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‘Expression, Feeling and Amazing Imagination’: Trudy Fraser on Auslan Storybooks

Read Wednesday, 1 Apr 2015
Image: Trudy Fraser, Auslan Storybooks (supplied)

Trudy Fraser grew up writing stories, but as an adult working in a deaf school, found herself frustrated by the small number and narrow range of stories available in Auslan. Eventually, she took matters into her own hands; Auslan Storybooks was born.

We spoke to Trudy about how she became a producer of signed storytelling videos, why intergenerational links in the Deaf community are important, and why hearing stories in their native language is so important to deaf children.

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What’s the story behind the birth of Auslan Storybooks?

The biggest thing that motivated me to start Auslan Storybooks was the burning desire I have for sharing and telling stories, especially to deaf children. I’ve worked in a deaf school for almost fifteen years, and I see deaf students struggle with reading. Because English is a second language to many deaf children, hearing stories in their primary language — Auslan — is key to opening their hearts and minds to the world of stories … and the real world around them.

Because Auslan is not a printed text, stories have to be passed along verbally.

When I was growing up, I loved writing stories. At school, and even at home, I wrote them. In high school, I entered a story competition for deaf people called The Dorothy Shaw Story Writing Competition. I entered three times. The second time I entered,  I came second. In my third year I wrote a story called ‘Where in the Book is Carmen Sandiego?’, based on the computer game, with further inspiration from various places like movies, books and even my dreams. It came first and I won a cheque of $90 as a prize.

At seventeen, I started making movies using my father’s video camera. I wanted to tell a story, but in a different format. It’s a whole different skill I have to learn, telling the story in a visual way.

Two decades on, and having mastered my video skills, I wanted to make a film based on ‘Where in the Book is Carmen Sandiego?’. But I knew it would involve a lot of work, money and commitment.

One morning, after seeing the website Signed Stories, I was driving to work. It was an hour-long drive, which gave me a lot of thinking time, and a lot of ideas began to came up. I knew what I wanted to do.

I wanted to share my story. As my first and primary language is Auslan and English is my second, I thought I’d set up a website with videos telling stories in Auslan. I would finally be able to share ‘Where in the Book is Carmen Sandiego?’ (though the title later changed to ‘Where in the World is Camilla Strickett?’).

Auslan Storybooks was born.

The website launched with its first story, ‘The Hidden Door’, in December 2012. Once I mastered the skills of designing the website and adding the videos, ‘Where in the World is Camilla Strickett?’ was finally made and told in Auslan.

How do you choose which stories are produced? Do you consider yourself a publisher of sorts?

I want to broaden the theme to include almost anything: fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, history, culture, food, and just about anything — just like when you walk into a library and there are millions of stories to choose from, depending on your interests. I’d love to have that for deaf people, in our own language. Access is so important for us.

Image: Trudy Fraser signs a Christmas story, 'One More!', to children at the 2013 Vicdeaf Christmas Rally
Fraser signs a Christmas story, ‘One More!’, to children at the 2013 Vicdeaf Christmas Rally (Vicdeaf)

I choose deaf people with a very high quality delivery of Auslan — like a native Auslan user, or even a CODA (Children of Deaf Adult) — and get them to tell our stories.

Some of our stories have first been published in [English] books and translated into Auslan. Others are told by deaf people themselves, based on their experiences, and some are passed down through generations — such as older deaf people telling their jokes, passing them to a younger generation. Because Auslan is not a printed text, stories have to be passed along verbally.

Deaf people are storytellers by nature, and when they are allowed to express themselves freely, they can be a good writers or storytellers.

Deaf people are visual learners, and they learn quickly through their eyes. Auslan is a visual language, largely using space, movements and shapes of the hands and arms — and facial expressions — to show meaning. It has its own grammar and structure. It provides us with a language and culture that is so rich. Richer than English.

I kind of consider myself a publisher, but in a very different way — a video publisher rather than a book publisher, if you like. I am hoping that in the future, more and more deaf people can make their own stories and have them ‘published’ as videos.


Are there costs or rights issues? Do you pay writers?

I set up the website — a free hosting website to begin with. I made my own stories and put them up for free. Any storyteller who wanted to tell their stories were volunteers. After a year, I decided to make Auslan Storybooks official, and I paid all the costs on my own.

Image: Trudy Fraser at work, producing Auslan Storybooks videos
Trudy Fraser works on new stories for Auslan Storybooks (supplied)

Just this year, I’ve set up memberships so people can pay and become members. They can access more videos which are password-protected, or access pages that are for members only. That will help to pay the costs and, hopefully in the future, I will be able to pay the storytellers.

Essentially, Auslan Storybooks is a hobby of mine, and I want to share it with everybody out there.

What are some obstacles to publishing native Auslan texts?

This is such an exciting time for Auslan, because more and more people are now aware of the language. 

I’ve seen deaf people telling fantastic stories filled with expression, feeling, and amazing imagination.

However, too many hearing people have made videos in Auslan, and they are mostly incorrect. They try to teach other people Auslan, but what they are doing is incorrect — like incorrect handshapes, following the structure of English grammar, and not enough use of space and facial expressions.

We need to be careful of how we present stories in Auslan. There are so many misunderstandings about Auslan, and even Deaf culture. Hearing people — even some considered hard of hearing, who grew up oral and learned Auslan later in their lives — are not native signers. Native Auslan signers are those who have deaf parents, or who learned Auslan as their first language when they were babies. I’m not talking about Baby Signs, which is an entirely different thing.

There are fewer native signers today, as many younger deaf people have cochlear implants and go to mainstream schools. They are not exposed to native Auslan signers unless they get into the deaf community, which is rare today. In the old days, after leaving school, many young deaf people would meet regularly at deaf club or deaf gatherings so they could communicate and share stories through Auslan. Today, not a lot of young deaf people have the opportunity to meet older deaf people — to pass on our stories and culture. So if I were to seek out young native signers, I wouldn’t be able to find many.

What’s the process been like, adapting English books into Auslan? Are you aware of Auslan stories that have been translated into English texts?

Last Tree in the City by Peter Carnavas is the only pre-existing, published book I have translated and made into a video. The book was told in Auslan at the school where I work, for [Planet Ark’s] National Tree Day last year. I emailed the publisher, New Frontier, and they gave me permission to translate the book and use it for Auslan Storybooks. They even gave me the pictures and logos in a PDF document, so I could use them in the video.

The other published books that we’ve used are The Very Cranky Bear and The Wrong Book (both by Nick Bland) and There’s Too Many Elephants in this House (by Ursula Dubosarsky and Andrew Joyner). Their Auslan versions were produced by Amber Venner of Communication Republic, based in Adelaide. Amber, a CODA, made them for the National Simultaneous Storytime. She is a relative of mine, and I’m extremely fortunate to have such a wonderful cousin who shares the same passion of video production and storytelling. But I’m not sure how she worked with the authors on the adaption.  

I am also not sure if there are any examples of longer Auslan stories translated into English. There are not many Auslan resources and so many resources on English or other languages. There are never enough Auslan resources.

What opportunities are there for the development of Auslan writers?

Auslan is the first and preferred language of many deaf people. Deaf people are storytellers by nature, and when they are allowed to express themselves freely, they can be a good writers or storytellers. The only thing that stops them from becoming writers is the barrier of English — where many deaf people only understand basic English, and are not so confident with writing in English.

I’ve seen deaf people telling fantastic stories filled with expression, feeling, and amazing imagination. When they tell their stories in Auslan, there are no limits and no barriers. They have their best opportunity to be wonderful storytellers.

The technology we have today gives us the greatest opportunity — because Auslan is not written text and cannot be printed, but it can be recorded on video.

Auslan Storybooks offers a growing collection of stories and non-fiction videos in Auslan, including fables, fairytales, deaf history, horror, poetry, jokes and cooking lessons.

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