“Eyeth—get it? In the Deaf storytelling tradition, utopia is called Eyeth because it’s a society that centers the eye, not the ear, like here on Earth.”
That’s the opener to “Ear vs. Eye: Deaf Mythology,” one of the many brief lessons sprinkled between the chapters of Sara Nović’s realistic fiction novel True Biz, released March 29 by Random House.
Charlie Serrano is a Deaf high school student in Ohio. Her cochlear implant has created language deprivation and family strife rather than improved hearing, but after her parents’ divorce, Charlie gets the opportunity to enroll in the fictional River Valley School for the Deaf, experiencing Deaf culture for the first time over the course of the book. Unfortunately, River Valley is at risk of losing its funding and shuttering.
The point of view switches in third person between Charlie and other main characters with each chapter, denoted by the ASL symbol for the first letter of their name, but even when readers can’t focus exclusively on her point of view, chapter-break lessons allow us to look over Charlie’s shoulder at her coursework or research.
“Eyeth may be a pun, but it’s not a joke—it’s a myth.”
This particular lesson—meant to reinforce that Deaf culture is a culture, as well as to provoke questions about accessibility and designing a Deaf world—is one of many in Nović’s new book. They never feel dry or preachy, but I suppose I was primed to be interested from the get-go.
I’m hearing, but learning the basics of American Sign Language (ASL) was an early quarantine hobby for me, and around the same time, my TikTok algorithm steered me deep into DeafTok. My “For You” page was full of Deaf creators, a wonderful mix of mini ASL lessons, stories, skits and jokes, and more. As immersive as TikTok, YouTube, and other resources can feel, I knew my experience of Deaf culture was still very limited and very online.
True Biz by Sara Nović
Random House, hardcover, 388 pp., $28, penguinrandomhouse.com
When I read the synopsis of True Biz—which is an expression in ASL that means “real talk” or “seriously”—I snatched the book up, and I was delighted to see the illustrations and bite-size lessons as I flipped through the pages.
Since Nović herself is Deaf, it initially feels like these teachings, like the Deaf mythology page, come directly from her to the reader. But the further you get into True Biz, the more you can tell that the lessons are for Charlie, from the other characters that Nović brings to life.
We learn lessons like “Spelling Doesn’t Count,” on the American Sign Language (ASL) alphabet, and “Deaf President Now,” a history lesson about a student protest at Gallaudet University, from the syllabus of Dr. February Waters, a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) and the headmistress at River Valley. We learn “Body Language,” a page full of illustrated instructions for signs like “naked,” “flirt,” and a range of other (dirtier) sexual words and actions, perhaps from Austin Workman-Bayard, Charlie’s mentor at school, whose family have been Deaf for generations. We also learn from Charlie herself, who encounters new concepts in the Deaf world and subsequently looks up Wikipedia pages such as “Black American Sign Language (BASL).” My personal favorites are her awestruck observations of her Deaf friends: Charlie marvels at their ability to ride the bus while signing with both hands, highly adept at balancing without holding on.
As Charlie gets more acclimated to River Valley, so too do we get acquainted with Charlie, her peers and family, and Deaf culture.
Nović’s writing is smooth and easy, even while jumping between perspectives. She balances dialogue in ASL, spoken English, and over text, with italics and alignment indicating who’s communicating. It’s interesting to read Deaf characters written by a Deaf author, as the use of sound as a key sense and descriptor is altered, but it’s no disadvantage. A key theme is language/sound access, and in many cases, Nović only lets us know what Charlie knows, creating vulnerability and slowing the pace of many conversations. A frequent refrain is Charlie seeing or hearing only a long blank space, signing or saying, “What?”, and someone having to repeat themself or fingerspell.
Both in the chapter-break lessons and in the narrative sections, Nović manages to cover many intense topics without it feeling too jarring: bodily autonomy, Deaf “cures” and medical trauma, eugenics, anarchism, marital and family struggles, the cochlear implant debate, and more. In fact, Nović’s writing feels so steady that she never gives a true sense of urgency to even the most high-stakes parts of the plot, and the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I hoped. Still, True Biz is a page-turner, an intriguing character exploration, and an honest survey of the basics of Deafness.
It might be imperfect, but I finished the book ready to recommend it and full of renewed excitement for learning ASL, eager to consider how I too might work toward the ideals of Eyeth in my own everyday life.
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