Earlier today, Andrea Shettle reviewed Whitney Gardner’s You’re Welcome, Universe and it’s excellent portrayal of a Deaf protagonist. This afternoon, we’re thrilled to feature an interview between Andrea, site editor Natasha Razi, and Whitney herself. Read on for discussion of research, art, Deaf community, graffiti, and more!
Andrea Shettle: It was clear from the little nuances in the book that you have spent a lot of time learning from Deaf people about our daily lived experiences. And I gather that you know ASL. What first drew you to the Deaf community, starting to learn ASL, and making personal connections within the community?
Whitney Gardner: I was first introduced to the Deaf community when I started taking ASL in high school. It quickly became my favorite (non-art related) class. I spent every lunch period practicing with my classmates. The next year we took a trip to a local deaf high school and I made a few d/Deaf friends. We’ve fallen out of touch over the years but I’ve tried to keep ties to the community and make new friends in other ways. I was strongly considering going back to school to become an interpreter right before we sold the book. It’s still something I would love to do one day.
Andrea: Although I only briefly touch upon this in my review, I loved how has two moms in a stable lesbian-headed household. I feel this is so important for deaf readers who don’t come from cishet households. What led you to include this part?
Whitney: Most of my d/Deaf HoH friends have very diverse backgrounds and families. I wanted to make sure Julia’s world was as varied as real life.
Natasha Razi: What made you decide to make the protagonist Indian? Was she always intended as an Indian character or did that develop over the course of the book?
Whitney: I’ve always envisioned Julia as an Indian girl. She’s very loosely based off of the first Deaf friend I made back in high school. We would spend hours chatting on AOL Instant Messenger making up tons of silly ASCII emoticons when words would fail us.
Andrea: Aside from your existing personal knowledge, what other research did you do? Were there books, websites, or other sources that you found to be especially helpful?
Whitney: I was interested in refreshing my ASL while writing this book, so I hired a deaf tutor. Once a week we would meet and chat and practice ASL. She also ended up reading the book and offering her insights.
I found that http://www.lifeprint.com/ was helpful anytime I needed a refresher. There are lots of lessons there. I also enjoyed the following books:
– Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking
– Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity
Natasha: I know you’re heavily involved in the Deaf/HoH community and thank multiple Deaf/HoH people in your comments. Do you have similar involvement in desi communities? What sort of research did you do to write an Indian character?
Whitney: I listened to the real life experiences of my desi friends who read early drafts. And I am so thankful for the insight of my excellent sensitivity reader; working with her was a joy. She absolutely helped me make Julia’s story stronger.
Andrea: Have you read a lot of other fiction with deaf characters, whether as research or for enjoyment? If so, did this influence You’re Welcome, Universe?
Whitney: I have read other fiction with deaf characters both as research and for enjoyment. I saw that the relationship between deaf people and music kept coming up as a recurring theme, so I wanted to try and avoid that and make the book about visual art instead.
Andrea: If you were to write another book with Deaf characters, are there elements you’d tackle differently?
Whitney: I’d love to write a book that deals less with the comparison between the hearing and d/Deaf communities. Maybe something with very few hearing characters at all
Andrea: There is a lot about street art in this story. What is your own connection to art in general, or street art in particular? How did that influence how you created Julia (and her friend and her art teacher)?
Whitney: My love for art came to me long before my love for writing. It’s always been a huge part of my life. I love how words and pictures play off of each other in picture books and comics. I’m glad I get to incorporate both in my novels too.
I wanted to make Julia brave and rebellious but not because of her disability or even in spite of it. I wanted to show her being a total bad-ass because that’s what she is. Art saved me when I was a teenager. I wanted to write about those feelings.
Natasha: What’s the coolest piece of graffiti you’ve ever seen?
Whitney: I’m dying to see a DOURONE piece in real life, they look so magical. But I have to admit nothing looked cooler than 5 Pointz did from the 7 train. I’m so sad that it’s gone now. I hope a little piece of it gets to live on in my book.