On Deaf Literature

By | January 18, 2019

This week we’re celebrating the publication of Critical Creative Writing: Essential Readings on the Writer’s Craft, a comprehensive introduction to the key debates in creative writing today, from the ethics of appropriation to the politics of literary evaluation. Today’s post is from Kristen Harmon, whose essay “Writing Deaf: Textualizing Deaf Literature” appears in the collection.

Deaf literature? How can creative writing in print be deaf? There is Latinx literature, Queer literature, Women’s literature, but Deaf literature? You might well recognize that there are certainly moments when characters are hushed, even silenced, as they creep through a plotline, or maybe there’s an elderly deaf character present who provides a momentary lull in the action when spoken dialogue is repeated. Sure, maybe you already know about American Sign Language (ASL) poetry, but that’s performed or filmed. Deaf literature, in print, is something else altogether. Or is it?

While many readers will have some sense of how a work of literature could be bilingual and how it could reflect the nuances of a cultural community and identity, most readers of English texts may never have asked themselves questions like these about writing and reading: how can written literature—a poem, play, short story, novel, or other creative forms—be Deaf? How can it have been hearing? Writing and reading, as solitary, “quiet,” activities do not, at first glance, lend themselves to discussions of hearing and language status. But like other bilingual literatures, Deaf literature—as written by those who are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), too–has the potential for making us think twice about how and why we write.

The first time I taught fiction at Gallaudet University, a bilingual ASL-English university in Washington, D.C., I realized that my students were writing hearing literature. My students were all fluent users of American Sign Language, and some were from multi-generational Deaf families. They wrote chatty fictional  pieces that included spoken dialogue, with tonal dialogue tags, and characters who eavesdropped on or shouted at each other. But we all lived in what is colloquially known in ASL as the DEAF-WORLD, or the signing community.

American Sign Language—like other national and regional world languages, signed or spoken—has been well established as a human language in its own right. To sign is human, as some ASL artists and creators have been saying. Yet, without exception, none of my students at that time included sign language or Deaf characters or ways of being in their stories. Perhaps this absence is a reflection of what they read, and English language literatures rarely include signing Deaf people. When signing or deaf characters are included in the English language canon, there’s usually the distinct whiff of stigma or highly metaphorical difference. As written by hearing authors, the deaf person or the signing person is usually sentimentalized or is emblematic of some larger insight into the existential nature of humanity: hearing, speaking humanity, that is. It’s lonely to be a deaf person in hearing literature.

Certainly, educators recognize the importance of reading authors and characters who represent the wide variety of language communities and identities in America. But maybe the challenge also has to do with language itself. We’re familiar with how bilingual authors of written (and spoken) literatures code-mix or code-mesh. Yet can a sign be said? If you want to be quite literal about the act of saying as an act of speaking, then the use of quotation marks and tonal dialogue tags in fiction don’t easily merge with the lively, vibrant, multi-layered discourse that fluent Deaf signers express. Spoken language is linear, with word following word in sequence; ASL is much more layered. A sign can be inflected in such a way that layers meaning simultaneously. How to convey that on the printed page, in linear fashion? Some Deaf writers use italics, dashes, capital letters, or other typographic devices to show that there’s a signed language—or really, a kind of loose translation, or gloss, of a signed language—happening on the page. Some Deaf writers translate sign for word, knowingly losing something of the nature of ASL in the process. Some convey something of the vibrant nature of ASL in print by combining word forms in new and suggestive, even poetic, forms. DeafBlind poet and writer John Lee Clark and multi-generational Deaf writer and playwright Louise Stern are some of the many Deaf writers I share with my students so that they can get ideas and inspiration for writing their own Deaf lives and characters, in print.

Yet, tired of clichés and weary of second tier status, some Deaf writers, including John Lee Clark, also a publisher (Handtype Press), are reclaiming the use of “said” or “speaks” in relation to American Sign Language and Deaf literature in print instead of using “she signed” as a dialogue tag. We “speak” American Sign Language, not just “use,” they say. “Say” is, in effect, a multimodal verb; one can say, or speak using one’s voice box, or one can express, without literal speech, as in the phrase, “the law says” or, in purple prose, “her eyes spoke volumes.” In contrast, “uses ASL” suggests a lesser status or signs as a kind of communicative tool rather than being a full-fledged language rooted in a language community and verbal arts traditions. Additionally, the repeated use of the phrase, “he signed,” as a dialogue tag, has the effect of making the signer—on the page—something different or unique when the intent is to normalize, to make English a home for Deaf people, too.

Say, speak, sign: the story still comes first. Encourage your students to think twice about how their own writing and reading represents a particular identity, language, and even body. Deaf authors of bilingual English language imaginative works have much to say.

For suggestions or ideas for Deaf literature readings to include in your class syllabus, please feel free to email me at Kristen.Harmon@gallaudet.edu


Critical Creative Writing

Kristen Harmon is a writer and professor of English at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Harmon has co-edited two anthologies of Deaf American Prose, published in the Gallaudet Deaf Literature Series in 2012 and 2013. She has written scholarly articles that focus on literature, culture, ethnography, and education. In addition to academic work, she has published short stories in collections put out by the Tactile Mind Quarterly Press, HandType Press, Cinco Puntos Press, and the Disability Studies Quarterly. In 2017, Harmon appeared in the PBS documentary Through Deaf Eyes. Her essay “Writing Deaf: Textualizing Deaf Literature” appears in Critical Creative Writing: Essential Readings on the Writer’s Craft, now available from Bloomsbury.

2 thoughts on “On Deaf Literature

  1. Kelly Brakenhoff

    Thanks Kristen for a great article! My debut novel, Death by Dissertation, will be published in April and one of the main characters is deaf. Another is an interpreter. During my many revisions I thought a lot about what dialogue tags to use and whether I should use quotes or italics. Deaf characters in literature are so rare that I had to guess at what the average reader would understand. I really appreciate your views and this discussion. I’m so happy to learn that Gallaudet students are getting this experience in your classes.

  2. Karen Franklin

    Thank you for writing this very interesting article on a topic I never thought about before. My mother is deaf and a voracious reader though she doesn’t know ASL I doubt she has ever read a novel that included an ASL speaking character. I am definitely interested in this more about this subject.


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