Book Review: Deaf Lit Extravaganza (John Lee Clark)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Of all of the subgenres of writing that might be subsumed under the umbrella of American disability literature, the writing of Deaf authors may have the deepest roots. In his 2010 anthology, Deaf American Poetry, John Lee Clark gathered together poetry by deaf and hard-of-hearing writers that stretched back into the mid-1800's. Through his commentary on the work and lives of the writers in the anthology, Clark explored such topics as oralism and the emergence of ASL poetry in the writing of Clayton Valli. That anthology ends with a light selection of work from contemporary Deaf poets. Now with the publication of Deaf Lit Extravaganza (Handtype Press, 2013), Clark takes the next logical step by providing a one stop-shopping venue for the literary work of Deaf writers of the twenty-first century.

In Deaf Lit Extravaganza, Clark makes a few changes in format from his previous book. He has broadened the writing to include fiction and non-fiction essays in addition to poetry and he has – with one important exception – limited the authors included to living authors. He has also included several authors who are not American. There is one aspect of his approach, however, that has not changed. In his 2009 essay, "The Case for Writing About Disability" Clark was emphatic that when writers with disabilities put their metaphoric pens to paper, they should write about what they know – life through a disabilities lens. In editing DLE Clark has been a disciple of his own advice, making sure that each piece included has relevance to a deaf life or Deaf culture.

In his introduction, Clark writes:

Until recently, most everything that was put down on paper supposedly about Deaf people – whether in newspaper articles of in bestselling novels – showed only one lonely "deaf" person, either isolated or surrounded by hearing people. Only rarely was there any glimpse of the one abiding fact of the Deaf experience, that Deaf people gravitate toward other Deaf people.

Deaf Lit Extravaganza works to correct that history. The anthology is a veritable who's who of Deaf and hard-of-hearing writers. Readers of Deaf American Poetry will find many names familiar, especially in the poetry section – Raymond Luczak, Christopher Jon Heuer, Kristen Ringman, Curtis Robbins, Alison Aubrecht, Willy Conley, and, of course, John Lee Clark himself. Broadening his pool of writers to include CODAs and sign language interpreters who are not deaf themselves has allowed Clark to also include the work of gifted writers like Paul Hostovsky and Frank Gallimore, but it is in the prose sections, that Clark has the chance to introduce readers to some writers they may not have come across before. This is particularly significant for the fiction section, the shortest section in the book, since short fiction by writers with disabilities is at a premium.

The fiction section, in fact, is the first section of the book. As suggested above, Deaf Lit Extravaganza is divided into three parts, poetry, fiction and non-fiction essay, and within each, authors are listed in alphabetical order. While it is always chancy to suggest just where a reader should dig into an anthology first, two of the short fiction offering deserve special consideration because they represent two very different but equally valid approaches for writers who want to make serious contributions to Deaf literature and – despite possible protests to the contrary – disabilities literature in general. These are Michael Uniacke's "The Incontestable Superiority" and Christopher Jon Heuer's "Trauma."

Uniacke's story illustrates how historical fiction can be employed as a way of helping readers to understand the background behind the long debate between oralism and signing in the education of deaf children. Set in the 1880's the story follows a young British reporter, David Archer, who is sent to cover a conference in Milan, Italy where a new method to teach deaf mutes to speak is being unveiled. Archer, a bit of a hotshot, begins his trip with the assumption that the preference for teaching deaf children to speak rather than sign is self-evident. His conviction is bolstered by all the evidence presented at the conference by educators and clergy who are not deaf themselves. During a conference dinner, however, Archer is cornered by Edward Gallaudet and his colleagues who introduce him to the other side of the story – the one in which members of the Deaf community speak for themselves. Uniacke's use of language in allowing Archer, who narrates the story, to create an interesting character, makes "The Incontestable Superiority" more engaging than a polemic or prosaic history lesson masquerading as fiction yet demonstrates one of the main services that Deaf literature has to offer, the ability to demonstrate convincingly that people with disabilities have existed throughout history, despite the fact that they have tended to be excluded in written histories generally.

Heuer's short story "Trauma" fulfills quite another purpose. In the 2009 essay referred to earlier, Clark describes how he rejected a well written story about the Titanic by a Deaf writer because that writer did not use his own experience, to provide a point of view not available to hearing persons. In short, he did not heed the classic advice to write what you know. By including "Trauma" in the anthology, Clark, as the editor gives readers an example of the kind of work he believes Deaf and hard of hearing writers need to be doing.

"Trauma" lays out a narrative not unfamiliar to many families - a man whose alcoholism causes great stress on the family, his teenage son who is in rebellion and a wife/mother who is trying to hold it all together. The twist, however, is that the teenage son who narrates the story is hard of hearing to the point of being deaf. What Heuer accomplishes is the shattering of an images of Deaf youth as pitiable poster children. A brief excerpt of how Heuer handles the dialogue illustrates.

My stomach isn't doing too hot. Hopefully some milk will take the edge off, along with a bottle of aspirin I found in Brad's medicine cabinet. As it turns out, I can barely force down even that, and when Brad claps me suddenly and sadistically on the shoulder as he sits down across from me – "How ya doing! " – I nearly choke.
      "Fucking hand hurts, man," I tell him.
      Brad says something with the gesture "fight" in it, but I don't catch the whole thing.
      "You," Brad signs. "Fight" . Then something more I still don't catch. Then he points to my backpack.

      He points again with a "Wait a minute and I'll tell you" expression. When I still don't understand he impatiently leans over and grabs my backpack, rummaging around. He pulls out a notebook and a pen just as I finally realize what he wants.
      At the party, he writes.
      "What about it?"
      Brad signs "drunk" and points at me.
      "Well no shit, Sherlock!"
      He writes again: You hit that guy.

Though Heuer's story was in fact first published in Breath and Shadow, a magazine that only publishes work by writers with disabilities, what he manages to create is a story that would be at home in any contemporary literary journal. In dong so he illustrates that fiction about disability need not brand its author as a niche writer. Uniacke's and Heur's stories illustrate two especially powerful responses that Deaf fiction can make to the omissions and stereotypes of traditional literature, but readers will find other pieces in this section, including Kristen Harmon's "Small Machinery" and Pamela Writght's "Holding Up" also well worth their time.

Poetry by Deaf and disabled writers can take one of two tactics in trying to demonstrate their potential for contributing to literature. The first is simply to openly engage with topics around Deafness and disability. While this sounds straight-forward, it has not always been the case that poets have felt comfortable doing this so. In contrast, to poets with visible physical disabilities, however, Deaf and hard of hearing poets have an impressively long tradition in bringing up topics of impairment and its social consequences. That tradition continues in Deaf Lit Extravaganza in virtually every poem included, many of which like Paul Hostovsky's "Deaf Culture 101" or Michelle Westfall's "Speech Therapists I have Known," announce their topics in their titles. As important as this tactic is, perhaps even more important and interesting are those poems that show how Deaf culture makes a real contribution to poetry as a genre by the use of language that, if not for Deaf culture, might not exist.

The most obvious of these contributions is ASL poetry – a medium that by its very nature is rendered poorly in print. In the current volume, Raymond Luczak's work with ASL poetry is notable. Luczak was the first to get permission to be able to translate the poetry of Clayton Valli from ASL into English. Valli was rightfully concerned that a poor translation of his poetry would lose so much of the meaning as to make an embarrassment of his work. Valli's poem "A Dandelion" positioned at the beginning of the book is, therefore, not only a tribute to Valli himself but to Luczak. Luczak's own poem "Silences," subtitled "after Clayton Valli (1951-2003)," is followed by an ASL gloss to give readers some feeling of the difficulty involved. The first two stanzas of Luczak's poem read:

You've been dead ten years.
It doesn't seem possible.

Gone there on the operating table.
Your body covered in a white sheet
overhanging like angel wings.

These lines are glossed as:

Valli-name-sign you dead ten years

Operation finish you body dead
Sheet white cover-you
Table-sheet-drape look-like angel wings.

Poet Pia Taavila-Borsheim uses this language of ASL gloss, not as a sort of demonstrative translation of a poem, but as the language of the poem itself, in her poem "Hang Where?" which begins:

Long time ago…
My age what?

Do? Do?
Me arrive,
Walk into classroom.

John Lee Clark's poem, "The Bully" uses a similar technique in a more limited way, framing the poem in standard English then using the gloss language in ASL quotations within the poem.

In a poem that seems to riff off of Langston Hughes, Curtis Robbins takes a very different approach. Visually and rhythmically, "I Want to Sing" invokes jazz. His invoking of Hughes here seems quite appropriate, since Hughes was trying to breathe the wordless music of black culture into mainstream poetry while Curtis wants to:

…sing jazz
      in words that no music
            could tune.

Both are trying to bring a new language, a new feel to poetry.

The exciting thing about the poetry in Deaf Lit Extravaganza, then, is not just in an introduction of topics to be explored, but in the possibilities for new uses for language. Both of these may be valuable to main stream writers who find them self in a rut and are looking for fresh approaches.

With the final panel in the book's triptych, the essays, DLE gives writers a chance to talk directly about their experiences. The essays range widely from Clark's elegiac tribute to his alma mater to Andria Alefhi's account of her brief stint as a janitor to Pamela Wright's humorous account of an accidental meeting with Clayton Valli outside a men's restroom. Perhaps more than the previous two sections, the quality of writing in this section is variable, but within it there are some pieces that should definitely not be give missed. Most obvious is "Double Language," Morgan Grayce Willow description of evolution as a sign language interpreter. Willow's piece more than doubles the length of the next longest essays, so it was perhaps a bit of an editorial risk to include it, but the read definitely confirms Clark's decision was the right one. While few of the other essays allow the readers a long enough time with the author to feel that they are getting to know her, following Willow from her early childhood interest in being able to sign to her arrival as mature language interpreter not only draws readers as a companion on the journey but teaches them a great deal in the process.

One unexpectedly exciting feature of this final section of the book is the small group of essays by hard of hearing writers. Those who are not totally deaf but have great difficulty in hearing often find themselves caught in the middle. In her essay "Connections," Susan Hajiani explains:

I could not hear very well. No I was not actually deaf. People would have noticed that and labeled it if I did not respond at all. Still, there were a lot of times I seemed to be doing the wrong thing, a little off beat. So began another game, spawned by the telephone game, and I was the one who made it up, decided on the rules, and did not invite any other players to join me. The object of the game was to appear normal, not lose any friends, and especially not appear to them as stupid. Of course, I had to constantly revise the rules to fit all kinds of seemingly ordinary situations to keep them appearing just that.

The game Hajiani refers to is the childhood game, known by varying names in which a secret is whispered down the lines, the object of which is to keep the message intact. Being drawn into this game on a school playground resulted in Hajiani having to confront her difficulty in hearing.

The counter-game Hajiani feels compelled to initiate is passing. As Kristen Harmon (whose work is included in DLE) recently pointed out in an essay in Brune and Wilson's Disability and Passing, passing is a game which it is impossible to pursue without being found out. Haijani describes the ways in which this comes to pass – in school, in social relations and in her career.

The brief piece following Hajani's in the anthology, Christopher Jon Heuer's "Billy Joel: The Reason I Won't Get a Cochlear Implant" makes an interesting follow up piece to Haijani's and companion piece to Unicke's story earlier in the anthology in revealing how the oralism/sign language conflict is still alive and well. Heuer's is at once unscientific and completely phenomenologically convincing. As someone who used to revel to the music of Billy Joel in his youth he observes:

Billy Joel doesn't sound like Billy Joel. He sounds like a Mack truck crashing into a church, but take it off nd he sounds like Billy Joel again. Like I said, it's a question of expectation. No hear aid or implant is ever going to beat that mental radio in your skull. If you already know what things should sound like, it's very tough to settle for what they don't sound like.

Although, I'm tempted to give DLE an unconditional endorsement, it would be inappropriate to simply let a review of a Clark book end without a modicum of criticism. Clark's mantra has been that a book that does not incite dissenting opinions is not worth reading. In that spirit, then there are two points on which things might have been done differently in DLE. The first is that, amazingly, no effort has been made to recognize other magazines or books in which the selections in the anthology may have been previously published. As mentioned before, Heuer's short story was previously published in Breath and Shadow, and no credit is given to that journal nor to any other prior publisher. Small presses and magazines struggle for recognition even when they offer exceptional material, so one would think that an editor who seeks out a small press himself, would want return the favor by listing previous publishers so that readers might be able to check them out. A second edition should include such recognition. One other critique that DLE is open to is Eurocentric bias. Since, authors from Ireland and Australian are included, the anthology is not limiting itself to American writing yet there are no writers representing Africa, Asia or the Middle East. The writings of deaf Nigerian poet Urdeen (aka Sylvester Omosun), for example, have much to say both about being deaf in a culture with heavy oral traditions and being the object of religious scrutiny for his hearing loss. Perspectives such as Urdeen's may have made a nice counterpoint to the more American concerns expressed. It's a run of the mill criticism, but still valid.

Deaf American Poetry was published by Gallaudet Press. It was a good partnership because Clark offered the poetic, research and editorial experience to produce a groundbreaking anthology and Gallaudet offered the name visibility to be able to draw enough attention to Clark's project to get it not just published but read. Clark, always fiercely independent, has had artistic and editorial differences with Gallaudet and has published Deaf Lit Extravaganza under Handtype Press. There is little serious argument that Galluadet University Press is not the leader and single biggest influence in the publication of American Deaf literature. The fact that a significant number of the authors included in the volume have associations with Galluadet (see the contributors bios) is tacit acknowledgement that Clark still has high regard for the writers coming out of Galluadet. Given this scenario, Clark's choice to publish by Handtype is a bold move and he deserves credit for the risk he is taking. In the field of Disabilities Studies generally, it is very difficult for non-academics or those not attached to a university to be published. Not only is publication a notoriously insular process but independent presses often do not have the money or connections to promote the book nor the potentially captive audience of a university author. Handtype press, which has been lately resurrected, has had other recent publications including Luczak's Eyes of Desire 2: A GLBT Reader and Kristen Ringman's novel Makara, that features a deaf protagonist.

Deaf Lit Extravaganza is not the only anthology of modern Deaf writing. At least two other anthologies, Jill Jepson's No Walls of Stone and Tonya Stremlau's The Deaf Way II Anthology (both published by Gallaudet) can make that claim as well, but they are at least a decade old and much has happened in the field of disability studies in the last ten years. Clark's anthology, in addition to being the most current can also boast the greatest selection of Deaf fiction and, at $24.95, the most affordable price. For these reasons, and a host of others, Deaf Lit Extravaganza deserves not just to be read but to have a conspicuous place in book stores, libraries and classrooms.


Michael Northen is a Wordgathering editor and a co-editor with Sheila Black and Jennifer Bartlett of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability.