Book Review: Tripping the Tale Fantastic (Christopher Jon Heuer, edior)
Reviewed by David Peter
Human nature is telling stories—a way to pass on knowledge and ideas. Growing up as a young deaf boy, I was inundated by stories about hearing people written by hearing people. The universes painted by novels and television became my model of the world—and these books and shows almost always presented a deaf person as someone broken and in need of fixing, or someone less-than (or "lesser" in the most mainstream Hollywood formulation). A deaf person was never the main character if any character at all. In turn, I felt excluded from society both in my reality and in fiction.
In Tripping the Tale Fantastic a short story anthology for "weird fiction" edited by Christopher Jon Heuer, the stories are all authored by d/Deaf and hard of hearing writers. The publishing company, Handtype Press, focuses on d/Deaf and hard of hearing writers. These pieces of writing showcase the diversity of ways deafness can be written about. Some stories involve tension between deaf and hearing people. In others, deafness is just the way the world is.
To be clear, these stories cover a spectrum of experience—they donít depict a binary between deafness or hearing. Some characters may only hear sounds under a certain frequency, be tone deaf, or mechanically be able to hear, but their brain cannot process sound. And other characters may be deaf, but the story makes no note of it. In what some people may initially consider a surprising move, this anthology written by d/Deaf people is not all about the ability to hear. But this hypothetical reader ought to recognize that expecting d/Deaf people to write exclusively about deafness is to project a hearing perspective of deafness upon the writers. Our entire lives and imaginations are not limited to deafness. In the editorís words, "do we spend 100% of our waking lives writhing in the existential agony of our identities?"
To point out a single story as representative of the entire anthology would be wrong. It would also be limiting. This is the first time I am reading fiction written by authors who are like me, in that their experience of the world is both limited and expanded by deafness. These authors are part of the same worlds I am, and they understand the worlds I occupy. While fiction is fiction, it still must reflect truth. And the truth is that deaf people have rich and varied lives in spite of, because of, and regardless of being deaf.
In "The Climax" by Tonya Marie Stremlau, the protagonist is a woman trying to make a new life for herself after taking a new job as an English teacher at the Midwestern School for the Deaf. The plot was predictable, but I enjoyed the journey to get there. Being deaf is unnecessary to the plot, but it is central to the storyís main literary device. As a piece of epistolary fiction, the story unfolds strictly through emails written by the protagonist to family and friends.. The protagonist is part of the Deaf community, but did not learn sign language until later, which indicates that her family is hearing. And without ASL, the most effective way for deaf people to express themselves is through written English. By telling this story as a series of emails, Stremlau reflects a major aspect of deaf experience without saying a word.
"Taking Care of the Children" by Lilah Katcher is an excellent piece numbering in at only a few pages. It does not mention deafness at all. The prose is workmanlike, matter-of-fact—and yet captivating. The ending will catch readers by surprise, compelling them to reread the story for clues. At the other extreme, "The Meaning, Not the Words" by Kristen Ringman is a lyrical piece about a fox who steals a deaf human who is isolated from their family. Sign language is essential to this human but the family doesnít seem to have an interest. To the fox, sign language is beautiful. Through signs, the human weaves a tapestry of meaning—a natural language. Deaf people have always been immensely proud of their language, and this story captures that pride from the outside looking in.
"The Vibrating Mouth" by John Lee Clark is one of my favorites. Itís an inversion of the Deaf and hearing perspectives in terms of language and power. The narrator refers to itself as "we"; one wonders if the narrator is perhaps Deaf Culture, personified. The tone is darkly tongue-in-cheek, referring to hearing people as "Mouthies" and oralism as vibrating at the mouth (a not-so-subtle reference to the ASL sign for hearing person). Although it is speculative fiction, it takes its premise from history: Many Deaf children have suffered, and still suffer, in the hands of hearing people and their fervent desire to make oralism work no matter the cost. In this story, the Deaf community describes the Mouthies as mutes, thieves, and things who commit atrocities against the Deaf people. The undercurrent running through the storyline is that being Deaf is not a disability nor is it abnormal—in this world, being hearing is considered abnormal and even frightening in its differentness.
The most nuanced story in the collection is the first of the anthology, "Hearing Aid" by David Langford. Itís a tightly-plotted comedy about a tone deaf man called Colin who attends parties and enters into a passive-aggressive competition with his "friend," Nigel, about identifying music, because his friend is convinced Colin just needs to "try harder" to overcome tone deafness—a nuance hard of hearing people likely identify with. The story brings to mind all my conversations with hearing people about music—whether I can hear it, what I can hear, whether I enjoy it. Many people exclaim to me how important music is to their life, how amazing it is, how they canít imagine life without it. These people donít mean to be obnoxious, yet they are telling me my life is missing something. Langford writes Nigel as this person, hyperbolized to a hilarious extreme. Colin goes to extreme lengths to prove himself to Nigel, using an implant that feeds him information about the music, but he grows frustrated with the technology and ultimately decides to just turn it off and tell people heís in fact totally deaf. The story is written as a comedy but the author grapples with very serious themes and issues in the d/Deaf community: the perception that implants can solve or fix deafness, the actual limitations of these devices, and the impact it has on the wearer. Sometimes itís easier to just be deaf.
As a reader, deaf authors are invisible without the requisite Internet research. Regardless, writers tend to write what they know. The vast majority of popular fiction originates from hearing culture, which perpetuates a certain set of ideas around Deaf culture and how it intersects with disability. Typically, whenever I discover new media involving deafness, I wince internally. I prepare for the worst. But with Tripping the Tale Fantastic, I didnít feel a reflexive antipathy. In fact, I was excited. And Iím thirsty for more.
Title: Tripping the Tale Fantastic