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Books: "Strong Deaf"

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Novelist Lynn McElfresh says her favorite place to write is in the Thousand Islands, at her family cottage on Grennell Island. Two sisters share the pages in her new book for young readers, Strong Deaf. The younger sister, Jade, is the only one in her family who can hear. Our book reviewer, Betsy Kepes, spoke with McElfresh from her winter home in Florida.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

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Betsy: I’m talking with Lynn McElfresh who has just written a young adult novel called Strong Deaf. And in its most basic form, it’s about two sisters who aren’t getting along. But the very interesting thing about this book is that everyone in the family—the mother, the father and the oldest daughter—are deaf, except the youngest daughter, who is a hearing child. And it makes lots of really interesting situations in this book. So, welcome Lynn.

Lynn: Thank you.

Betsy: Tell us first, what gave you the idea to write a book about a deaf family?

Lynn: Well, I grew up with a sister who is deaf. I also have a hearing sister and a hearing brother. But, they always say when you write, that you should write about something you know. This is something I grew up with and something I knew.

Betsy: An interesting part of the book is it’s written in two alternating chapters between the younger sister, who’s the hearing sister, and the older sister, who is deaf. In the older sister’s chapters, you made the choice to write them as if she was writing in sign language. So, the chapters are very choppy English.

Lynn: I call it "Deaf Speak." Originally I wrote the novel from the hearing sister’s point of view and I titled the novel Not Deaf, Not Heard. And it just didn’t hang together. I was trying to show the difference between the hearing culture and the deaf culture. You only got the one point of view. So when I was speaking with my publisher about it not working, I told him that I had thought about doing it as a braided narrative—doing it from the first point of view, because I like writing from the first person point of view, and doing alternate chapters between the deaf sister and the hearing sister.

He said, “That’s brilliant! Why didn’t you do that?” Because I just didn’t know if I could pull off writing from the point of view of a deaf person. And he said, “Well give me a sample scene, and we’ll find out.” So I did. I gave him a sample scene the next day and he said it’s perfect, and he wanted me to write the whole book from the deaf point of view. But I think we would have had the same problem of just having it from one point of view. So I alternate chapters between the two.

Betsy: Let me read a little bit, I want to—you know, we’ve mentioned how the deaf girl speaks in what would be American Sign Language-type English—I’ll read a little selection so that our listeners can hear what it sounds like.

This is a scene where the teen girl has come home for the summer. She lives at a deaf boarding school during the year, and she’s not getting along with her little sister who’s, I think, not wanting to be displaced as maybe the only kid in the household. So, she’s coming down for dinner, and this is Marla, the deaf girl, talking in the book.

“Light in hall go on. Off. Time for dinner. I text goodbye. Walk stair. Bad smell attack me. Smell grow near kitchen. Bigger. BIGGER. Know before see. Know smell. HAATE smell. Smell is fish. See fish on table. Jade, father wait. Close nose with fingers. Father face show surprise.  ‘What wrong?’ HATE Fish. Father hit head. 'Oh, forget.’ Father never remember. Jade smile. Jade know. Jade plan purpose. Mean. Tell Jade: No like fish. Make different food. 'Not a restaurant!' Jade says. 'Make yourself.' No. Your job cook. You know I have hate for fish. You cook different.”

One thing I hadn’t considered, too—your teen girl, the deaf girl, is constantly texting her deaf friends. What an amazing difference that must make for deaf teens. 

Lynn: Yeah, having grown up—I went to junior high in the 60s and high school in the 70s. None of that technology was around for my sister back then. There was none. She couldn’t use the telephone. She couldn’t watch the TV without having someone interpret what was going on for her. And now there’s closed captioning and texting. The technological advancements of last decade have really helped deaf people be so much more included than they were in the past.

Betsy: Right. Thanks for being with us today, Lynn, and good luck with the book.

Lynn: Thank you so much Betsy.

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