[Image Description: A manipulated photograph of a light-skinned woman with curly auburn hair, a red short sleeve shirt, jeans, and a bag over her right shoulder who walks away from the camera using Canadian crutches into an area of increasing light and plants. The shadows of her legs and crutches are wavy, making patterns with the pavers in a courtyard.] Work by Barbara Ruth.
I am thrilled to introduce our first set of talented writers with disabilities reviewing literary work by and about the disability community. Without exaggeration, I can say that editing the work of the contributors to our Ideas section--which began as reviews, but has expanded to include interviews and, at least this issue, a collectively written manifesto--collaborating with these energetic, dedicated, talented writers has influenced everything I’ve read these past weeks, from Smart Ass Cripple’s take on Mike Pence to the daily installment of The Happy LIttle Yellow Box (a big hit with the under-three set in my house).
But no place have my exchanges with this group and their criticism infused my reading more than with the debut novel from Kaitlyn Greenidge, We Love You, Charlie Freeman. The novel centers on a Black family that has moved from Boston to rural western Massachusetts to work at the Toneybee Institute, a place with an upsetting history of racism and eugenics. The job that has taken them there is teaching sign language to a chimpanzee, who lives in their house. That’s a lot of loaded material for one book, but Greenidge weaves it into a spectacular, thoughtful dream. I’m not going to talk about it at length here, except to talk about how Greenidge--who is not d/Deaf and whose connection to American Sign Language is limited to her mother, a hearing person who earned a master’s degree at Gallaudet--succeeds where many established and even canonized hearing writers have failed, that is, in incorporating sign language into literary work written in English.
When I learn that a hearing writer is incorporating sign language into a written work I always approach that information warily. As the hearing child of a late-deafened parent, as someone who has worked as a sign language interpreter since 2010, as a writer whose fiction and nonfiction often incorporate d/Deaf characters and their diverse relationship to language and communication, I dread learning that a hearing writer with loose or nonexistent ties to the signing Deaf community is incorporating the language or the culture into their work. Take for starters the seminal anthology Angels and Outcasts: An Anthology of Deaf Characters in Literature (Gallaudet Univ. Press, 1986). On the page, these characters pale compared with Deaf people as written by Deaf people, in everything from Eyes of Desire (Allyson Publications, 1994), the book that changed my kinda-CODA, proto-bi-boy life, to Gallaudet University Press’ Deaf American Poetry and their two-volume Deaf American Prose, not to mention the recent Deaf Lit Extravaganza (2013, Handtype Press), and even some contributors to a new work we review in this issue, QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology (Squares and Rebels, 2015).
But most of what I feared in Greenidge’s novel was the idea that ASL would be the kind of cherry-on-top, two-point-conversion that it is in otherwise brilliant literary work. The classic example for me here is the often-anthologized Amy Hempel story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” Never mind the hospital visit, which is the entire temporal frame of the story; I love the way Hempel renders this, and I spent a bunch of my childhood at the Dana Farber Brain Tumor Clinic. A perfect story sours in its last lines when Hempel writes, almost randomly, of a gorilla who learned sign language. The story ends with the fact that when the gorilla who’d learned sign language had a baby and the baby died, the gorilla said, over and over, Baby, come back, and Hempel writes that the gorilla was “now fluent in the language of grief.”
It’s a beautiful line, but one that has always bothered me. One reason is the narrator still can’t speak that language--though maybe, in her defense, this story hews to the Elizabeth Bowen line about being “the moment after which a character’s life changes.” (Though if that’s the case, she’s suddenly fluent in grief? Does that even make it a language? Or an electrical circuit? Would this be the same story if the gorilla were “allowing, in the binary way of basic home wiring, the flow of electrons of grief?” It’s no small trick, to be fluent in electricity.)
The other problem is this: leaving the character aside, the writer finds no way to articulate this notion that now the language of grief has seeped through the language of trivia than by appropriating sign (or, maybe more exactly, appropriating its appropriation, in a way that the author seems to think, well, is appropriate.) Is the exoticiszing of the animal using a manual language is the only route to this “moment of grace”? I don’t think so; rather, it seems like a cheap shortcut.
In an interview that will appear later this fall on the website of the magazine The Common, the writer Jillian Weise remarked to me: “So often the nondisabled writer goes to the disabled subject solely for the purpose of objective correlative or metaphor or some kind of gravitas that maybe the poet cannot get from another subject.” It had always seemed to me that this is what was happening in Hempel’s work, and when I heard about the premise of Greenidge’s work, I dreaded seeing this path taken by yet another talented writer. (And Greenidge, she is the real deal. Seriously, read the essay “My Mother’s Garden,” like now. There’s a link to it in the text.)
Greenidge’s novel, thankfully, proved my fears unfounded. In a book that is sheerly brilliant in a great many ways, the decision I most admire in her as a writer was her restraint when it came to what the two sisters could and couldn’t do with sign language. I think here of a scene where the sisters get into an argument with a white employee of the Institute, who has been filming them interacting with Charlie. The argument is over the correct sign for AFRICA. (The all-caps in this essay are a gloss, not extra emphasis). There are layers here--the powerful, employing white man controlling the video camera is telling the employed, working Black young women in front of his camera how to use a language that isn’t his. Let’s face it, ASL doesn't really belong to any of them, but it belongs less to him, the documenting scientist, than to the girls, who are purportedly Charlie’s teachers or, more sinisterly, his peers. To put it differently, the sign for AFRICA is being appropriated by each character in different ways that vary in their respect for the community from which they’ve taken the word.
What I like most about it is that this moment exposes or confirms for me the underlying reason behind the ease with which the girls have communicated ideas that I can’t easily back-translate into ASL. To put it another way: I, a hearing writer, wouldn’t necessarily present this exact italicized English if my goal was to preserve a semantic sense that could echo ASL’s discourse, if not its syntax. (For exquisitely echoed syntax, you’ll need to look in our Prose section, at Raymond Luczak’s “Neighbors”). These girls, in my reading, are not at all using ASL but a manual communication system specific to them, a home sign system not so very much unlike the kind of gesture that might be based in signs that my brother, who is on the autism spectrum, uses to sim-com with my father, who stopped signing ten years into his life as a deaf person, when I left home, not so long before I spent six months at Gallaudet University. Greenidge’s characters don’t bite off more than they can chew, and in this way, they can own whatever they think the language is, because it’s not what it actually is to anyone but them. By being clear, at least to me, about the girls’ lack of actual ownership of the language, the story they have is not shoplifted from a bookstore, but loaned form a library. Even they know it’s not theirs.
What is so very impressive about Greenidge’s incorporation of signed language into the novel is how her lack of appropriation allows all the novel’s other themes--race, power, family, history--to shine through the thing that makes the book stand out--ASL--rather than cheapened by it to those who know better, or inflated in value to those who don’t. The presence of ASL doesn’t overwhelm the book’s other themes, but complements them, deepens them, allowing the novel’s exploration of the intersections of these characters and these conflicts to fully reach across the page.
In our reviews and interviews this issue and in future issues, we look for poetry and short fiction, novels and memoirs, anthologies and plays, art exhibits and new media that do exactly this. And I’m remiss in having spent an awful lot of words before saying what the pieces in this section will make clear: that nobody articulates the disabled experience like disabled writers and critics.
We invite you, our readers, to send us anything you come across that might be worth a closer look. Send an email to email@example.com, with the subject heading “TIP”.