Voice: On Writing with Deafness
part of the University of Regina’s Writers on Writing series
RW: Your book Voice: On Writing with Deafness is rich with insights—not only about writing but about how your deafness influenced your writing path. As a book editor and a caption editor, I found myself nodding in agreement and recognition frequently.
AP: Thank you, Vanessa. It was a different and, at times, difficult book to write, so I’m happy to read your positive reaction.
RW: I’ve been taking American Sign Language classes for 18 months now, and between school and Deaf social events, I’m learning a lot about Deaf culture—albeit as a hearing person. But even though I know about De’VIA and try to support Deaf talent and so on, I think your book was the first time I’d come across someone speaking about Deaf culture with a sense of nationhood and citizenship. To you, is this a regional thing (e.g., in our case, a relationship with Deaf Canadians) or is it an international state (different sign languages aside)?
AP: Deaf communities are polymorphic. They include so many different dialects and iterations, yet Deaf people around the world unite through the common goal of accessibility and linguistic beauty. While individual dialects and languages may differ, the need to use Sign doesn’t. I’m not sure if nation is the right word, because Deafness extends beyond borders. Nations are divided and divisible. Deafness is not regional or geographical. It’s not bound in one type of body or one specific area of the world. It’s sensual. It’s physical. It’s linguistic. It’s cultural. Deaf communities possess a unique and beautiful character, and Deaf people use their language and their imaginations to eliminate divisions and create connections.
RW: You mention having varying degrees of control, focus, and effort but also being imaginative and creative. You say you’re straddling the hearing and Deaf worlds. And you talk about constructing boundaries, a bivouac, around yourself when writing, in an attempt to ignore outside distractions. Do you think all writers struggle with personal dichotomies and opposing forces, or are they more pronounced for you as a Deaf writer?
AP: All writers of conscience struggle with different forces. Whatever struggles I have are no more pronounced than any other writer’s. The only thing that separates me from most other writers is the way my deafness has calibrated my imagination and the way I think.
RW: The power and interiority of voice feature prominently in your discussion. But so does the role of silence, both as a muse perhaps and as a sociological trigger for discomfort. I laughed when the section on silence listed all the noises that bombard us and ended with “Not to mention fucking people.” I have hyperacusis, and my audiologist chastised me not to isolate myself from noise, but I admit I’m paradoxically uncomfortable with total silence when I’m alone. I agree with you that it can be sacred, but what is it with us and silence? Are we just too afraid of hearing a still small voice? Why can you embrace it for imagination and growth through writing, but people like me, a non-writer, eschew it?
AP: Most of us are afraid of silence because we don’t want to hear that little voice. I’m more comfortable with it by virtue of my occupation and my physiological makeup. My interior voice and I have a strong relationship. I work at it. Most writers work hard at it, I think. I can embrace it because I know what the end product looks like—if I listen to my inner voice, I’m better able to connect with people and ask questions that trigger my imagination and allow me to write stories. That voice is always yammering, questioning, barking. The inner voice is always curious.
The majority of people—especially hearing people—hate silence. They can’t be alone with their thoughts because they’re worried where their thoughts may lead. God forbid they experience a little self-discovery, so they turn to their phones or their computers or their video games. They need to be distracted. And the really frightening thing is that distractions are probably the biggest industry going right now. We love being distracted. People in power love it when we’re distracted because distracted people are easier to govern and manipulate. I’m hyperaware of distractions. We’re in an election year here in Canada, so we’ll have to watch for distractions leading up to October so we don’t end up with Trump 2.0 at 24 Sussex Drive.
RW: You write unflinchingly about suicide, self-harm, euthanasia of the disabled, anxiety, and other things that loads of writers wouldn’t put out there. So congrats on that: it’s really important that we normalize these conversations and own them honestly, as opposed to worrying about squeaky-clean branding.
But I want to bring up another wave of contention (especially in online forums): ableism. You talk about the artistic trope of the self-hating disabled person, disability–inspiration porn posts, and the absence of front-and-centre disability in Canadian (every country’s?) literature, which your PhD thesis addressed. We probably all unintentionally step on some toes with our ableist attitudes sometimes, whether a product of our socialization or our hurried and unthinking society. Aside from seeing the Deaf or disabled or other minorities better and more frequently represented in fiction, the arts, and cultural content, what else do we need to do to educate ableism away? Would writing about it more be effective because we spend a longer time in the consumption of words than we do on a streamed show, for example? I feel like writing would be a powerful vehicle for changing these world views.
AP: We need to recognize that most of us have internalized ableism, and we need to listen to Deaf and disabled people rather than dismissing them. Even in issues as simple as installing ramps, able people think they know better. Able people need to listen to their inner voices and ask, “Do I really know what is best for these people, even though I have no idea what it’s like to live as a Deaf or disabled person?” Pardon me for being crude, but able people need to unfuck themselves, shut the fuck up, and fucking listen.
AP: I like your question about what is most effective. Written forms such as books and articles and essays are crucial. With streaming services like Netflix and Crave, films and television shows have become bonbons. We gobble them up, then forget about them. More films and television shows are being produced now than ever before because the demand for content—that is, distractions!—has never been higher. But they’re also more evanescent than ever before. They are much more liable to fade. Back when television had three channels, everyone was watching the same thing, and those shows lived on—and still live on—in people’s memories forever.
At the same time, these mediums reach millions of people, and if you produce it well and show people something they’ve never seen before, they’ll remember it, they’ll absorb its message. Hannah Gadsby’s comedy show Nanette is a great example because she deconstructs the foundations of comedy while she’s making people laugh. She delivers hard truths in that show, things that we need to hear. I remember my jaw dropping open when I first saw her show, then going back immediately and rewatching the important parts and screaming, “Yes, Hannah! You’re fuckin’ right!” She made me question many of my own experiences. Most shows on Netflix don’t do that, but hers did. She’s brilliant.
So the question becomes: How can you market books the way the Netflix markets Stranger Things? That is, as crucial information disguised as a distraction?
It’s a difficult question, a difficult issue. Writing is only as powerful as the people who read and absorb it. It’s a tough time to be a writer because there are now so many of us, and so many distractions, and we’re all clamouring to be heard, and we all deserve to be heard, but nobody gets heard equally, and some aren’t heard at all. There’s only so much time for reading and thinking, and none of us have anywhere near enough time. I can only create to the best of my ability and trust my perspective and my instinct as things that might help me stand out.
RW: Obviously, I was super interested in your take on captions and subtitles! You talk about the barriers they create as well as the doors they open for entertainment, personal, and professional situations. Can I say something a bit heretical here? As much as I advocate for access to and excellence in captioning, I sort of feel like captioning—even more than the broader term accessibility—has become the new shingle that everyone is hanging out to indicate how salable their product or service is. It’s like the feel-good sticker we can easily apply because YouTube autocaptions <insert eyeroll>. If I see one more person recommend a list of companies that produce less-than-stellar captions (and I know because I paid to test it out)… My takeaway from your writing is that, after improved access, your appreciation of captions is more aesthetic and sensual—as you say, synesthetic. But then, you certainly told it like it was with the dissertation defences and the book-festival experiences. How are you feeling about the State of the Caption and, for want of a better word, the politics of captioning right now?
AP: Captions are useful, but like all accessibility tech, they need improvement. People who don’t use captions are often the ones who take the most pride in them: “Look! Look what we have here!” But it’s not a catch-all. It’s a stepping stone. I see a lot of horror movies, and the captioning machine I use at the movie theatre always gives me a headache for the first fifteen minutes. Those little green letters, that long adjustable arm. We need open captions, but because hearing people bitch about them, we don’t get them. The one really helpful thing about these captioning machines is that they’re shaped like maces. The end is really heavy, so if any hearing punk gives me guff, I can beat him to death with it.
RW: Bahaha! And I know what you mean. I wrote about my experience using CaptiView and other assistive tech at the cinema.
AP: I feel like there’s an untapped artistic potential in captions. I was at the Saskatchewan Festival of Words last year, and I had a remote captionist typing from an undisclosed location. Who knows—it could’ve been a serial killer. Anyway, I was in a playful mood, and I said to the captionist, “We should take the captions and mix them up into a poem or something,” and the captionist typed, “Good idea.” Imagine that—watching TV or something and taking captions that are unique—like sound descriptions, or captions where the typist made an error, and combining them all into a long poem. It’d be the next Waste Land.
RW: I love that idea!
AP: But things need to improve. We’re a long way from equitable access. It goes back to ableism: as long as able people think they know better, and as long as they believe their needs are more important, and as long as they’re unwilling to relax their tight little egos, we won’t have the full access we need.
RW: My grandfather homesteaded out West, and my mum grew up in Saskatoon; prairie people are stalwart, perhaps necessarily so. I thought Voice was honest, rattling, and uplifting: very apt for your geographical home. There are insights in it that I’d like to include in my caption editing course because I think hearing about form and function is more effective when it’s given a face—or rather, a voice. Thank you so much for sharing about your writing and how it intertwines with your experiences. It makes a great read for students of writing or accessibility studies, folks in the Deaf community, and the general public.
AP: Thank you, Vanessa. I tried to be as honest as possible when writing the book. And yes, we have to be stalwart when it’s forty below without the windchill.
I’m not sure I agree that most prairie people are honest, though. Prairie people are, by and large, conservative, which means they hide. They hide their insecurities or cast them onto other people. They don’t like talking or rocking the boat—unless of course they’re publicly fantasizing about killing Justin Trudeau or murdering Indigenous people. Many writers on the prairies, such as Tenille Campbell, Louise Bernice Halfe, David Carpenter, Joanne Weber, Anne Lazurko, Brenda Schmidt, and Iryn Tushabe, are all doing crucial work to show prairie people (and really all people) how to be more open, how to be less afraid. I hope my book helps with that. I hope it helps by showing people—especially people who seldom get the chance to express themselves—that their voices are crucial and that what may be perceived as a vulnerability—whether it’s Deafness, mental illness, or disability—may actually be a source of strength.
Adam’s book is on sale as of March 2 through the University of Regina Press and other outlets.
Author photo by Deborah Popovici. Reproduced with permission.