Last May, I flew to Atlanta, GA for one day to The International Reading Association (IRA) Convention for Myron Uhlberg’s presentation “DAD, JACKIE, AND ME: Deaf, Black, and Hearing: What's the Connection? The Stories Behind the Story”. You can read my May 11 post about the experience. Since that meeting, I requested an interview with Myron to discuss his previous publications and his forthcoming memoir, Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love. It was an absolute honor to attend his presentation and it is an honor to be able to discuss his books with him. He’ll tell you that he started writing books in his 60’s; however, I’m sure he’s been telling stories much longer than that. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book!
Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love by Myron Uhlberg
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Bantam (December 30, 2008)
SPW: How did you decide to include your parents as the deaf characters in your books?
MU: When I began to write books for children I struggled to find what every writer looks for, a voice—and a topic. Prior to beginning this, rather belated, second career at the tender age of sixty-two, I had done much research on the genre of children’s literature. Then, as a former businessman, I created a business plan. That plan included reading every picture book—from A to Z—in the main branch of my public library. I would type out what I intuitively felt were the best books, thereby gaining a feeling for the words used and the structure of the story. Having gone through the collection from A to Z, I then read each book in the collection again, this time backwards--from Z to A, on the theory that I would catch any books that had been previously out on loan. Then I began to write. And write. And write some more. (I was seemingly pretty prolific.) At first, I wrote about many things: mean dogs, and the natural fear of them by most children; variations on classic folktales, as well as many other diverse subjects.
After completing a story I would immediately send it off—rather willy-nilly—to a publisher—any publisher. When I went to my mailbox to send out a story, I would find in it a story being returned from a previous submission. Basically, all I was accomplishing with my strategy (actually, no strategy) was the benefit of the exercise of walking to and from my mailbox. (My blood pressure actually went down five points during this exercise cycle.) The typical pro- forma rejections from editors would occasionally contain a personal comment, such as: “Dear author, nice story, but if we needed another story by Maurice Sendak, we would ask him, not you, to write it.” You see, I had read so many picture books, and had internalized so many of them, that I was writing in their voice. (Well, at least, I had good taste.)
When the rejection letter pile reached a height that even I found to be impressive, I stopped, and regrouped. It was at this point that I decided to forget about writing what I thought publishers wanted to see and, instead, I began writing the themes and subjects I wanted to explore. And those were about the interface of the deaf and hearing world; the world I had grown up in—the world of a hearing boy raised by a deaf mother and father.
SPW: What type of research did you do to become a children’s author?
MU: Each of my books required different levels of research. For example: In Flying Over Brooklyn the setting is the blizzard of 1947. At the time, I was thirteen-years-old. Since that was over sixty years ago, I had to examine the archives of The New York Times to test my memory as to actual details of the storm. My concern was that I had—in memory—exaggerated the extent and depth of the snowfall. It turns out, I hadn’t. For Dad, Jackie, and Me—also set in 1947—I had to research the entire baseball season of that year, paying particular attention to the impact that Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player to play in the major leagues, had on baseball, his team, the fans, and, in fact, on all of America. For my latest book, an adult memoir, Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Father, and the Language of Love, I immersed myself in my father’s old family photograph albums. I spent countless hours and days lost in those old black-and-white photos. Like Proust’ Madeleine they instantly brought back my deaf world of seventy years ago.
SPW: What inspired you to write?
MU: My original inspiration was to become a published author, so that—as I imagined it—my first-born granddaughter, Alex, would invite me to her school for an author visit. How proud she and I would be. However, it took many years before my first book was accepted, and so it was that Alex was in middle school by the time it was published. But by then, her younger sister, Kelli, was in grade school . . . and one day, she met me at the door of her school (all emblazoned with banners announcing my visit) and took me by the hand to every class, and introduced me as her grandfather, the author.
SPW: What do you hope that readers will learn or take away from your books?
MU: The world of the deaf is invisible to the larger hearing world—invisible in plain sight. It is only when the hands of the deaf come alive and begin to speak the beautiful language contained in them that the hearing are aware of the deaf world. I hope my books about this world will make visible to the hearing how beautiful is the language of the deaf—American Sign Language—and how that language lies at the heart of deaf culture; just as every language does in every culture in every part of the world. Furthermore, I hope that children who read my book gain a reinforced understanding of the diversity that exists within the human condition.
SPW: When is your next book going to be in bookstores?
MU: My next book, published by Bantam, is an adult memoir titled, HANDS OF MY FATHER. It will be in bookstores January/February 2009. This memoir has as it genesis my children’s books, THE PRINTER, and DAD, JACKIE, AND ME. It is the story of my growing up the first-born hearing child of two deaf parents in Brooklyn, New York, during the Great Depression and WW II. At the heart of the book is the boy’s love for his mother and father, a love that is confused with shame. At the age of six the boy becomes his father’s interpreter, and the human interface with the hearing world. After an initial—quite short, actually—period of time where the boy feels great pride in the role of interpreter for his father, he soon becomes disenchanted at the prospect of spending his childhood years acting in such a grown up capacity. The book recounts how the hearing boy blends his life in the hearing world with his life in his silent deaf world, and the adjustments he must make between being a child and acting as an adult—along with being a buffer, and protector, between his deaf father and the often hostile, uncaring hearies (his father’s term for hearing people). Woven throughout the book are vivid descriptions of the expressive beauty of his parent’s deaf language, American Sign Language, the boy’s first language.
SPW: What advice would you give to young people who are reading your books for the first time?
MU: I would suggest that after reading the story they ask themselves the question: Am I any different from the characters I’ve just read about?
SPW: Anything else you would like to add?
MU: As a child growing up, I was never a writer. Perhaps that was because Sign was my first language, and in Sign you write on air: there is no written sign language. But I did read. Reading was my first true passion, and it remains so to this day. A lifetime habit of reading—among only one of its many virtues—is the best foundation for being a writer. For anyone who reads any of my books—child or adult¾and thinks (as did I for so many years): “I wish I could be a writer,” I would ask them to consider my story. I did not decide to be a writer until I was sixty-two. My first book was published when I was sixty-six. I’ve been often asked, “Where did you get your imagination?” I have no imagination. I just write about what I know about: my life. Since everyone who wishes to be a writer has also had a life (and each life is unique in its own way) they have within them endless material for an endless amount of books. So the best advice I have to anyone who wishes to be a writer is: Write.
By turns heart-tugging and hilarious, Myron Uhlberg’s memoir tells the story of growing up as the hearing son of deaf parents—and his life in a world that he found unaccountably beautiful, even as he longed to escape it.“Does sound have rhythm?” my father asked. “Does it rise and fall like the ocean? Does it come and go like the wind?”Such were the kinds of questions that Myron Uhlberg’s deaf father asked him from earliest childhood, in his eternal quest to decipher, and to understand, the elusive nature of sound. Quite a challenge for a young boy, and one of many he would face. Uhlberg’s first language was American Sign Language, the first sign he learned: “I love you.” But his second language was spoken English—and no sooner did he learn it than he was called upon to act as his father’s ears and mouth in the stores and streets of the neighborhood beyond their silent apartment in Brooklyn. Resentful as he sometimes was of the heavy burdens heaped on his small shoulders, he nonetheless adored his parents, who passed on to him their own passionate engagement with life. These two remarkable people married and had children at the absolute bottom of the Great Depression—an expression of extraordinary optimism, and typical of the joy and resilience they were able to summon at even the darkest of times.From the beaches of Coney Island to Ebbets Field, where he watches his father’s hero Jackie Robinson play ball, from the branch library above the local Chinese restaurant where the odor of chow mein rose from the pages of the books he devoured to the hospital ward where he visits his polio-afflicted friend, this is a memoir filled with stories about growing up not just as the child of two deaf people but as a book-loving, mischief-making, tree-climbing kid during the remarkably eventful period that spanned the Depression, the War, and the early fifties.
About the Author
Myron Uhlberg is the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of a number of children’s books. He lives with his wife in Santa Monica and Palm Springs.