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Chapter 9 From Orature to Literature: The New Permanence of ASL Literature ! 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. A few ASL stories, speeches, and art forms were captured on film in the early twentieth century , but these films were not widely distributed. Only when home videocassette recorders became ubiquitous in the 1980s did a large number of ASL videos begin to be created and widely disseminated . Even more were produced and distributed in the 1990s; and with the new availability of affordable videocameras and video computer technology, the upward trend is very likely to continue. 173 975 Gup DAL Chap 09 7/17/00 7:48 PM Page 173 As increasing numbers of ASL art forms are recorded, videotape is becoming more than simply a means of preservation. Works are being adapted to the medium and even composed explicitly with this format in mind. As the discussion of Poetry in Motion in the preceding chapter suggests, the use of videotape is already leading to changes in ASL vernacular forms, in the very indigenous rhetorical tradition itself. Such changes in fact parallel those that occurred in early European vernacular forms centuries ago during their transition from orality to literacy, described in chapter 2. As the use of writing spread, mainstream oral forms vanished or took on a literary (“written”) cast. A similar transition is occurring in Deaf American literature, and as this transpires we can see the intermixing of two very different rhetorical traditions. Bahan and Supalla: New ASL Literature Aspects of the transition from “oral” vernacular forms to “literary” forms can be observed in DawnSignPress’s remarkable videotape ASL Literature Series. The first and to date only installment appeared in 1992; it consists of two entertaining narratives, Ben Bahan’s “Bird of a Different Feather” and Sam Supalla’s “For a Decent Living,” each about twenty minutes long.1 Both are ASL stories that have been adapted for video distribution with students of ASL as a second language in mind. Bahan’s narrative was created in 1982 for a live performance at a confest. Supalla’s fictitious narrative was developed over fifteen years through his one-man show before a live audience.2 In the early 1990s when the videotape first came out, the two ASL artists held a number of workshops around the country that focused on the characteristics of ASL literature in general and on the literary features of these two narratives in particular. Through these workshops, Bahan and Supalla helped make a case for the value of ASL itself in showing that literature is no less possible in a visual than in an aural language. “Bird of a Different Feather,” the first narrative on the 1992 videotape, was briefly described in chapter 3. The fable concerns an eagle couple that find among their hatchlings two eaglets with 174 From Orature to Literature 975 Gup DAL Chap 09 7/17/00 7:48 PM Page 174 “normal” beaks and one eaglet with an “abnormal” beak. Anguished over their “odd” eaglet, the couple searches far and wide for a cure, consulting both the medical and the religious establishments—but to no avail. At their wits’ end, the parents are reduced to placing their offspring in a special school at which he is to learn “eagle behavior.” There he will be taught how to swoop and hunt, though he lacks the physical capacity to do so successfully. Nevertheless, the eaglet practices and practices, and practices some more, in an effort to compensate for his physical limitations. Eventually the eaglet graduates and attempts to take his place in eagle society, but attempt is the best he can do. As his family relocates to the West, the eaglet by chance encounters some songbirds (a lower and denigrated species). From them, he learns to sing and eat berries, and he feels in his element. Yet despite his luck at finding such compatible companions and a more suitable lifestyle, the eaglet accedes to the urging of his family and undergoes an operation to reshape his beak, an operation that everyone hopes will make him fully “eagle.” This operation does give him...


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