Hello, and welcome to my first Title Talks! This is a series where I will dedicate a post to one book or a whole series, and it might be for various reasons such as I really, really liked the book and want to talk more about it, I have criticism or feel like I need to discuss more in-depth about my problems with it, the book has specific representation I want to talk about, and so on. With series, I’ll be talking more in-depth about all of the books, rather than what I do now for wrap-ups, which is being very brief about later books in the series. With that intro out of the way, let’s get started!
I thought I’d kick off this series by talking about a recent read, True Biz by Sara Nović. This is a deaf story written by a deaf author, and I was SO excited when this was announced. I was even more excited when I was able to get my hands on an early copy! It’s out now, so you can order it or request it at your local library! I also want to mention that this has already been optioned for a TV adaption and they’re currently in process of finding a cast. Very exciting stuff! For those who may not be familiar with ASL, “true biz” is the English transliteration of a phrase often used in ASL. This phrase can mean several things, like “I’m not kidding you,” “Seriously,” “yes, really!,” and things similar to that.
True Biz follows three different people that have ties to the deaf community in vastly different ways. Charlie has grown up oral with a cochlear implant, has never met another deaf student until she transfers to River Valley School for the Deaf. Austin comes from generations of deaf people, and his world is shaken when his baby sister is born hearing. February is a CODA, child of deaf adults, and the stressed headmistress of RVSD which is a step away from being closed for good.
I immensely enjoyed this book which is all about the deaf community, and the range that exists—no involvement or knowledge about the deaf community, to growing up in it and coming from generations of deaf people.
That’s the short version of what this book is about and my thoughts, but let’s go more in-depth shall we? There obviously will be spoilers, but I won’t be spoiling everything. I think the best way to do this is by looking at the journeys each character takes, because each journey is more or less about an aspect of the deaf community, and that’s also the best way to discuss how the book explores the deaf community.
Let’s start with Charlie, the deaf girl who grew up oral with an cochlear implant. A quick explanation for those who might not be familiar: oral typically means someone who grew up speaking English only, knows zero ASL or any other form of sign such as SEE (Signed Exact English). Cochlear implants are similar to hearing aids, they’re both tools for deaf people to use with hearing. The major difference is that CIs require a very invasive surgery to implant a part of the machine into the user’s head. They used to leave huge scars across the person’s head, but now they’re barely noticeable and done behind the ear. Back to Charlie, she grew up being the only deaf person in her school and she didn’t meet a single other deaf person until she decided to transfer to RVSD. Growing up, she just accepted this as the way of life, and worked very hard on her speech, taking speech therapy for years, struggling to fit in with her peers as she gets older and starts falling behind in class.
Quick tangent here, this is VERY common with deaf children whose parents decide that they want to raise their child orally. There is an initiative to make sure kids don’t fall behind in their important milestones, called LEAD-K. Unfortunately, they focus only on ages 0-5. Once they’re aged out, the kids are more or less on their own. Schools and parents use the “evidence” that their child is doing just fine in school, and often by age 5, it can seem that way on paper because the kid is showing the same as their peers. However, this tends to drop off at around second grade. That age is where you start to see the flaws in the system, and the deaf kids start to fall very behind their peers. The reason? Up to kindergarten, many of the activities done are group ones, or very easy to mimic. As kids get older, they start being forced to focus on their own work and not allowed to glance over at anyone. This is where deaf kids start becoming behind because the teaching has changed completely, and there’s no way to mimic or look over at others’ work to figure out what to do. I could easily go on a whole rant on how the school system, over and over, fails deaf children and their families. But that’s not for right now. Back to the book.
As Charlie starts to struggle a lot more in her classes, her mother doubles down on speaking only, while her dad and Charlie start to explore ASL and look into transferring to a school where she would have full access to education through sign language. When she transfers, she’s more or less thrown into the deep end with fluent signers when she’s still learning. However, she picks up quickly and starts having a sense of belonging. But she’s also fallen in with the not-most-great people because of conflict she’s experiencing with her parents, mainly her mom. These people call themselves anarchists, have done some breaking in, stealing, and some bomb building. This leads to some wild things which I won’t say here, you have to read the book for yourself!
Let’s talk about Austin, the Deaf boy from a Deaf family. He’s the “golden boy” at the deaf school, viewed as nearly royalty because his mother is deaf, and his grandparents are both deaf. His dad is hearing and an interpreter, so everyone in his family signs. Austin’s gone to RVSD his whole life, so he’s never had a life where language deprivation was an experience he went through, though he did hear stories from all his classmates. Life’s good—he has a baby sister on the way, there’s an interesting new student at RVSD and the headmistress asked him to show her around. Charlie and Austin get off to an awkward start because Charlie hasn’t really picked up sign yet, and Austin is fully fluent. Over time, they build a good relationship and even flirt a little. His baby sister is born, everyone’s excited and thrilled. Then the nurse comes back and says that she passed the hearing test. Austin and his mom are disappointed, but he catches his father reacting oddly. As they take the baby home, he notices his dad singing, talking, and being very close to her. Austin accuses him of wanting a hearing baby, and they get into a big fight over that. Culturally, Deaf people are often going to want their children to be Deaf like them, because you me deaf same. There are people out there who say that’s child abuse, but that’s literally what a lot of parents dream of, having a child that’s just like them. I’d flip that on its head and say that not making sure your child has full language access is borderline abuse. I’m not saying that sign is the only option, I’m just saying that it should be one of many options. I’m going to leave Austin here, and move onto February.
February is the headmistress in charge of River Valley School for the Deaf, and she’s a CODA. It’s short for Child of a Deaf Adult, and it’s a way of identifying those who are very much a part of the deaf community, due to being raised by deaf parents, but aren’t deaf themself. CODAs have a very strong cultural identity of their own, separate from deaf people. I also want to clarify something, CODAs are hearing. If you’re deaf and you have deaf parents, there’s no separate signifier for that. You’re simply one of the lucky few who come from deaf families. At the start of this story, February is feeling good about the new school year, looking forward to what the future will bring her students. She gets called in for a meeting with the superintendent, and she’s told in no certain terms that RVSD will be closing at the end of the academic year. February is stunned and tries to argue, but is shut down in every direction. She’s left with wondering what to do, and she’s struggling with this while not telling her wife and dealing with her deaf mother who has dementia. February starts to drown while juggling her regular duties, covering for a teacher who’s absent, her mother’s declining health, and sitting on top of a ticking bomb of information. There’s conflict with her wife over some previous indiscretions, and guilt about not sharing the school closing with her. I want to share here one of the truly best quotes from this book (of which there are many!):
“…if hearing people ever studied the power and speed of the Deaf rumor mill, they might think twice about classifying deafness as a ‘communication disorder.’”True Biz by Sara Nović
There are already rumors of the school’s closing circulating, and when it’s finally confirmed through an announcement, outrage spreads through the community, but there isn’t much to be done at that point. February goes through a constant battle of caring for her students but trying to not care too much, lest she gets hurt herself.
There’s a lot that happened that I haven’t even touched on, but I’m okay with that. This book should be read to get the full impact of everything that weaves together into one big beautiful story about our complex deaf community. It’s impossible to cover every aspect of it in one single book, but this book is a great step in the right direction of shining a light on parts of our community that doesn’t often get seen. I don’t really know how to best wrap up this review, other than saying read this if you have the chance. I truly, truly enjoyed this book and probably will re-read it multiple times in the future. Thanks for watching, let me know what you think if you’ve read this book!
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