Monday, September 22, 2014

Interview with Strong Deaf author Lynn E. McElfresh

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. 

The 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?
LM: 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 Sign Language?
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 book?
LM: 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 forth.

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.

SP: Do 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 regional magazine.

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.

Strong 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.

SP: 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.

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