Depictions of deafness in literature
November 2023. Seminar on Representations of Deaf Characters in Literature by Dr John Bosco Conoma at UCC
On November 24th, 2023, I listened to a research seminar on ‘Representation of deaf characters in English Literature’, by Dr John Bosco Conoma. Actually I both listened and watched as the seminar was also communicated in Irish Sign Language (ISL). I’ve taken a beginners course in ISL but alas my knowledge wasn’t sufficient to follow the ISL part of the conversation.
One of the areas that Dr Conoma discussed was about how hearing authors perceive and portray deafness in literature. Conoma posited that the way in which deaf characters are portrayed fails to capture the richness of the deaf experience and that deaf characters are frequently portrayed as silent, unknown, unknowable and with a level of pity. Conoma also agreed with the view expressed by Jonathon Miller in his work ‘The Rustle of a Star: An Annotated Bibliography of Deaf Characters in Fiction’, that (in literature) ‘deaf people are often used by hearing authors symbols of alienation.’
This symbol of alienation was perhaps exemplified in the Carson McCullers novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which featured a deaf protagonist, John Singer.
The depiction of the character of Singer falls under what Conoma refers to as ‘alienated’. Singer is isolated and lonely. The person he believes to be his only friend has been committed to a psychiatric institution. The other characters in the book view Singer’s silence as a form of wisdom and understanding and fail to see Singer for who he is.
Carson McCuller’s novel does bring up a topic which is increasingly discussed in literature; that of cultural appropriation. McCullers herself was not deaf. This topic was discussed by Alexander Steele in an article for Disabilities Studies Quarterly.
The Curious Case of Carson McCullers: Appropriation, Allyship, and the Problem of Speaking for Others. This topic was discussed by Alexander Steele in an article for Disabilities Studies Quarterly.
‘Generally speaking, able-bodied people simply fail to understand the lives and issues of people with disabilities. When asked to put themselves in the position of a person in a wheelchair, they do not imagine the point of view of others; rather, they project onto those others their own fears and fantasies of themselves. Thus more often than not, well-meaning, able-bodied people seeking to understand and communicate with a disabled person express the patronizing attitudes of pity that so enrage many people with disabilities. (Young 344).’
This quote ties in with Conoma’s reference to the reductive portrayals of deaf people, where it was their disability, rather than who they are as a person, which was foremost in their literary depiction and that because of this, the diversity of the deaf experience was not presented. He points to the added ability of the deaf community as they are raised bi-lingual with sign language being their first language. He also critiqued the prevalent idea expressed in literature of deaf characters needing to overcome their deafness, rather than accepting it. Dr Conoma spoke about the necessity of books showing the deaf perspective. However, he also noted the challenge of writing ISL into a book, stating that the richness of ISL cannot, perhaps, adequately be put into a line of text because ISL is not simply the signing but also includes the facial expression of the user.
Dr Conoma discussed oralism, the outdated practice of teaching deaf students to communicate only through lipreading and/or speech and not through sign language. Oralism has been heavily critiqued within the deaf community as it’s viewed as ableist, a way of trying to ‘fix’ deaf people and also because it results in a neglect of sign language learning.
As I’m currently studying Irish literature I was particularly interested in Conoma’s references to the Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen. Queenie is a deaf but speaking character in Bowen’s short story, Summer Night. And once again we see the othering and unknowable deaf character.
‘He had to share with Queenie … the solitary and almost fairy like world created by her deafness. Her deafness broke down his only defence, talk. He was exposed to the odd, immune, plumbing looks she was for ever passing over his face.’ (587)
Summer Night was written in 1941. Attitudes towards people with disabilities have of course progressed since that time. But it is probably only when we have more deaf writers, writing about the lived deaf experience, that we can truly challenge limiting beliefs about deafness.
November 2023. Seminar on Representations of Deaf Characters in Literature by Dr John Bosco Conoma. https://www.tcd.ie/slscs/staff/comamaj