To me this feels like a long-awaited interview and I’m so excited to have
had the opportunity to share in the journey of this book.
Oftentimes, deaf characters hold
only minor roles and readers do not experience the story from a deaf person’s
perspective. This is not the case for Lynn E. McElfresh’s new novel, STRONG
DEAF, which although tackles some of the difficulties between hearing and
deaf individuals, is ultimately about two sisters, Jade and Marla, who struggle
to find a place in each other’s lives. McElfresh, author of Can You Feel the
Thunder? (1999), narrates the story from two points of view, Marla, the
deaf older sister whom McElfresh may have modeled after her own deaf sister,
and Jade, the hearing younger sister who sometimes resents feeling different
than the rest of her Deaf family. Readers are invited along the sisters’
journey of family gatherings, school events, and moments of bonding that
demonstrate how two girls can happily live under one roof. I look forward to
recommending this to young people and the young at heart.
picture below is the one the author hoped would be used for her book jacket.
She loves the picture and so do I! She writes, “I thought kids would like it. I
wanted to say in my book jacket bio that signing is very helpful when
snorkeling or scuba diving.”
*********Read my interview below with author Lynn E. McElfresh*********
SP: What influenced your
decision to include Deaf Characters who uses sign language in your book?
The Golden Rule of writing is to write about what you know.
I grew up with a deaf sister and
had lots of experiences with deaf people while I was growing up. When I mention I have a deaf sister, people
are always interested and have lots of questions. The original draft of the
book was called Not Deaf, Not Heard. It
was to be strictly from the point of view of a hearing girl growing up in an
all-deaf family. The main crux of the story was to be that Jade (the lone
hearing person in her family) would find and be re-united with her hearing
grandmother, who she always assumed was dead.
My publisher thought this plot
line was too far-fetched. I shared that I had considered writing the story as a
braided narrative and he encourage me to rewrite the story from the first
person point of view of both the hearing sister and the deaf sister.
I was very nervous about writing
in the first person from a deaf person’s point of view. I’m very aware that
being around deaf people is not the same as being deaf. I am not deaf. I am not
part of the deaf community or deaf culture. To make up for that, I did lots of
research reading everything I could get my hands on about CODA (children of
Deaf Adults), sign language and deaf culture. I contacted you while the book
was in rewrites to advise me on where I hit and where I missed the mark.
SP: Having a deaf sister, what is your experience with American
LM: My experience with American Sign
Language is actually very limited. My sister was in an oral program (speech and
lip-reading only) until she was 12. I also had a deaf foster sister for a year
who was in an oral program and did not sign. At age 12 my sister left home to
attend a residential deaf school. I was 16 when the family took a 6-week-long
sign language course. Oddly enough, my sister and I never lived together after
that. She came home in the summer and was miserable. She didn’t want to have
anything to do with her hearing family. I had a summer job and was not home
very much. I left for college two years later. Since then we have lived 1000+
miles apart and see each other once a year. Now that our mother has died and
our father is in a care facility we see each other even less than that.
It was hard to maintain my sign
language skills when I only used them once a year. However, six weeks before I
would see my sister, I would get out my sign language books and practice every day.
In the 1990s, I bought a video course and would practice an hour a day. It
would be so much easier today with the Internet.
I love language so I loved
creating my own descriptive grammar for the book. So lucky that my editor,
Katya Rice understood what I was doing and edited according to the grammar
rules, striving hard to stay consistent and still be understandable. You were
also very helpful in this process.
SP: Would you discuss a bit of your process. How do you begin
writing? What research did you do?
LM: The idea for this book hit me after
my sister and her family came to visit us. My sister is married to a deaf man
and has two hearing children. She confided that she’d almost married someone
else, but his family was so different that she knew it could never work out. I
asked how the families were different and she said that he was from an all-deaf
family and he would never be able to understand what it was like to grow up
being the only deaf person in a hearing family. Like her, her husband was from
an all-hearing family. It was a better match.
Then she told me that she was
like Harry Potter—that she didn’t know how magical she was until she went away
to school. She told me she didn’t think
of me as family because I was hearing. Her real family was the deaf community.
This perplexed me as she has two hearing children. Where did they fit in?
I began reading books about CODA
(Children of Deaf Adults) and ran into a scenario where there was a hearing
girl with deaf parents and a deaf sibling. She had one set of deaf grandparents
and another set of hearing grandparents. When she was born, the deaf
grandparents were sad because their hearing granddaughter could never really be
a part of their strong deaf family. On the other hand, her hearing grandparents
were thrilled as they finally had a “normal” grandchild. I thought that was an
interesting premise. And as I said in #1 my publisher convinced me to abandon
that plot line and switch to the braided narrative. I knew it was risky. I
figured the deaf community would object to a hearing person trying to write
from their perspective, but ironically most of the criticism for the book has
come from hearing people who are aghast at the language, thinking by writing
the way I do I’m trying to say that deaf people are stupid. To me this just
exposes the reviewers’ ignorance.
SP: What do you hope that readers will learn or take away from the
I want readers
to understand that the struggle between deaf culture and hearing culture isn’t
some huge society or community struggle, but on the most basic level a struggle
within families. Nine out of every 10 children who are born deaf are born to
hearing parents. So 90% of the deaf population has two hearing parents…now here
is the kicker…88% of those parents do not know sign language. It sounds crazy,
but it’s true.
That was certainly true in our
family. My father never learned to sign. He had cut off two fingers with a
table saw and the rest of his fingers were pretty stiff and inflexible. My
mother probably thought she was signing, but she regularly only fingerspelled
half a word and her signs were often wrong. Usually, she would give up trying
to figure out what my sister was saying or trying to sign to her and pull out a
piece of paper and conduct a conversation (or argument) by writing back and
My older sister got a degree in Deaf
Education, but that went wrong somehow in a way I don’t understand. She never
got a job as a teacher of the deaf and refused to talk to my sister much when
she came home for holidays. My brother is younger than my sister. He learned to
sign when he was eight at the same 6-week class I attended. Once he left home,
he didn’t come home as often as I did, so it was harder for him to keep up with
his signing, not seeing his sister for years at a time.
For years, I campaigned for the
family to sign whatever they said whenever my sister or her husband was in the
room. To not sign was rude. I tried to set a good example. What happened
instead was I ended up as the interrupter between my family and my sister and
her husband. It was exhausting, especially since I was not that fluent of a
signer. I thought this extreme effort on my part would have endeared me to my
sister, but instead it only seemed to make her angry. She usually took out her
frustrations on me, constantly telling me I was using the wrong sign and that I
was stupid. I burst into tears one time after she left, because as she was
going out the door she once again she berated me for being rude and stupid. I
asked my mother why she was so mean to me and my mother insightfully said, “You
are the only one she can be mean to, because you are the only one who
understands what she is saying.”
On the other side of the
spectrum, most deaf couples have hearing children. In the my reading, I was
surprised to learn that most times, only one child became proficient at signing
with their parents. I did not find this the case with my sisters’ children.
Both can sign, but the younger of the two seems to be more proficient.
SP: What advice would you give to young people who are reading your
books for the first time?
LM: In many ways, the story of Jade
and Marla is the story of sisters who don’t get along. That happens in many
families whether they are both deaf or hearing. I’ve learned in life that the
golden rule is to treat people the way you want to be treated. But it never
hurts to go a step beyond and treat people better than you want to be treated. And
never, stoop to treating someone badly just because they treat you badly.
you have any plans for a follow-up or future publications?
LM: This is my last novel. I
developed a new writing passion. In preparation for my father’s 90th
birthday, I spent a year interviewing him and doing research about his World
War II experiences, resulting in a 237-page nonfiction work called Cornfields to Airfield. Suddenly,
nonfiction seemed more riveting than fiction. Since that time, I’ve devoted
myself to writing local histories, biographies and other historical pieces for a
SP: Anything you would like to add?
LM: Several reviewers criticized the
book for not explaining deaf speak. I
try not to resort to explainery when
writing for younger readers, but respect them enough to know they can figure
things out for themselves. Also, my publisher asked me to obtain a blurb from
someone associated with the deaf community, which I did. You wrote a very nice
blurb, which for some reason was not included on the book.
Deaf won an
international award for its uniqueness and creativity, while here in the United
States it has not received much attention and what little attention it has
received has not been all that positive. To me, that speaks to our nation’s
view of differently-abled people, not as strong and capable, but victims needing
to be protected and taken care of. I feel that all the characters in the book
are strong whether they are hearing or deaf.
I, personally, worried about Marla's chapters being written in ASL gloss
because I felt that readers, deaf and hearing, might find it difficult to read;
and, I agree that a Letter from the Author or a note explaining why you wrote
it that way would have clarified but I also understand that the publishing
process didn't go exactly as you wanted. I also appreciate that you stuck to
your original decisions and didn't take my advice because you understood your
target audience. In my Introduction to Literature course I use a short story and
ask my students to respond to the techniques used to convey ASL which are similar
to Marla's sections. The students are always divided. Some love it; some loathe
it. I think my point here is that it comes down to personal taste. And although
I'm not a fan, I still get a "voice" and a clear sense who Marla is.
Strong Deaf was
selected as a White Raven Outstanding International Book for Children and Young
Adults which is given to books that "deserve worldwide attention because
of their universal themes and/or their exceptional and often innovative
artistic and literary style and design". I think that is a super big deal.
For more information about Strong Deaf, visit here.