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“The Poetics and Politics of Deaf American Literature” -- Cynthia Peters Colloquially termed “deaf lit,” Deaf American

literature is an evolving, polyglossic body of works comprising a wide range of vernacular (signed), written, and hybrid forms -- those exhibiting both vernacular and written features. Deaf American literature therefore encompasses the following forms and genres: ASL stories and poetry, plays in ASL and printed English, stories in English (original or translated from ASL), and novels and poetry in English. When it comes to the more nativist or indigenous forms, the ABC story/poem, number story/poem, face story, drum song/story, literary night (as framework or vehicle), improvisation, slow-motion story/poem, and skits are some of those that can be identified. On a broader level, Deaf American literature, like African American, Hispanic, Chinese American, and Native American literatures, can be termed a minority literature. As is the case with other minorities, Deaf Americans exist within and without the mainstream American culture. What results is a body of works in which, in general, the majority language (English) and rhetoric seeks to dominate and extend its control and the minority language (ASL) and rhetoric attempt to undermine and evade this control. In other words, Deaf American literature, in the vein of other minority literatures, “rebels” against mainstream American literature, in the process using it (in all senses and connotations of the word) to suit its own purposes and needs. A time-honored method of “rebelling” is the utilization of humor in various forms of expression, ranging from outright burlesque and parody to subtle satire and disingenuous comedy. M.J. Bienvenu, a noted Deaf Studies scholar, has been known to say that Deaf Americans have five senses, as we know people generally do. Yet, how can Deaf Americans possibly have five senses? The answer to this is:

at both themselves and the majority.they don’t have the sense of hearing – or have it fully – but they have the sense of humor. It’s for their hearnings. That will be on your test. Glick goes on to state that deaf people interact with “those people who can’t help but hear. And.at the majority. This can contribute to a sense of equality or even a feeling of superiority at times. disheveled hair. .” (He gestures at two interpreters sitting in the first row.” he announces.” “Oh. Glick. An example of this is Deafology 101: A Crash Course in Deaf Culture. “What is Deaf Culture?” He answers with. at themselves. The professor describes Deaf American culture and the mainstream culture that it is and is not a part of. “ After this lecture I’ll get a piece of paper called an invoice. Let’s shorten that to hearies. those members of the majority who can comprehend such culturally-based stories will undoubtedly find much that is humorous in the various portrayals of majority or minority behavior. an entertaining mock lecture by Ken Glickman (a.” He then abbreviates “deaf people” to “deafies.a. Prof. rumpled lab coat. a big bow tie. comes striding on stage smoking a pipe. “It is deafined as a wonderful way of life that is unheard of. I love them. sporting baggy shorts. Glick) on Deaf American culture. They laugh a lot -. and black-rimmed glasses. Glick pokes fun not only at mainstream society and its expectations of Deaf Americans but also at Deaf American culture itself. learn from it. (Peters. Prof. 2000) Thus. his appearance obviously satirizing absent-minded professors and the educational system that nourishes them. and even act upon it in a way that can be beneficial for both. He asks. The action all begins when Prof.k. Deaf Americans resemble other minorities in that they tell and write humorous stories to a large extent.) Glick continues.” He further stipulates that in between are the “heafies” – deafies who look and act like hearies – and the hearies who act like deafies or “dearies.” Pacing back and forth between blackboard and podium.” (Peters.” noting that “The world is full of hearing people. “Want an example? Here are two dearies.

venturing into the economically-depressed state of Islay and buying up property and businesses.a strange people. The Man With a Dream runs for governor and wins. which utilizes the face and the whole body. Deaf Americans utilize another time-honored practice: rhetorically turning upside down the established order. the acrobats go through their acts while the voice readers stand. and freedom of ASL. In effect. discourse featuring one or more persons taking over or simply getting the upper hand. Such a strategy entails stories of invasion and conquest. the status quo is turned topsy-turvy and what was on top lands on the bottom.2000) In poking fun at the majority (and themselves at times). the Douglas Bullard novel about a small group of Deaf Americans. Deaf mothers insist on their Deaf American sons and daughters attending the nearby local. what was on the bottom alights on top. Other Deaf Americans soon converge on Islay and before long it is the Deaf Americans who are running things. Another example of inversion is Stephen Ryan’s “Planet Way Over Yonder” an ASL narrative about a young Deaf American boy who rockets off to a planet where the majority of inhabitants are deaf and a small minority is hearing. expressiveness. and ASL works showing up the majority language and rhetoric. One well-known example of this is Islay. As the acrobats perform.” At her behest. A third instance is the “Side Show” segment of the 1971-72 NTD theatrical production. Implicitly and . public school rather than the Oral Institute. virtually motionless. In this production can be seen a red-and-white-striped tent in the background and in the foreground a large enclosure – akin to an old-fashioned birdcage – with two voice readers inside. the ringmaster extols the interaction. led by a Federal worker with a dream – the mythic dream of a homeland -. The ringmaster strides out on stage and promises to tell about “strange things…. And. My Third Eye.

Bigger? This big. In effect. however. poetry. she dismisses the poker faces. Virginia. Bill Ennis’ “Nitty” ASL narrative. And.over its classification as a novel. has a few narratives. turning upside down Western expectations of narrative. to middle. I had a cat. and authoritarian. a Hispanic novel by Gloria Anzaluda. this big. Gallaudet people brought . These and other minority writers choose not to heed genre distinctions. Events that occur generally have a cause-and-effect logic. defies these general expectations: My favorite…. an African American writer. to end.” It was born in the country: Staunton. In effect.explicitly. the early 20th-century work by Jean Toomer. and drama. in other words. Literary scholars have argued -. Conventionally. Another example is Borderlands. Deaf American culture is depicted as fluid and free – a little three-ring circus within an aural majority culture shown to be sadly limited. inflexible. which mixes up fiction and nonfiction and plays English off of Spanish and vice versa. a number of poems. (Peters. Cane. and differentiate. modern-day scholars are similarly intrigued by the Native American novel.to categorize. small mouth movements.and continue to argue -. This is reflected in literary studies by the analysis and dissection of Western literature in the attempt to label and define what a particular form of expression is and what it consists of. 2000) Western civilization often has the scientific and scholarly urge – in the Cartesian vein -. It was a tomcat and its name was “Nitty.cat. classify. Ceremony with its cyclical rather than conventional linear progression. they break the rules when it comes to what is expected of a particular genre. and a play all built around a particular theme.. questions are asked and re-asked: What genres are there? What is a novel? What is a poem? How is a particular work a novel? How did the novel evolve? For instance. and limp appendages of the voice readers (representing mainstream society). a story is narrative that progresses forward from beginning.

Since. fourteen. employing tactics different from those for writing a story. Instead. and it frequently repeats signs and phrases. True! Six girls and one boy. 2000) Hence. are equally important. is based upon a slow one-two-three-four drum beat. the last one. The cat may run here from Staunton.” She caught it somehow…(Peters. kitty. John Mark has seven children.” who Ennis is. as Ben Bahan has remarked. what he has to say. Uncle Bill always pronounces it “Nitty. before stories became textualized.it and gave it to us. Why call it “Nitty. She goes to her aunt and stays one week. “Here. She tells her aunt that if she calls the cat this way. there was storytelling. The person who told me was the little one. From the baby we go all the way up to the oldest girl who is seventeen and in high school. it won’t come.” How did I found out? I wish you told me. . Jr. thirty miles away. In the “Nitty” narrative. a written story progresses from beginning to end without unnecessary diversions or personal information. Much storytelling exists in Deaf American culture because sign language has no generally accepted written form. eleven? Twelve? No. Ennis can include personal information from time to time and dispense with straightforward narrative progression as well as the transitional markers obligatory in written narrative. John Mark. Many Deaf American nativist or semi-nativist works defy standard genre classification and distinctions. Six darlings! The boy is six months old now and called Mark.” Why not “K?” Right. Loves her aunt. 2000) Before there was writing. The second oldest girl. and how he says it. adds personal information. Remember the cat Nitty? Her aunt decides to call it. and talks to the viewers without heeding the conventions of written narrative. considering the different medium: live storytelling in front of a group. (Peters. Mary Beth Miller’s “The Cowboy Story” in her taped Live at SMI performance. “The storyteller is the story. Ennis goes off the point. Ennis adheres to the rules for “telling a good story” not those for “writing a good story. is LA or Leigh Ann. kitty. The girl is fifteen.” I’m not using my voice. but Ennis is telling a story. kitty. Can’t pronounce “K.” Generally. he has to do so in an effort to keep his viewers’ attention and interest. Indeed.

A number of chorus presentations are next in which the NTD members first demonstrate various signs and then dance through “Three Blind Mice” and “The Quick Brown Fox. (Peters. is ostensibly a play. handshape. middle. They flirt. riding off into the sunset. Often. But. the V handshape is incorporated into the handkerchief waving. Also. to end.the Boom boom Ride ride Ride ride Handkerchief handkerchief (handkerchief around the neck lifting in breeze) Strings strings (hat strings sway in cowboy’s face) Hat hat Pistol pistol Gallop gallop Dust dust (dust piles stirred up by horse hoofs) Gallop gallop Rise rise (rider rises off saddle) ………………………… . Act Three and so on. he wins her over. A characteristically indigenous dramatic production avoids the verbalism and the plodding narrative progression of a . 2000) The cowboy arrives in town and stops at a saloon where he espies a pretty saloon girl. yet it is termed a “story” and progresses narratively from beginning. and the riding and the rising off the saddle. My Third Eye opens with a birthing sequence which is followed by a couple of autobiographical anecdotes. The repetition of signs or the repetition of any aspect of a sign – its orientation. My Third Eye. or movement – visually convey rhyme. Act Two.or three-act play. it conventionally involves a plot of some kind.” All in all. conventionally a play has acts: Act One. Yet. a scene uses the same handshape in many signs. The reason for this may be that it is – more appropriately – a fairly indigenous Deaf American dramatic production. “Side Show” succeeds after which there is another autobiographical anecdote followed by an ASL tableau. staged by the National Theatre of the Deaf. and the two depart. the hat strings lifting. “The Cowboy Story” has elements of poetry and song. for example. this production comes across as more of a musical or variety show than a conventional two.

the story is now just the story. deaf people were apprehensive about signing in public because sign language was not as well accepted as it is now. there was storytelling and drama. The teller or performer was present in person. A kind of vaudeville production. As was mentioned. and rhetoric. Much of current discourse is in print or via the radio or internet: the body has disappeared. which Eye is undoubtedly derived from. consciously or unconsciously. But. the traditional Literary Night. In other words. and moving around. genres. and this revitalizes the printed version. whereas in the past the storyteller was the story. they put the body back into it. Deaf American viewers use their eyes and the eye likes visual stimuli – variable visual stimuli. is a feast for the eye. hybridized form results. literary. It was all people talking. So. It likes moving objects and it likes variety. ASL stories and skits as well as other nativist or semi-nativist forms started showing up. when Deaf Americans adapt a printed English work to ASL. literature has evolved from performance into a written body of works. Now that it has been . and objective rather than personalized. Indeed. the visual needs of the Deaf American viewers. before there was written literature. clinical approach. This evolution was facilitated by the rise of Christianity and the middle class because the former de-emphasizes earthly needs and the latter seeks a more decorous. The eye also needs a break from time to time. so to say. To clarify. In the past. It first came about when literary societies at schools and clubs for the deaf appropriated English stories and poems and adapted them to ASL and Deaf American viewers’ visual needs. The story or dramatic action could not be separated from the teller or performer. the body has disappeared. Written discourse can thus be characterized as more abstract. instead taking into account. acting. a dynamic. it is a vehicle for diverse forms. Not too soon thereafter. When a printed English story or poem is adapted to ASL. meaning the body was an integral part of expression.conventional play.

the Deaf American play. but not insignificant stratagem of Deaf Americans is corollary to “body as text. For instance. civil rights. the bride’s father describes this operation in such detail that the groom’s parents (who can hear) are appalled at his graphicity. have produced two ASL narratives on videotape as part of the ASL Literature Series in an effort to show the world that a literature is possible in ASL. as a minority. the literature can be deliciously indelicate at times. Deaf American artists often take advantage of this characteristic and milk it for all it’s worth as witness Debbie Rennie’s European nose-picking narrative at the tail end of her Poetry in Motion videotape. many Deaf American artists do not shy away from more graphic discourse or portrayals. includes a scene in which the future in-laws gather for an after-dinner talk. not expecting more than a brief report. and Elinor Kraft’s cruise banquet description in Elinor Kraft: Live at SMI!. They sign in public.to show that they were human beings. Because of this restriction. In effect. want to display ASL and in showing and publicizing ASL.” A final.to “identity”. For instance. request interpreters and produce numerous ASL stories and poems for mass distribution.” As a part of identity politics. The soon-to-be groom asks how his future fatherin-law is doing after his gall bladder operation. they are not shy about showing the body. Writing or text was a way to gain recognition. A Deaf Family Diary .recognized as a legitimate language. Deaf Americans (for instance) as a group. they wrote prodigiously upon emancipation to show that they could write and do it as well as whites -. This parallels the African American identity-text connection. due to the inherent graphicity of ASL. For a long time African Americans were denied reading and writing instruction. Deaf people tie sign language – their embodied means of communication -. Ben Bahan and Sam Supalla. two noted storytellers. “Identity” was tied to “text. . and respect. But. Bill Ennis’s toilet music account in Bill Ennis: Live at SMI!. yet the Deaf American characters and the viewers find much to appreciate in such ASL dexterity.

Ben and Sam Supalla. Sign Media. and such jesting. help make Deaf American literature an incredibly rich and multi-faceted body of works. National Theatre of the Deaf. Elinor Kraft: Live at SMI! Burtonsville. Silver Spring. 2000. Mary Beth.. 60 min. but no other literature has a visual-kinetic component that results in a visual literature or visuature. Kraft.. A Deaf Family Diary. Gallaudet University. Md. 5 of ASL Storytime. Douglas. “Nitty. Ryan. Cheverly. videocassette. San Diego. Mary Beth Miller: Live at SMI! Burtonsville. 197172. cinema. Bill. 60 min. such twisting and squirming to evade control. videocassette.. MD: TJ Publishers. Many national literatures draw upon both oral and literary traditions. Patrick Graybill. Stephen M. videocassette. 1991. 1992. 1993. Md. Cynthia. 1986. prod. Deafology 101: Deaf Culture as Seen Through the Eyes of a Deaf Humorist. videocassette. Md. Ennis.Such rebelling. 60 min. Publick Playhouse. “Planet Way Over Yonder.. Department of Communication. Silver Spring. J Ranelli. Glickman. bilingual. It is a multi-dimensional minority literature that trumpets “body as text” in the context of identity politics. . February-March 1994. D.” in Bill Ennis: Live at SMI! Burtonsville. Written and prod. prod. Washington.. videocassette. graphic art... ASL Literature Series. 60 min.. Ken. 60 min. Sign Media. SignRise Cultural Arts. 1993. Bahan. Md. California: Dawn Pictures/DawnSignPress. Peters. Burtonsville. 1991. 1990. Rennie.” Vol. dir. 30 min. Sign Media. Poetry in Motion: Original Works in ASL.C. bimodal – even trimodal. and performance can do it justice. Md. MD: Deafinitely Yours Studio. Deaf American Literature: From Carnival to the Canon. videocassette. Islay: A Novel. videocassette. Scripted Don Bangs. Debbie. References My Third Eye. This visuature has properties so far outside what is usually considered linguistic and literary that only analogies with dance.: Gallaudet University Press. Bullard. 1991. Sign Media.. Miller. 60 min. Dir. Elinor.. It is uniquely bicultural.

Deaf Studies VII April 19-21. 2001 Orlando. Florida .