Louise Stern on what the deaf really think of ‘hearing people’
I’m at my desk in London chatting to a deaf woman in Mexico. We are communing through the internet. At 17.57 GMT, an instant messenger bubble pops on to my computer screen: ‘Louise Stern: Hi Freddy, it’s Louise’ and the interview has begun. It’s miraculous, when you think about it.
Louise Stern is the author of Chattering Stories, a recently published collection of short stories about adventurous deaf girls in the big noisy world. Louise has a very original writing voice, and critics say that she enables them to understand for the first time what it must be like to be deaf.
She isn’t comfortable writing in instant messenger, however. ‘I tend to avoid it,’ she says. She prefers talking to the non-deaf — assuming they can’t speak sign language — through pen and paper, face to face: ‘I miss the intimacy of seeing the handwriting, people’s body language, eye contact and so on.’
It’s easy to see what she means. Instant messaging is fun, but awkward. You type, they type, you type, they type… but you end up typing on top of each other and the conversation chases its tail. At one point, Louise is discussing the Middle East — she’s Jewish and sympathetic to the Palestinians — while I am still tapping on about deaf education. I switch to her Jewishness, only to find that she has reverted to describing Galludet, the all-deaf university she attended in Washington DC.
Such muddling is strangely apt, however, because Louise’s writing is all about misunderstandings and the mysteries of human interaction. ‘We construct our own worlds and realities out of language,’ she tells me, ‘which is a beautiful thing, but it is also dangerous because we forget that they are purely our invention.’
Like many others, Louise feels that language is being warped in the media age. ‘It is getting further and further away from the physical world,’ she says. ‘We have greater saturation today with the net, media, television, technology. I am not a luddite in any way, but look at the way people write in magazines and newspapers. It is different now. The authors assume that their readers are familiar with terms that only come from this media world, whether it is pop psychology or political jargon… If that makes any sense?’
It does. To see this phenomenon clearly, though, perhaps it helps to be deaf. Hearing people, as Louise calls us, are so bombarded by sounds, by songs and jingles, that we cannot spot how our words are changing. To the deaf, we must seem drunk on noise — and in fact intoxication is a recurring theme in Chattering. There are lots of passages about hard drinking. ‘I didn’t really think about that at the time,’ she says, ‘but now you mention it… yeah!!’
Louise’s new book, an account of life in a village of deaf people in Mexico, is about a ‘different sort of intoxication’. What exactly? ‘I can’t define it yet… maybe when the book is finished. It’s something to do with oblivion… ’ There’s a nervous pause. Skype’s wiggly pen icon, which tells you when somebody is typing, stops wiggling. I can’t think what to say. Have we got stuck in pseuds’ corner? Thankfully, after a minute, Louise says ‘sorry if that sounds pretentious!’ The tension breaks and we move on.
Louise is fourth-generation deaf. She became aware of it when she was four. ‘I was in the supermarket with my mom,’ she recalls, ‘playing with a kid in the next cart. The kid’s mom didn’t want her to play with me and took her away. Mom explained. ‘She told me that we could not hear, that we communicated differently, and that some people were scared of that. So I went over to the kid’s mother and blew a raspberry. Haha!’
The Sterns are Jewish Americans and upstanding members of the deaf community. Her grandmother escaped Nazi-occupied Vienna to move to London and then the US. Today, Louise’s father and brother both teach other deaf people. But Louise felt a different calling: she found deaf society too constrictive to work in.
The deaf, she says, have their own snobbery. There’s an aristocracy of deafness based on how many generations a person’s inability to hear can be traced back. ‘It’s a badge of honour. One of my friends is 12th generation. Damn! She is so proud of it.’ (Later, Louise receives an email from a family friend who just named her baby Tavian — as in Octavian — because he is eighth-generation deaf.)
Deaf people from hearing families can be excluded, Louise adds, because they don’t speak sign language fluently and their parents are not part of the community.
But if the newly deaf are seen as arrivistes, what must the hereditary deaf make of people who haven’t lost their hearing at all? In Chattering, Louise’s descriptions of hearing people — ‘who talked and talked all the time, their mouths opening and closing endlessly’ — are often not favourable. Her speaking characters can be repellent, even: ‘His mouth gaped so far open and the insides of it looked so wet and so red.’
So does she find us revolting or what? ‘Not revolting. But definitely not us.’ Inferior? ‘Some deaf people may say inferior but that only comes from a sense of anger. Remember that the deaf community has been treated terribly and deaf people have gone through horrific experiences.’
It would of course be understandable if deaf people, having for centuries been treated as subhuman, still thought of us as inhuman. Today, however, the relationship between deaf and non-deaf is changing. Louise finds that hearing people are fascinated — often patronisingly — by her deafness and her writing about it. And in Chattering, the hearing are attracted, at times erotically, to what Louise describes as ‘Our silent quality… It is like water, the liquid clear and thin, something you can feel but not hold down in any way.’ Could it be that us hearers, tired of our noisy lives, are drawn to the silence she inhabits? ‘I wouldn’t say that as a general statement,’ she answers, ‘Some are, though, definitely.’ But deafness is not some dream with the mute button on, Louise insists. It can be frightening: ‘I think most people use language as a cushion. And if you’re a deaf woman, that cushion isn’t there. That definitely scares me. There’s so much room for misunderstanding. I always wonder how things really are.’
We’ve been chatting for well over an hour, and it’s whizzed by. ‘Are you in the office?’ asks Louise. ‘I’m in a cafe near the beach. It’s so hot today. Kinda humid… Gonna take a swim after we finish.’ For a moment, I wonder if she is flirting. But no. She’s just being nice. I’m over-interpreting and forgetting that, unlike a hearing person, Louise means exactly what she says.