‘True Biz’ is an incredibly eye-opening read that introduced me to Deaf culture in all its exuberance. Centuries of marginalisation from the hearing world have led Deaf communities to form a strong cultural identity and myriad ways of successfully navigating the world around them. It’s by no means a utopia – they have to grapple with daily discrimination in anything from trying to buy a bus ticket to seeking medical treatment – but their rich and distinctive identity shines through these pages.
Charlie, one of our three protagonists, is born Deaf to two hearing parents. Medical wisdom at the time tells them that she should get cochlear implants as early as possible, and that learning to sign will be a detriment to her learning to speak. The implant does not deliver the results promised, and Charlie finds herself struggling at mainstream school and isolated from both the Deaf and hearing communities around her.
That is, until her Dad wins a court case to enrol her at River Valley School for the Deaf. The students there, led by the big-hearted force of nature headmistress February, are Deaf children from all walks of life. At River Valley, they are enveloped in an environment with signing teachers, administrators, nurses and groundskeepers all around them. For Charlie, who has been suffering through try to interpret spoken language for years, it’s a steep learning curve.
‘Fewer things were more motivating than a fear of one’s own extinction, and Deaf people were already on the verge.’
On the page, Charlie’s isolation from language is shown through blanks. When she fails to understand something in spoken language or in sign, it appears as a –––––. That’s just one of the many ways in which Nović uses the written form (which I heard her talk about as being creatively restrictive, in comparison to the full-bodied movement of ASL), to convey part of the Deaf experience.
February assigns Austin to befriend and guide Charlie through her first few weeks at school – a boy whose upbringing could not have been any more at odds with hers. He comes from a family who are ‘somewhat mythical in the Deaf community, the playing out of a great sociolinguistic isolationist fantasy’ – multiple generations of successful Deaf people who have households that fully embrace and embody the culture.
This book accomplishes so much, every page rich with insight into not only Deaf culture but also how – just as in the real world – poorer children or Deaf children of colour have very different experiences to their richer, whiter counterparts. We learn about Deaf history, the evolution of American Sign Language (and Black American Sign Language, born out of segregated Deaf schools in the 20th century), and the civil rights movements fought by Deaf people throughout the centuries.
…And on top of all of that, there’s a rollicking good plot – a coming-of-age story that also confronts the breakdown of a marriage, first loves, ageing parents, new babies… My only quibble is with the ending, which felt hurried and slightly unfinished. But nevertheless, it’s an immersive and revelatory book – I loved it.