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Monday, December 31, 2012

Angels and Outcasts: Portrayals of the Deaf in Literature

Angels and Outcasts is an anthology of stories and excerpts focused on the deaf published by Gallaudet University.  It came to my attention because Gallaudet has recently published a second anthology dealing with newer writing called Outcasts and Angels.  My review of the first of these anthologies is below.


For the first two sections of the anthology dealing with fiction by non-deaf writers, I mainly valued the introductions rather than the stories themselves.  The introductions to each story explain how it reflected attitudes toward the deaf during the period when it was written.  Although a number of the authors are well-known, their literary status didn't guarantee that they understood the deaf  well enough to portray them in fiction.

A recent example is a critically praised novel called Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding. The link will lead you to my review of the book on Goodreads. I didn't see any other review that discussed whether this was a realistic portrayal of a deaf character. Yes, the style of the author is beautiful and it does portray that period in Romania very well, but it's supposed to be about a deaf artist.  It seemed to me that the author wasn't qualified to write such a book.

 For some authors represented in this anthology deaf characters were symbolic.  While it is the prerogative of  writers to include symbolic characters, I was looking for stories about real people.  I was putting myself in the place of  deaf readers who might pick up a book focusing on a deaf character hoping to find someone who is like themselves or maybe even a role model who will inspire them.  I have always looked for female protagonists who inspire me.  I would have felt very depressed if I never found any.

This brings me to the best story in the anthology which takes place in a school for the deaf and blind. The introduction calls this a favorite story for deaf students.  It's "Why It Was W On The Eyes" by Margaret Montague. The introduction characterizes this as an oralist story that promotes the idea that deaf education should be exclusively concerned with lip reading and learning to speak.  I disagree with this interpretation.  It seemed to me that the signing perspective was also well represented in this story, and that it advocated for the availability of all means of communication in schools for the deaf.  The central character was extremely sympathetic.  It was a double handkerchief story.  Yet I don't think that it implies that this character's situation calls for a universal prescription of oralism.  If anything it shows that deaf students are unique individuals whose backgrounds can determine their communication preferences.

The section devoted to the writings of deaf authors contained the piece that I found most insightful.  It was the excerpt from The Deaf Mute Howls by Albert Ballin. I was shocked to learn that people who are characterized by Ballin as "semi-mute" were used to promote oralism.   This means to me that they weren't really learning to speak because they already could to a certain extent. It seems likely to me that they weren't born deaf.  Not having been born deaf gives a deaf person a different perspective on the hearing world.  They may not identify with the deaf community and may not choose to learn signing.  Oral communication and lip reading would seem most suitable for these individuals.  Yet it's wrong to deny signing to the born deaf as Ballin illustrates so well. Ballin actually met Alexander Graham Bell.  I was very interested in how he portrayed this extremely influential figure in the oralist movement. I was astonished to learn that Bell had learned signing to communicate with his deaf wife.   This doesn't seem consistent with his advocacy of oralism.  Ballin also experimented with combining ASL with pantomime, and he tried to convince Hollywood directors of silent films to learn ASL as their means of communication with actors during filming.  Yet this would mean that the actors would need to learn ASL, and Lon Chaney was the only actor in Hollywood at the time who knew how to sign.  I hadn't known that the silent actor Lon Chaney Sr. was a CODA, a child of deaf adults.  Find out more about him from The Wikipedia Article on Lon Chaney Sr.  Ballin sounds like he was a brilliant and creative individual.  I am now much more motivated to obtain a copy of The Deaf Mute Howls so I can discover more about his life.

The Ballin excerpt alone made this anthology worth reading, but I am looking forward to reading Gallaudet's second anthology Outcasts and Angels.


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