- The Deaf House by Joanne Weber
From the opening to the closing lines of Joanne Weber’s literary memoir, The Deaf House, the reader is reminded of George Eliot’s assertion in Middlemarch that “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence” (162). Weber’s book, structured around the same symmetry with which she seeks a literal and metaphorical house for “my Deaf body” (324), is a reminder of the tragedy that Eliot described as underpinning human existence. Like the tinnitus that rings in Weber’s ears throughout her life, this tragedy is a constant presence in the book.
The Deaf House tells several stories, including that of the Saskatchewan Deaf community following the 1991 closure of the R. J. Williams School for the Deaf, the only Canadian provincial school for Deaf students to be named for a Deaf person (Carbin 1996). These stories are seamlessly woven together in a nonlinear juxtaposition of episodes. In the opening pages, Weber describes her solitary bus journey as an eleven-year-old to the capital city of Regina, where she was presented to a church basement gathering of parents of other Deaf children. For these parents, Weber was an example of a so-called oral success. As one parent asked her, “ ‘Your spee perect. Are you reaee pro unn deee eaf?’ ” For Weber presents a Deaf life from the inside. The form of the back-and-forth dialogue that takes place later in the book is reminiscent of role shifting in sign languages: [End Page 543]
“Joanne, you will receive an award for being the Saskatchewan Junior Citizen of the Year.”SULLEN JOANNE:
“Why on earth would they give me an award?”INSISTING MOTHER:
“They, Joanne, is the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspapers Association. You’ve accomplished so much with your deafness. All the volunteer work you’ve done, sports, and your marks.”DEFIANT JOANNE:
“Well, I’m not going. I don’t want to receive an award for being able to endure boredom.”(120)
This literary device is surprisingly effective. The boredom that Weber describes is a product of her existence as a mainstreamed student in public school and then at a university. As she writes of her years of graduate study at the University of Alberta, “I sat in the classes, unable to comprehend: any of it . . . I sat in a river of voices, bubbling, racing, rushing past my nothingness” (152).
Following her completion of a second master’s degree in Deaf education at Gallaudet University—where Weber learned ASL and initially opposed the Deaf President Now protest then taking place—she became a teacher of Deaf students. Weber taught first at the doomed R. J. Williams School and then, fifteen years later, for a pull-out classroom at a mainstream high school in Regina. The Deaf First Nations students who filed into her mainstream classroom without intelligible speech, literacy, or ASL skills provided Weber with the bulk of her training as a bilingual/bicultural educator. She began using ASL with her students: “I drop the initials in my signing—those stupid, tight little handshapes I’ve been struggling to remember. Instead my lips blow, chuff, and tighten into a flat line” (67).
In an especially powerful episode, Weber describes Nolan, a seventeen-year-old, six-foot-tall aboriginal student who is repeating grade ten for the third time. A talented artist and an emergent writer of screenplays and stories, Nolan is briefly introduced by Weber to Deaf View/Image Art in the form of Susan Dupor’s Family Dog. In turn, Nolan is inspired to produce a self-portrait of his head inside a fishbowl: “ ‘People are always watching me . . . I can’t see those people. They don’t exist. They don’t have any colour to them. I can only see myself ’ ” (80). However, Nolan’s artistic...