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Reviewed by:
  • Signing and belonging in Nepal by Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway
  • Anne E. Pfister
Signing and belonging in Nepal. By Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2016. Pp. 176. ISBN 9781563686641. $60 (Hb).

Signing and belonging in Nepal is a touching and authentic reflection on the often-unexpected nuance in the ways deaf people work within particular cultural milieus to find one another, organize, [End Page 712] and advocate for their unique status as a community. Hoffmann-Dilloway’s longitudinal perspective reminds us of the powerful factors referencing and reinforcing personhood. In Nepal, these factors include language paradigms, language use, and hierarchical social organization based on religion, gender, lineage, and how these features converge as jāts—something the author describes as a ‘vast concept’ commonly translated as ‘castes’. Importantly, readers are reminded not only of the powerful impact of cultural systems, language, and the interaction of these, but also that these influences change throughout time and in response to other complex human phenomena.

The detailed contextualization and analysis of the sociopolitical frameworks of deafness and Nepali Sign Language presented in this book will be of great interest to scholars from an array of fields. Readers, educators, and students in medical anthropology, disabilities studies, and linguistics alike will recognize the anthropological influence in the undercurrent propelling the book: the illustration of how ethnolinguistic frameworks of deafness have different ‘meanings and consequences’ within and across cultural contexts (3). The depth and breadth of this ethnographic study is of important note; Hoffmann-Dilloway spent nearly two decades (from the late 1990s through 2017) visiting and researching in Nepal. Her intimate ethnographic knowledge of Deaf Nepalis is reflected in the sincerity of her descriptions and the assuredness of her analyses. Furthermore, her repeated visits inform her understanding of the sociopolitical changes in Nepal and how they affected community life among Deaf Nepalis, especially in terms of political negotiations, cultural affiliations, and conceptualization of personhood. The result is a well-developed and perceptive representation of the intricacies of a dynamic Nepalese society and a fascinating linguistic minority community within it. Readers of Language will particularly appreciate that ‘this book shows how both personas and larger social formations such as ethnolinguistic identity (i.e. Deaf) or nationality (i.e. Nepali) affect and emerge from interactive language use, while closely attending to rather than erasing all of the rich variation that entails’ (16).

An important theoretical contribution of this book of interest to a variety of readers is the author’s explanation of a dyad fundamentally different from that with which most Western readers interested in deaf issues are familiar. The binary most prominent in many US and European contexts is the juxtaposition of biomedical vs. ethnolinguistic framings of deafness. Medicalized approaches define deafness in terms of deficit (the loss of hearing) and/or in terms of illness or disability (something that needs to be fixed or cured). In these contexts, ethnolinguistic frameworks (sometimes referred to as ‘culturally Deaf’ models—capitalization of the ‘D’ in Deaf is used in many contexts to highlight the cultural/ethnic affiliation upon which this model is based) emerged as a rejection of medicalized approaches and interventions. Ethnolinguistic framings, in turn, emphasize the shared language, experience, and community-based connections among deaf people. Signing and belonging in Nepal reminds us that local framings of deafness are often oversimplified and never universal. Like any ideology or assumption, they develop in larger cultural contexts, are subject to interpretation and change, and have the potential for authentic impact on the lives of deaf people and their families.

In Nepal, deafness is associated with karma: the fate resulting from a person’s or family’s deeds and misdeeds in a previous life. In other words, deafness is fundamentally understood by Nepalis as a spiritual or supernatural issue, rather than primarily a somatic issue understood in biomedical terms (as it might be in contemporary Kansas or Austria, for example). Membership in a jāt (caste or kind; see Ch. 2) determines a person’s karma—or where people exist on a spectrum from ritual purity to pollution. According to Nepalese karmic ideology, a number of factors contribute to one’s membership...


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