campbell’s first encounter with George — at the foster home, while all these other dogs frolicked and played with a little girl, George stood apart, alone, and watched.

Because of George’s past experiences, he is naturally wary around men, and at first even refuses to eat in front of Campbell. I loved reading about him gradually opening up, and learning to trust again. I love how something as simple as a hug could have such an emotional impact on both dog and human.

There’s also a really great scene at the dog training school, where the owners hide behind screens and their dogs have to find them. All the dogs in the class are having trouble with this exercise and, with George having the most trouble by far with the other lessons, Campbell isn’t too optimistic about his chances with this one.  The way that scene turned out actually brought a happy tear to my eye, and is quite possibly my favourite moment in the entire book.

The narrative momentum dips slightly in the second half. There are great scenes of George and Campbell surfing — yes, George can surf! — and it’s all very heartwarming, but the emotional intensity of their first few months together has definitely dialled down. And while the book ostensibly begins with the author’s need for emotional connection, and has some really strong, poignant memories of the author’s grandfather, the story ultimately doesn’t delve too deep into this beyond a few slogan-esque lines.

I think a big part of that is we don’t get much of a sense of the author beyond his relationship with the dog. Getting the dog to trust him was a huge emotional surge that peaked much too soon, and the part about surfing competitions, while entertaining, never really built up any narrative tension. I love how the author at times linked his experiences with his dog to his memories of his grandfather, who clearly was a major influence in his life, and I wish there had been a lot more of that in the story.

Still, this is a very charming read, and particularly if you’re a pet owner yourself or at least an animal lover, George’s story will certainly strike a chord. Read this book, and be sure to connect with George on Facebook or at www.freedayswithgeorge.com.

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WIN A COPY!

Want to spend your own “free day” with George and Colin’s story? Enter this contest for a copy courtesy of Random House Canada!

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Thanks to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Choose Your Own Autobiography, Neil Patrick Harris

nph_bookLeave it to Neil Patrick Harris to take the celebrity memoir to an all new, absolutely freaking awesome level and dare I say, legen (wait for it) dary heights. I grew up on Choose Your Own Adventure books and Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser was one of my first and biggest celebrity crushes), so combining both just set my girly little heart all a-flutter. I’ll be honest — I was afraid the Choose Your Own Adventure format was too gimmicky to work for an autobiography — but I also knew that if anyone (celebrity or otherwise) could pull it off, it would be Neil Patrick Harris.

And pull it off he did. I cannot fangirl enough over NPH’s Choose Your Own Autobiographywhich was just three hundred pages of pure, unadulterated awesomeness. As a memoir, it doesn’t delve too deep, nor does it make any shocking revelations — partly due to format, though also likely due to NPH’s notoriously private nature and by all accounts, his actually having had a happy childhood. (This autobiography does provide the option of having an unhappy childhood, which leads to one of the very few comedic hiccups in the book. With multiple storylines to choose from, some are inevitably funnier and more entertaining than others.)

The best part about the format is that it puts the reader right in NPH’s shoes and takes you on quite a number of possible adventures. Just beginning the story is exciting — where will this adventure lead you? — and well, living NPH’s life is just a tad more glamorous than living my own. My first foray into being NPH, I ended up a career meat slicer at a deli and missing out on Doogie Howser etc altogether. This, I must admit, is pretty much how my Choose Your Own Adventure forays usually ended, except with myself being eaten by a crocodile or buried alive with an Egyptian mummy. Fortunately, this format gives us multiple chances to get it right.

My second attempt at living NPH’s life did get me into Doogie Howser, then eventually I meet the “rakishly handsome James Dean-like hot dude” David Burtka. That is probably my favourite chapter of the entire book, because it features David’s handwritten commentary about the meeting. For example, the James Dean description is circled and an arrow leads to the phrase “I wish!” When NPH writes that David is “well rounded,” David cracks “You calling me fat?” Then, in a line that just made me swoon, NPH says that if David is interested in you, “it’s because he’s decided you’re the kind of guy he wants to be with long-term. Longer-term. Longest-term.” Beside that in brackets, is David’s handwriting: “For forever term.”

After falling in love with David Burtka, I then happily go on work with Joss Whedon on Dr. Horrible and somehow make some other choices that end up with my drowning in quicksand. Seriously though, those choices were totally reasonable, and there was no reason I should have ended up in quicksand. No matter, on to take three.

In my third attempt at NPH’s life, I have children with David and learn the story behind their birth. NPH’s love for these kids just radiates off the page, and you have to check out this Oprah episode about their house and family because it’s all just too adorable. Then I go on to my personal ultimate goal: hosting various awards shows and learn the story behind the epic Tony’s opener “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore.”

I may have messed up the order in which I did these things, but, as with Choose Your Own Adventure books, it doesn’t matter. Each attempt at a life is a whole new adventure, and I figure each set of choices leads to you living NPH’s life in a completely different way. I completely missed out on How I Met Your Mother, performing on Broadway, being a magician and possibly a list of other things from NPH’s life that I don’t even know about. No matter, the book is here and waiting for me to step into NPH’s shoes once again. And again and again and so on, because NPH’s life is definitely one you’d want to experience over and over again.

Still need a bit more convincing? Hear from the man himself!

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. For more information on the book, visit nphbook.com.