By Phoebe Tay
Phoebe Tay introduces us to the world of Deaf writers, their unique challenges and perspectives, and what Deaf and hearing writers have to offer each other. She also takes us inside a unique Melbourne Writers Festival performance, where stories were presented in Auslan, bringing audiences into the Deaf world rather than the other way around.
Writing has always been a creative outlet for me to express myself, since my childhood. Only recently in mid-2010 has the term ‘Deaf writer’ come up for me in the process of attending the ‘Deaf Can Write’ workshop facilitated by Arnold Zable. I was very excited when it was announced that the workshop was going to happen. It was a great opportunity to develop my writing skills knowing that I would get full access to Auslan (Australian Sign Language) interpreters and meet other Deaf people with similar interests in writing.
From this series of workshops, the participants suggested that stories could be presented at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival as a reading in Auslan instead of in the usual oral way. In the performance, entitled Through Deaf Eyes, the writers signed their stories on-stage and had them voice interpreted to the audience by Auslan interpreters. What was unique about this performance was that it brought audiences into the Deaf world, rather than the other way around.
Challenges of being a deaf writer
Every writer presents a reflection of oneself and his or her worldview when writing a piece. This worldview has been shaped by upbringing, cultural backgrounds, positive and negative experiences and assumptions. Like every other writer, a Deaf writer comes with his or her own set of experiences that influence what is written.
Michael Uniacke, another Deaf writer, wrote that a dilemma that Deaf writers face is how to ‘indicate dialogue between characters that had the same function as speech, but was not speech’ in quotation marks on a printed page. Another challenge is how to translate Auslan into written English. Auslan has a completely different grammatical form and structure to English – whilst English is a linear language, Auslan is a spatial one.
How to overcome those challenges
The likelihood of cultural miscommunication occurring between editors and Deaf writers highlights how important it is for Deaf writers to have editors with a sound knowledge and understanding of Deaf culture in order to get their stories edited accurately. For example, for an Aboriginal writer writing on Aboriginal issues, there is no editor more qualified to edit his or her writing than one who has an Aboriginal background or who has lived within the community. Such editors are hard to come by, but this challenge can be addressed by getting highly experienced sign language interpreters working together with the editor and the Deaf writer in the editing process to address any misinterpretations.
To address the issue on how to translate Auslan to English and to represent signed dialogues accurately, digital stories or footages with English captions could be produced. To produce a written form, it can be done with the aid of a sign language interpreter or Deaf person effectively bilingual in Auslan and English.
The different perspectives and processes of a Deaf writer
One clear advantage that Deaf people have over others is their sharpness and eye for detail. Arnold Zable has written of his experience facilitating the Deaf writer workshops that:
‘A central paradox was soon evident. While deaf people cannot hear, they are more generous listeners than many who are blessed with hearing. And they are great storytellers. What they miss out on through lack of hearing they make up for with their visual acuity.’
‘I was working with a group of people who exploit vision every day. Their stories, both oral and written, were graced with subtle detail and nuanced observations. The tales revealed the relentless challenges and frustrations of being deaf. They documented the lack of care taken by hearing people to enunciate and communicate, and the sense of invisibility that was an integral part of daily life.’
What hearing writers can learn from Deaf writers and vice-versa
Deaf writers can educate and open hearing writers’ eyes to a whole new culture – the Deaf culture and community. This can foster a better understanding and awareness of the needs of Deaf people and eliminate cultural biases. Deaf writers can also open their minds to different ideas and cultural diversity by reading the works of hearing writers from a myriad of backgrounds. It helps them develop an awareness for and knowledge of how to communicate effectively with hearing people about their needs and to function in mainstream society.
Therefore, it is imperative that both hearing and Deaf writers try to understand the perspectives of the other because being a writer is all about opening the eyes of readers to another world. It takes a lot of work and patience to overcome miscommunication and misinterpretation but the effort is worthwhile because minds will be stretched. At the most basic level, writing is the need to be heard. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, ‘The reason one writes isn’t the fact he wants to say something. He writes because he has something to say.’
Through Deaf Eyes was a good example of collaboration between Deaf and hearing people because the workshop was facilitated by a hearing author, Arnold Zable who claimed that conducting the workshop for Deaf people was an eye-opener for him. Instead of adopting a direct instruction approach, he allowed the Deaf writers to discuss freely and openly the issues they were passionate about. It was through these discussions that ideas for stories emerged during the workshops and were performed during the event. The Deaf writers’ stories were seen and heard by both Deaf and hearing people in the audience. We were now seen and finally heard. That was all that mattered.
This is an edited extract from an article that appeared in The Emerging Writer, The Emerging Writers’ Festival book – written for writers, by writers.