A Discussion about (Mostly) Books as They Relate to a Theme of Contemporary Interest

by Sara Nović


In recent months, deaf actors have launched a series of online protests to draw attention to ableist discrimination by Hollywood production teams. They lack opportunity not because deaf characters don’t exist, but because producers refuse to use actual deaf people to play them. In response to objections to his decision to cast a hearing actor as a deaf lead character in the film Avenged, filmmaker Michael Ojeda explained that “it really wouldn’t have been logical to have a deaf girl playing the role because it was so action-intensive; she would have got hurt.” Since then, the deaf community has set its sights on Stephen King’s The Stand, a mammoth apocalyptic novel and Warner Bros. franchise now slated to become an eight-part Showtime miniseries and a feature film. It is uncertain whether a deaf actor will be cast, or even invited to audition, for the role of the twenty-two-year-old “deaf-mute drifter” Nick Andros.

The literary world has also had its share of diversity scandals, and perhaps, given the low number of deaf and hard-of-hearing authors writing in English, it is unsurprising that a good deaf man is hard to find in fiction. This is not to say there aren’t any deaf people in books, just that they are rarely well-rendered humans complex enough to transcend being used as symbols. But Andros might be the closest thing fiction has to a successful deaf character.

Despite a difficult childhood that includes not only being born deaf but also the premature death of his mother and subsequent time spent in an orphanage, Andros has managed to learn to read, write, and read lips perfectly. Even the characters around him notice that he is smart; in their first meeting, Sheriff Baker concludes that “Nick Andros must have some pretty good equipment upstairs.” The ease with which Andros communicates is a stretch: in reality only 30 to 60 percent of speech is visible on the lips, and Andros can even lip-read people on television—a task approaching impossibility, in my experience. But he is intelligent and resourceful from the outset of the novel, an exciting start.

We are introduced to Andros while he is being badly beaten at an Arkansas bar. King makes a point of noting, in his narration and via other characters, that Andros cannot scream. “Why don’t he yell out?” one of the bullies asks repeatedly, disturbed by Andros’s silence even while beating him bloody. While deaf people can be nonverbal or “mute” to varying degrees without extensive speech therapy—and it makes sense for Andros, given his rough childhood—we certainly can make noise: we are, in fact, notoriously loud, lacking the desire to self-censor our noise output. Only later is it revealed that Andros’s deafness is a birth defect and that he was also born without vocal cords—which, though fair enough, is misleading, since these defects are neither commonly paired nor what the term deaf-mute traditionally describes.

Andros’s world as King defines it is often couched in the negative: a description of ambient sound followed by something like “but he did not hear this” is a frequent construction. At one point Andros, “in [his] silent movie world,” watches the sheriff “explode several sneezes into his handkerchief.” About halfway through the novel, Andros has a sudden and desperate desire to hear and understand music; he is described as having “never been happier” after he dreams that he can hear and speak. Certainly deafness in a hearing world can be frustrating, but it’s unlikely that a person as bright and capable as Nick Andros would tie his self-worth so tightly to the ability to hear a guitar.

This is the plight of the average deaf character: to be plagued by the hearing author’s own discomfort with the idea of silence. In Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, for instance, John Singer is a silent sufferer whom hearing people use as a sounding board and mourn only vaguely after he kills himself. One need not look past the cover copy of Joanne Greenberg’s In This Sign to find the deaf couple therein labeled “inexperienced, ignorant and bewildered” in their struggle to “survive in the silent world of the deaf.” A pull quote attributed to the New York Times calls the book “a miracle of empathy,” as if imagining deaf people as humans with families required magical powers.

Still, where other writers stumble, King shines by making Andros a fleshed-out character who has thoughts, and not only thoughts explicitly tied to his deafness. As The Stand progresses, it’s clear that Andros possesses a natural leadership quality: other characters look to him for direction, and he becomes head of the Free Zone Committee, the group formed in opposition to supervillain Randall Flagg’s sphere of influence. Via gesture and writing, Andros proves himself an effective communicator, and his deafness does not cut him off from others. Better yet, he has a sense of humor and a strong moral compass; he gets hungry and tired; he has sex. In his first encounter with the bubbly Julie Lawry, there’s a disarming charm to his boyishness, even while Lawry condescends to him:

“My name’s Julie… What’s yours?” She giggled a little. “You can’t tell me, can you? Poor you.” She leaned a little closer, and her breasts brushed him. He began to feel very warm… He broke away from her, took the pad from his pocket and began to write. A line or so into his message she leaned over his shoulder to see what he was writing. No bra. Jesus… His writing became a little uneven.

That Andros ignores Lawry’s ableist drivel and has sex with her anyway makes him read not like a symbol, nor even like noble deaf character, but like any young man in a heated moment. Similarly, when the sheriff pulls out a line of classic victim-blaming—the bar in which Andros got beat up is “no place for a kid like you”—Andros refuses to bend: “Nick shook his head indignantly. ‘I’m twenty-two,’ he wrote. ‘I can have a couple of beers without getting beaten up and robbed for them, can’t I?’”

The passage is simple, but simple is the point—Andros himself doesn’t obsessively think about or discuss his own deafness, because there’s more to him than that. The novel benefits from these moments when readers aren’t made to suffer the corniness of a “silent movie world”: it’s where Andros is a person first and deaf second that the real work of character development and plot is accomplished. Perhaps the truest way to capture silence is not to mention it at all.

Sara Nović holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she studied fiction and translation. She’s the founder of Deaf-rights blog Redeafined and the fiction editor for Blunderbuss magazine. Her first novel, Girl at War, is out from Random House.

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