Recently, Book Nation Book Club had a wonderful conversation with author Sara Novic about her novel, True Biz and the Deaf community. The story centers around a high school for the Deaf and dives deep into the lives of three main characters, Charlie, Austin and February. Charlie is a new student in the school who has hearing parents and has never met another deaf person. She has cochlear implants that do not work efficiently and does not know sign language. Austin comes from generations of deaf people but he grapples with his feeling about his brand new baby sister who is born hearing. February is the head mistress at the school who, is a CODA (child of deaf adult), can hear and speaks ASL. Author Sara Novic, who is deaf herself, takes on a ride during one crazy year in high school where the dynamic characters face new challenges, develop relationships and teach us a thing or two along the way.
I love a rich story that is told from different narrators, challenging me to learn more to understand them. True Biz by Sara Novic hits the spot when it comes to presenting material ripe for a mass audience to take in, ponder, research further and gain new understanding about Deaf culture. Points of view within the deaf community differ when it comes to ASL (American Signed Language) and cochlear implants and True Biz explores the lives of those who are forced to go down different paths, either to embrace or be deprived of communication. I recommend reading the hard copy so you can enjoy the illustrations that depict ASL.
Author Q & A with Sara Novic
Q: When we first emailed and I invited you to speak to Book Nation Book Club you said the best way to facilitate a smooth conversation was to have an ASL interpreter join us. I know you were in discussion with Laurie Frankel (who, by the way is one of the incredible authors we have had here at the Book Club) and although I could not find a recording of that conversation online, I did find a few videos of you, some speaking with voice and others signing. Can you tell us about your background and personal journey related to your hearing, the Deaf community you are a part of and when you learned American Sign Language?
A: Laurie Frankel is so great! I’m excited for her new book, too. We chatted for the Reese’s Book Club finale event, via a very skilled interpreter who I’ve been fortunate to work with since graduate school. I was born hearing, and began losing my hearing in middle school. At the time, I didn’t know any other deaf people and tried to hide my hearing loss, which I understood as a kind of failure. When I met other Deaf people and learned ASL as an older teen, it was a feeling of great joy and homecoming, as well as a huge relief in terms of the amount of sheer effort and exhaustion that comes from communicating in spoken English. Lipreading is difficult and involves a lot of guesswork and context clues–try standing in front of the mirror and saying the sound of the letters K and G, or B, P, and M, for example– and hearing technology can cause migraines and tinnitus. All of this together is a phenomenon we call “listening fatigue.” I went Deaf after learning to speak, so I do have the capacity to use my voice; however, communication is a two-way process, and just because I can speak does not mean I can hear! This is true of all deaf people, and can be a great source of frustration–when we attempt to work with a hearing person by speaking or lipreading, we usually end up bowled over by that person who then wants the full work of the conversation to be placed on us. Using an ASL interpreter is a more accurate, and equitable, way to facilitate communication between a deaf person and a nonsigning hearing one.
Q: Do your friends and family know ASL?
A: My partner, my son, and some hearing friends know ASL. And my friends in the Deaf community, of course.
Q: Signing and speaking seem to be 2 completely different languages. Do you think in English and translate to ASL or do you think in ASL? Which is more difficult and is it difficult to transition back and forth?
A: Yes, ASL and English are two completely separate languages. And ASL isn’t universal, so it’s not necessarily related to other signed languages, either. Its closest linguistic relative is LSF, French Sign Language. As for my “inner monologue,” it kind of switches depending what I’m thinking about. (This is different for different deaf people, as it is for hearing people–and some people think entirely in pictures or have no inner monologue at all.) It’s not difficult to transition back and forth mentally, since I’m fluent in both languages, but it can be very difficult to translate between the two for another person! ASL is a much more flexible language, and more vivid in a lot of respects, so I think that visual nature has influenced my writing. At times that can also be frustrating–English can feel constricting compared to the 3-D work one can do in ASL.
Q: Did you grow up wanting to be a writer or a teacher? How did your writing career begin?
A: I think I had settled into the idea of being a teacher long before I realized a writer was a thing I could be, as a career path. I’m the first person in my family to go to college, so I didn’t really know much about picking a major, and thought of a job as a very separate thing from the art or hobbies I enjoyed. I do think not having any Deaf role models to look up to in the field, or even very many books with deaf characters, made me especially slow on the uptake when it came to realizing that I could become a writer professionally. I was fortunate who had professors in college who kind of drilled it into me that it was a thing I could do, and supported me as I worked on my first book.
Q: You teach Deaf studies and I was wondering where you teach, if that is a standard course across the country, are the students who take the course hearing or Deaf, and is the curriculum included in any history classes?
A: I teach Deaf Studies at Stockton University. It is a course I created for the Disability Studies minor there. There are some universities that have much more robust ASL and Deaf Studies programming, and there are some that have none; there’s not really a “standard curriculum” in higher education at all. (There’s not really a standard in K-12 either, but that’s for another time.) However, it’s safe to say that there is a standard in not including deaf history in mainstream history courses. I have never heard of any standard history programming that includes Deaf people, besides the occasional mention of Helen Keller. This is true of most disability history.
Q: Your first book is about a young girl during the war in Croatia, and True Biz is totally different and unrelated, about students in a Deaf school. How do you get your ideas and what do you want your readers to get out of your stories?
A: It’s funny because when I started writing True Biz, I thought the same thing–that I was writing a completely different book. But then I realized that both books are about strong young women who are finding their place in the world, and thinking a lot about language and identity, and family. I actually had this realization while I was on-stage at a book festival doing a panel, so that was deeply embarrassing, but overall I think most writers have “big picture” themes and questions that we always return to, and these are mine.
Q: I found Charlie’s situation to be the most devastating as she was deprived of ease of communication at a young age by her parents not allowing her to learn sign language. Can you tell us a bit about the controversies of cochlear implants and signing?
A: “Devatstating” really is the right word for what Charlie goes through, because it doesn’t have to be that way. Cochlear implants are very powerful tools, and they do work well for a lot of people. But there are also a lot of people for whom they don’t work, and they cure absolutely no one. Yet the medical community has insisted on an either/or approach, often forcing parents to sign documents saying they agree not to sign with their children. The alleged rationale behind this is that, since sign language is accessible and comes naturally to a deaf kid, it is like a “cheat code” that will hinder a kid from learning English. This is an outdated way of thinking about language–science shows time and again the cognitive benefits of bilingualism–and it’s also a very high-risk way of dealing with a child’s brain. Implant success is highly variable and unpredecitable, and if the implant doesn’t work well enough for them to acquire spoken language before age five they can experience permanant cognitive damage. It’s all totally preventable, and again, there’s no actual, evidence-based reason why sign lnguage and CIs should be mutually exclusive. The data shows that the best language outcomes happen when kids have both. It’s an obvious thing, when you think about it, and look at the multi-million dollar industry of “baby sign language” for hearing kids. But deaf children continue to be marginalized by individuals’ fear and stigma, the monetization of the “cure” for deafness, and old-fashioned thinking rooted in white nationalism about the virtues of “just speaking English.”
Q: Charlie hated the question “What does hearing with an implant sound like?” What are the questions people ask you that you hate most?
A: Can you drive? (Yes, with my eyes.) Can you read braille? (No, I read text…with my eyes). Are Deaf people allowed to get married? (What?) Can you talk? (Can you sign?) Not a common one, but once someone asked me whether my ears still get cold in winter; that was a stunner.
Q: The deaf people in Austin’s family want the new baby to be deaf. Do you think most families want their kids to be like them, and when the kid is different, does it makes things more difficult? Are we getting better at adapting as the world becomes more accepting of differences?
A: I do think most people want their kids to be like them, and parents usually also want their children’s lives to be “easy.” Kids are, of course, always different than their parents expect. Whether or not a difference like deafness makes things difficult is totally up to the parents. I do think parents should give themselves time to grieve, because it’s a big mental shift and a big learning curve, but unfortunately I don’t think many parents move beyond that phase. Or they plow straight into “fix” phase, and they turn their home life into some kind of mental and linguistic agility course so that a child can learn to speak and “function in the real world.”
But even if the technology they rely on to make this happen does end up working well, there’s a danger that in that process; they forget to have a relationship with their kid, to build trust and confidence and a sense of self-worth–they’ve taken on a role of teacher or trainer at the expense of just enjoying their kid. And I say this as a parent, with love, and knowing that parents are trying their best, and knowing that as a parent, sometimes we are wrong about that! That’s what ASL, a language that everyone in the family can learn together and have 100% access to at all times, can give families. But we know that only 8% of families ever learn enough sign to have a conversation with their deaf kid, so no, I can’t say that things are getting better. When it comes to deafness and disability at large, we as a society are very much not accepting of the diversity of human experience.
Q: What are some accommodations the hearing community could make to make things easier for Deaf people who choose to live amongst the hearing?
A: 99.9% Deaf people live among the hearing. The idea that we are isolated and siloed out into our own community if we learn sign is a false construct used to scare people away from embracing Deaf culture. Hearing people are our parents, our families, our children, our shopkeepers, our mechanics, our friends, our teachers, etc. As far as accommodations, it really depends on the venue and kind of event or place, but making the most basic effort of wondering “would this be accessible to a D/HH person? Why or why not?” would be a great first step. So often Deaf people are forced to beg for retroactive accommodations, when, if the organizer of an event or workplace would put something simple like closed captions in place from the start, the process would be easier, and often more cost effective, than waiting for the last minute. But really the same principle applies to everyday, one-on-one interactions. Offering to write back and forth or type on a phone instead of asking a deaf person to lipread, putting the captions on the TV without complaining, these kinds of things add up and mean a lot. And of course, there’s always ASL class!
Q: February has great insight into the teenagers and their issues because she has straddled the hearing and deaf world her whole life.
I recently saw the movie, CODA which was about a hearing child of deaf parents. It showed a glimpse of how communication responsibilities could fall on a hearing family member and some potential difficulties deaf people might face without that person. Do you think society should take more responsibility in encouraging ASL education? What has been your personal experience?
A: The movie CODA was sweet and I’m very happy to see the Deaf talent finally getting their due, but it had some logistical problems… for example, it would be illegal not to provide a Deaf person an interpreter at a doctor’s office or in court, and has been for 30 years (more for the court). When I saw that movie, I actually thought it was set in the past, until Daniel Durant’s character pulled out an iPhone. I was shocked, then–why hadn’t they just been writing things down the whole time. So while I do think that movie more accurately portrayed an experience of an older generation of CODAs, it’s not really true to today, when we have so much technology at our fingertips. Deaf people tend to be early adopters, so we have been using tech to communicate with the hearing world for a long time.
Q: I loved the descriptions/drawings of ASL in the book and I assume your goal was to begin educating the hearing community. What would you like hearing people to know about deaf people?
A: At first I resisted the idea of teaching the hearing world about ASL and history in a novel framework–I wanted my characters to be able to exist without justification, just like hearing characters do. However, I realized that hearing people really have no baseline working knowledge at all when it comes to the Deaf world, and that without a little info, they may have trouble empathizing with these characters. So I capitalized on the school setting of the book and used it as an opportunity to teach without (hopefully) disrupting the flow of the book. I was really fortunate to work with an extremely talented Deaf artist, Brittany Castle, for the illustration portions of the book.
Ultimately, though, I’d most like hearing people to learn that we are not broken versions of you–we’re just different.
Q: Philosophical question – are we obligated to preserve human diversity?
A: I don’t know the answer, but I always say that I’d like to be dead before they find a way to delete us deaf people out of the genome. It will be a sad day when the few in charge have the ability to cease the existence of anyone they don’t understand, and I do believe that humanity will be worse off for it. Deaf and disabled people, for example, are great problem-solvers, inventors, innovators; we’ve had to be because society builds great barriers to prevent us from joining. Purely from a pragmatic standpoint, homogenizing the capacity for human thought doesn’t seem like such a smart idea to me.
Q: In your opinion, does the deaf community look at those with implants different that those who speak ASL and is there a bigger struggle for identity for deaf people in general compared to people who can hear?
A: I definitely think this was an issue maybe, twenty or thirty years ago, and perhaps still among older Deaf people–people fear change and the unknown. Now, however, it’s very clear that CIs don’t cure deafness, so the vast majority of the Deaf community has accepted that CIs are just another tool to facilitate communication with the hearing world. Now we’re kind of seeing a lot of children who were raised in the mainstream with varying degrees coming to the Deaf community and ASL later in life. Even if they had a fine time in a mainstream setting educationally, language bears so much more than that, and being with who understands what it’s like to be deaf is really an invaluable social and emotional benefit of the community itself.
Q: You didn’t wrap everything up in a bow at the end of the book but let the reader wanting more information. Can you talk a bit about the ending?
A: What will happen to Charlie and Austin? River Valley? Will there be a sequel? There’s no bow at the end of True Biz, and I know that can be a bummer—sometimes it’s nice to have a freakin’ bow! But that wouldn’t be the truth. And while this book is fiction, that doesn’t mean it’s not true. If you’re curious about the ending of the novel (spoilers ahead!) I’ve written a little essay on the subject down below. TLDR?: It’s my hope that if enough people are dissatisfied with the ending of True Biz, they might work to change it. The Future of the Deaf Community Belongs to You
Q: How long did it take you to write this book?
A: Seven years! Cue crying emoji.
Q: What influence did you have on cover design?
A: None, really. Happily the designer hit it out of the park.
Q: What will be your next project?
A: I’m working on a nonfiction book right now–it’s a hybrid of memoir, cultural criticism and history about Deafness, as written in letters to my sons.
About the Author:
Sara Nović is author of the novel GIRL AT WAR, (2015, winner American Library Association Alex Award, longlist Women’s Prize, finalist for the LA Times Fiction prize) and the illustrated nonfiction collection AMERICA IS IMMIGRANTS (2019). She’s an instructor of creative writing and Deaf studies, and lives in Philly with her family.
Visit her on the web at http://sara-novic.com or