What Does an Artist Look Like?
Once a day or so I get an email from a stranger. When the notification comes through I always feel a bit uneasy—the emails, forwarded through my website, can be about anything, and are nearly all from people I’ve never met before. Sometimes the emails are requests—for event participation, interviews, blurbs, writing advice; sometimes they’re offering thanks or encouragement about something I’ve written, or sharing a similar experience from the sender’s own life. Occasionally the emails are hateful, making use of misogynist epithets, calling me a bad writer and a failure, or like one last week, commanding me to “go back to Europe.”
Then there is a third category—emails that are supposed to be nice but are actually as unpleasant as the ones trying to be unpleasant. They tend to be from people, who want to tell me they’ve enjoyed my book, but what they say is a variant of how impressed they are that I have written it “despite my handicap.” In writing a novel, one they liked, I have risen above their conception of what I should be capable of doing.
Overall, I love interacting with readers—it’s a privilege to connect with them on an intellectual and emotional level. And yet, I still feel a hint of trepidation each time I am contacted by someone I don’t know, dread that maybe I am about to be reminded that so many people have already made up their minds about me and what I can do.
What is a writer supposed to look like? Must a successful author pass a hearing test? Be able to see or walk? White? Cis-gendered? And how is it that the emailer has come to these conclusions?
For me, being Deaf is usually difficult because of the way the hearing majority misunderstands deafness, not because it is inherently hard to keep myself alive without listening to things. As such, I don’t consider myself handicapped, nor do I wish to be patronized by a stranger who has decided I am. And even if I did view my deafness as an impediment (some deaf people do), I wouldn’t want to be condescended to, to have a stranger declare offhand parameters for my achievement.
Equally infuriating is that, because these kind of things are not written maliciously, it is expected that I show gratitude for this kind of “compliment.” Of course this is not a deaf-centric issue; people from marginalized groups of all kinds are routinely required to swallow versions of belittlement—“Based on stereotypes and the limited information I have about you, I assumed you would be shitty at your job, you turned out to be good!”—with a smile.
This way of understanding deafness comes in large part from what’s known in Deaf and disability circles as “inspiration porn.” Videos of deaf children hearing their mothers’ voices for the first time through the miracle of cochlear implantation clog the internet (similar videos exploiting “triumph” over other physical disabilities and neuroatypicalities abound, too). Never mind that what a child hears during his implant activation is a series of beeps, and that he will spend years of therapy learning to decode sounds and extract meaning from them. Never mind that hearing is not the same as understanding or expressing oneself in a language. This type of video continues to go viral because it appeals so strongly to the values of a mainstream hearing audience. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are useful human interest stories for motivating the masses—if they can do it, you can do it.
In the same way, caricatures of deaf people as suffering saints and inspirational symbols far outweigh actual characters with human traits like personalities in literature, art, and film. What’s worse, d/Deaf and disabled people almost never get to play themselves—think Kevin McHale as Artie Abrams in Glee, or Julianne Moore as a Deaf woman in the upcoming film adaptation of Wonderstruck. And, unlike the outraged allies that show up when Hollywood tries to whitewash a character of his or her ethnicity, cries from deaf and disabled communities about ableist casting are ignored or rationalized away: actors are supposed to play characters different from themselves; you should just be happy to see a deaf character represented in a movie.
But representation is the crux of the problem. When a hearing person plays or writes a deaf story, chances are a deaf person isn’t represented at all—the hearing person’s conception of deafness is. In mainstream representations from YouTube on up, the hearing world produces content that buttresses its own supremacy—that to use a spoken language is somehow qualitatively better than a signed one. The uncritical viewer of inspiration porn or otherwise inauthentic representations of deafness not only comes to find his own worldview reinforced, but is then also under the illusion that he has been educated or has interacted with the disability community in some way. He has done a good deed—he has given his time an attention to others lessor than him.
To be looked down upon is hurtful, but my offense is hardly the most damage done by the misrepresentation of Deafhood. 90% of deaf children are born into hearing families, and for many parents their deaf child is the first deaf person they’ve ever met. If a parent is conditioned by society to understand her own child from a prejudicial lens, decisions based in misinformation—even while made out of infinite love and goodwill—can have a deleterious effect on a child’s linguistic, cognitive, and social development, education, self-esteem, and overall quality of life.
Of course if the problem lies in representation, so too does the solution. The National Association for the Deaf has long acknowledged this as paramount to their success, adopting the slogan “nothing about us without us” as a constant reminder that Deaf people should have an active hand in the development of effective legislation for accessibility and education.
But while legislation can change the way people interact, it cannot change the way we think or, perhaps most importantly, the way we feel. This is where figurative representation—in the media, in journalism, and in art—factors in. Time and again science has pointed to consumption of art, and in particular literary fiction, as crucial to the development of empathy. And empathy, the ability to identify with another’s thoughts and feelings, seems to me the best antidote for that debilitating sympathy borne out of the belief that a deaf person is broken or “less than.”
To cultivate empathy toward d/Deaf people, the world needs access to authentic representations of deafness. It would be nice if hearing artists, filmmakers, and writers did their research (e.g. actually talked to deaf people) to create complex and true-to-life d/Deaf characters in their works. It is essential that the gatekeepers of film, theater, and publishing open their minds and doors to Deaf artists. And, ultimately, it is up to the Deaf community to create—to show what we know to be true about deafness and sign language, and to remind mainstream audiences of our number one characteristic: our humanness.
Deafness is sometimes called “the invisible disability”; a passerby might not notice another is deaf if they don’t attempt to communicate with one another. It tends to remind me, though, of a different kind of invisibility—the systematized attempt at erasure by eugenicist Alexander Graham Bell (and the AG Bell Association that continues to carry this torch today), the repeated co-opting of Deaf characters, stories, and language by hearing people to use piecemeal for the betterment of their toddlers or for an inspirational boost out of a YouTube rabbit hole.
To reclaim the Deaf narrative is to make the unseen visible—this is activism. All artists working from the margins know the two are inextricable. But artists who are citizens of the mainstream may not realize their work, too, is political; to create within the confines of the dominant power structure without raising questions about its authority is to reinforce it.
Sara Nović is the author of the novel Girl At War (Random House) and the fiction editor for Blunderbuss Magazine. She teaches writing at Columbia University and with the nonprofit Words After War, and lives in Brooklyn.