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Deaf American Literature

From Carnival to the Canon

Cynthia Peters

Publication Year: 2000

“The moment when a society must contend with a powerful language other than its own is a decisive point in its evolution. This moment is occurring now in American society.” Cynthia Peters explains precisely how American Sign Language (ASL) literature achieved this moment by tracing its past and predicting its future in Deaf American Literature: From Carnival to the Canon. Peters connects ASL literature to the literary canon with the archetypal notion of carnival as “the counterculture of the dominated.” Throughout history, carnivals have been opportunities for the “low,” disenfranchised elements of society to displace their “high” counterparts. Citing the Deaf community’s long tradition of “literary nights” and festivals like the Deaf Way, Peters recognizes similar forces at work in the propagation of ASL literature. The agents of this movement, Deaf artists and ASL performers—“Tricksters,” as Peters calls them—jump between the two cultures and languages. Through this process, they create a synthesis of English literary content reinterpreted in sign language, which raises the profile of ASL as a distinct art form in itself. In this trailblazing study, Peters applies her analysis to the craft’s landmark works, including Douglas Bullard’s novel Islay and Ben Bahan’s video-recorded narrative Bird of a Different Feather. Deaf American Literature, the only work of its kind, is its own seminal moment in the emerging discipline of ASL literary criticism.

Published by: Gallaudet University Press

Title Page

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii

THIS VOLUME is an extensive reworking of my dissertation, "Deaf American Literature: A Carnivalesque Discourse" completed in 1996 at George Washington University. I am most grateful to Lois Bragg for planting the seeds and Dan Moshenberg of GWU for providing invaluable assistance and encouragement. The following ...

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Chapter 1: Is There Really Such a Thing as Deaf American Literature?

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pp. 1-16

IN HIGH school and college, we learn how to analyze fiction: we chart a work's plot, ponder its theme or themes, dissect character motivation, and hold a magnifying glass to the author's use of language, symbolism, and imagery. Having seen to the basics, we then go on to genre considerations and note how our narrative is like or unlike the typical short story or novel. ...

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Chapter 2: Carnival: Orature and Deaf American Literature

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pp. 17-31

LITERATURE HAS been defined as writings in prose or verse, as a body of written works, and as printed matter.1 If we look at the ASL component of Deaf American literature and its traditional forms, however, we must either stop calling it literature or reconsider our definition. ...

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Chapter 3: Deaf Carnivals as Centers of Culture

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pp. 32-51

CARNIVALS, FESTIVALS, fairs, and conventions are a cornerstone of present-day Deaf culture. These gatherings are essential, for sign language--and thus its art forms--requires face-to-face interaction. Unless people congregate in a fairly substantial group, little ASL literature can materialize. Because Deaf people are scattered ...

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Chapter 4: The Oral Tradition: Deaf American Storytellers as Tricksters

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pp. 52-77

IN THE 1960s American Sign Language finally achieved recognition as a legitimate language, after more than one hundred years of relegation to the realm of gestures. During that time the vernacular had gone underground, its more indigenous form preserved and perpetuated primarily by Deaf families with hereditary deafness. ...

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Chapter 5: Literary Night: The Restorative Power of Comedic and Grotesque Literature

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pp. 78-95

ONE TRADITIONAL ASL production that clearly displays the carnivalesque nature of Deaf American literature is "Literary Night." This cultural staple, presented by literary societies at residential schools or by adult organizations, is a heterogeneous mix of news, storytelling, skits, one-act plays, poetry/song, art sign, and mimicry. ...

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Chapter 6: Deaf American Theater

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pp. 96-120

DEAF AMERICANS stage numerous productions every year, ranging from mainstream plays, such as Gallaudet University's fall 1997 production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to vaudeville-like productions, such as the National Theatre of the Deaf's My Third Eye and Parade.2 In between are both original but conventional plays

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Chapter 7: Islay: The Deaf American Novel

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pp. 121-146

THE CARNIVALESQUE quality of Deaf American literature is not limited to productions and presentations in ASL. It also can be found in text-based stories, poems, and plays published in English. In these texts, Deaf writers may reveal their roots in ASL by highlighting the visual--focusing more on the shapes and movements of ...

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Chapter 8: Poetry

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pp. 147-172

LONG BEFORE the fourth century B.C.E., when Aristotle attempted his systematic analysis of literary genres in the Poetics, listeners and readers recognized the power of poetry to tantalize and intrigue. Over the millennia, poets have been viewed as prophets, imaginative geniuses, seers, and subversives--so powerful that Plato banned ...

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Chapter 9: From Orature to Literature: The New Permanence of ASL Literature

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pp. 173-200

FOR CENTURIES Western cultures have had the means not only to record their vernacular forms but also to distribute them with relative ease. They have been able to record on paper and later to publish--and thus distribute--their poems, stories, and plays. In contrast, Deaf Americans have only very recently acquired this same capacity to record and easily distribute their vernacular forms to the Deaf public at large. ...

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Chapter 10: Conclusion

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pp. 201-206

THE MOMENT when a society must contend with a powerful language other than its own is a decisive point in its evolution. This moment is occurring now in American society, which has only recently discovered American Sign Language and ASL literature. It has discovered that the rather complex gestures used by Deaf citizens are integral to a legitimate national language. ...


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pp. 207-217

E-ISBN-13: 9781563681738
E-ISBN-10: 1563681730
Print-ISBN-13: 9781563680946
Print-ISBN-10: 1563680947

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2000