IIn the years since I wrote my first book, it is undeniable that deaf creatives have gained mainstream visibility, particularly in film and television. Thanks to the tireless work of deaf and disabled advocates, the majority of deaf characters on screen are now being played by deaf actors. From the Oscar-winning ensemble of Coda and the superheroes in Marvel’s Eternals to the recent video game Spider-Man and reality stars like Nyle DiMarco and Rose Ayling-Ellis, deaf artists have repeatedly broken down longstanding barriers. Deaf screenwriters Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern even showed off their dual talents by starring in and writing the Sundance television series This Close.
In literature we have also seen outstanding works by deaf writers. In poetry, the brilliant Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic was published to critical acclaim, and Raymond Antrobus became the first poet to win the Rathbones Folio Prize. Last month there were two deaf authors, DiMarco and myself, on the New York Times bestseller list.
But it hasn’t always been that way. I wrote my first novel, published in 2015, when I was a student in a graduate writing course. Every day my classmates and I would gather on the fourth floor of Columbia University’s Dodge Hall to learn the craft of writing and discern what constituted the “worth” of a book or story. I was the only deaf person there.
I spent most of my time trying to imitate the voices of the authors we read instead of trying to find my own. I suspect this is true for many young writers, but for me there was an additional layer of separation from myself: my deaf identity (we generally use the capital D to denote deafness as a culture/community, versus the lowercase d deafness as the state). audiological) was increasingly important to me, but there were no deaf writers or characters in the books I had read. Slowly, I came to assume that they just didn’t exist.
It was ableism, first systemic, then internalized, that made me think this way. The isolation she was experiencing might sound naïve to Deaf people who grew up with the privilege of a strong Deaf education or close creative community. For me, although I always liked learning, for a long time it was synonymous with a certain degree of loneliness. Having been taught exclusively auditory work in auditory classrooms, I believed that writing belonged into the world of listeners, and I wasn’t sure I could break through.
Then, about halfway through my graduate studies, a professor assigned us The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I still remember the flutter of excitement in my stomach the moment I realized those characters were deaf.
The excitement was short lived. I quickly learned that literary fiction was an inhospitable place for deaf people. The character of John Singer was less a human being than a receptacle for the thoughts and feelings of the hearing characters, and at the end of the novel both he and his only friend, Spiros, also deaf, went insane and died.
As abrasive as an introduction to the deaf characters was, it would also come to ping something dormant in me. I continued in the program, read a lot of beautiful books, ate lectures from smart teachers, and made a handful of hearing friends who ventured out to learn American Sign Language (ASL) to share the work of the conversation. It was often a positive environment and I learned a lot. I finished writing my first novel there.
That book, Girl at War, was personal and important to me, but once I finished it, the ghost of John Singer haunted me. He didn’t want to be a vessel for stories, and he didn’t want to be alone anymore. I had deaf friends, but they weren’t writers.
Fortunately, the revelation that I needed to communicate with deaf writers happened at exactly the right time. It was around 2015 and social networks were flourishing; Twitter in particular allowed me to connect with the deaf writing community. In virtual spaces, we could analyze what it means to be a Deaf person working in English, discuss the importance of the intersectional representation of Deaf people in literature. However, being with other deaf writers gave me exactly what hearing writers get from being in community: the courage to sit down and tackle the book I really wanted to write.
True Biz, my new book, is a completely deaf novel, in character, plot, and form. Lately, while traveling and talking to readers about True Biz, I have finally been able to verbalize what has always been true, even as I struggled against it without realizing it: I would not have become a writer without ASL. For some, this seems contradictory, since I write in English. But language supports more than the work of communicating with the majority world; it is also the internal vehicle of our thoughts and feelings, the mechanism through which we understand ourselves. Without having had ASL first, I would not have understood myself as a person with a story to tell.
Deafness is not a monolith, of course, and writers and creators have barely scratched the surface of the deaf experience. There is still much work to be done to amplify the diverse voices within our community. Deaf and disabled inclusion is not a box to check off an equity checklist, it is a state of steady progress. It is my hope that the current increase in representation is not seen as a fad or a “moment” for deaf people, but as the new normal. While the level of Deaf visibility may seem new to most, as it once was to me, we must understand that dozens of talented Deaf writers and creatives have always been there and have always deserved to be heard. What is changing now is the willingness of the listening world to listen.
Sara Nović’s True Biz is published by Little, Brown at £18.99. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.