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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf American Literature: From Carnival to the Canon

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The Sign Me Alice plays of Gil Eastman, staged in 1973 and 1983 respectively, both focus on cultural identity. Drawing on the Pygmalion theme, Sign Me Alice and Sign Me Alice II were the first full-length theatrical productions at Gallaudet University to deal with deafness. Specifically, they examine Deaf identity in relation to the majority culture. The focus is on Alice who, while working as a maid at a large hotel, meets a learned doctor attending a convention who offers to help her better herself. When she agrees, he instructs her in a kind of manual English and has her learn mainstream p’s and q’s. Being ambitious, Alice at first is eager to move up the ladder. However, she eventually comes to see that she has an identity in her own right—as a Deaf American—and that ASL, far from being a mongrel discourse, is a legitimate means of communication. Realizing this, she backs away from acculturation and instead chooses a path between the two cultures. She is aware of the mores and values of mainstream society but also takes pride in a Deaf identity and a unique visual vernacular.

Alice is a member of a widely dispersed minority group, many of whose members in effect leave their hearing families to find “home” and identity. This urge to travel and socialize in a quest for home is reflected in Deaf American history and literature (as is this quest in American literature as a whole). A particularly widely known story is that of Abbé de l’Epée’s almost legendary efforts in the eighteenth century to seek out deaf children in the towns and country villages of France and bring them to Paris to educate them together. As Carol Padden and Tom Humphries report in Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture, “l’Epée’s wanderings along a dark road represent each deaf child’s wanderings before he or she, like l’Epée, finds home.”

In seeking home or identity, many Deaf Americans dream of and desire an empowered and autonomous Deaf culture, a social reality of their own; they desire a place where they belong, can identify with others, and can in turn be identified. Not surprisingly, many Deaf American narratives deal with a homeland or a desire for a homeland. For example, Stephen Ryan’s Planet Way Over Yonder is an ASL narrative about a young Deaf boy who rockets off the earth and lands on a planet where the majority of inhabitants are deaf while a small minority is hearing—a comical reversal of the familiar two-world condition. Communication media are predominantly visual, as televisions and video screens dot the landscape and sign language is used in all the schools, hospitals, government buildings, theaters, and sports arenas.

Another case in point is Douglas Bullard’s Islay (examined in chapter 7), a novel that takes place largely on the road and that provides, along with a panorama of Deaf society, a blueprint for a modern-day political and economic takeover. Its audacious protagonist is an ordinary American with an extraordinary fantasy: to establish a homeland for Deaf Americans. By the novel’s end, his dream has become a reality.

When Deaf Americans come together for carnival, for a temporary home, they make quite a diverse group (albeit one with a common purpose and a common characteristic). At this gathering, numerous ideas are discussed, diverse perspectives are shared, abundant information is made available, extensive commerce is conducted, and a carnivalesque literature is able to flourish. By its nature, the festival—in both its medieval and modern forms—not only establishes and enhances local identity but also to some degree unsettles this identity by admitting commerce and traffic from elsewhere. Like the medieval fair, the Deaf carnival is both bounded—the center of the community—and the point at which commerce (in the most general sense of the word) and social intercourse converge.

A Literature of Carnival

Although carnival or festival is the mobile center of the culture, where Deaf identity is formed and reinforced, that culture is hardly unitary; and its aggregation is mirrored by a richly diversified literature. Here we find not only the performative or oral forms of the culture, including its traditional art forms, but also hybrid forms and a conventional English print literature. Vernacular storytelling and other ASL performance art take place informally in houses and hotel rooms, while elaborate group and solo performances are staged in ASL or manually coded English. Videotapes (often captioned in English) of


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