I’m very excited about the release of my graphic novel memoir, El Deafo. I’m also kind of nervous about it. I worry about what other deaf people will think of the book. Here’s one of the reasons why:
I lost my hearing to meningitis when I was four and a half years old. I was lucky to have a little bit of time as a hearing person to acquire some language, because as soon as I lost my hearing, communication with my family and friends became really, really tricky.
The summer after everything changed, my parents enrolled me in a kindergarten class for deaf kids, and that decision became the basis for how I dealt with—and still deal with—my deafness. In the class, we were taught how to lip-read. I describe this in the book. However, something that I don’t talk about directly is that our teacher did not teach us any sign language. At all. Zero. It was 1975, and whether it was the thinking of the time or the particular reasoning of that school system (or both), lip-reading was in, and sign language was out.
But lip-reading is not always easy. Success in lip-reading depends on so many factors: who is talking, how familiar you are with the person talking, where the person is talking, how animated the person is while talking, the presence or absence of background noise and distractions and light, and on and on. Writing El Deafo made me realize that I wish I had learned sign language when I was in kindergarten, before I became so self-conscious about everything to do with my deafness. Perhaps learning both lip-reading and sign language would have helped me and my classmates communicate more comfortably than we could with lip-reading alone. But after kindergarten, I was good enough at lip-reading to go to school with hearing kids, and suddenly I was the only deaf kid in my class. No way was I going to do anything that made me different—it was bad enough that I looked different because of my enormous hearing aid. If I was using sign language, everyone would have stared at me even more, right? Oh, such faulty reasoning, especially since I was probably already getting stares. So I never learned how to sign, not even when my well-intentioned mother gave me an opportunity to do so. Over the years, I got better and better at lip-reading, and felt less and less inclined to learn to sign.
The toughest chapter to write in El Deafo, by far, was the chapter in which I reject sign language. I initially hesitated to write it because I didn’t want to admit to the world, and in particular other deaf people, just how much I really and truly hated sign language when I was a kid. It is a terrible and unsettling thing to admit, but ultimately I decided to include my sign language story because I needed to be truthful to my unique experience of deafness. The book would not be complete without it.
I sincerely hope that this chapter adequately explains the reasons for my mixed-up feelings about sign language, even if those reasons were irrational—and I also hope that I accurately portray just how bratty I was about it. It’s all true, including the last pages of the chapter, in which I witness two adults arguing in sign language. They weren’t interpreting a song in sign language like we sometimes did in music class (corny!), or following me around spelling my name with their hands the way some of my classmates did (annoying!). They were communicating. I was more than impressed, I was jealous. But not enough to actually do something about it. I was still too worried about being “different” from my hearing classmates.
The irony of all of this is that my absolute favorite people to talk to—because they are easy to understand—are the animated folks who make grand gestures when they speak, who “talk with their hands.” Isn’t talking with your hands what sign language really is, after all?
So, to all the deaf kids and the deaf adults who use sign language and who might read El Deafo: please know that I have nothing but respect and admiration for sign language and for those who use it. I sincerely hope that you will not be offended by the sign language chapter in the book. And I also hope that if we meet, you might teach me a bit.
Thanks so much for sharing, Cece!
Amulet Books has generously donated an ARC of El Deafo be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is limited to US addresses.
The giveaway over, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!