Book in Progress

I have had an astonishingly difficult time trying to cram my ideas for this book into a suitably compact nutshell without warping them. I'm not certain how well I've succeeded. But here at least is an attempt:

I foresee a point, sometime in the next century, when genetic engineering will have advanced to a level that cuts the number of deaf births by perhaps an order of magnitude, and when biotechnology will have advanced to a level that can provide artificial hearing — the descendants of today's cochlear implants — for the remainder, and for those people deafened as children or adults.

I also suspect that the vast majority of Americans would read the above sentence and cheer it wholeheartedly. What I want to do with this novel is divide those hearts.

Blind people, by and large, would love to be able to see. Paraplegics would love to walk again. People with physical disabilities would, on the whole, prefer not to have those physical disabilities. This is not true of the majority of deaf people, who do not wish to become hearing. Given the choice, they would remain Deaf.

A generation of children will be the battleground between hearing people who believe that to deliberately allow a deaf child to be born or live with uncorrected hearing when other options are available is morally outrageous and unjustifiable, and the Deaf adults who view this position as cultural genocide.

If they had the opportunity, I believe many Deaf people would separate and form their own community. There are a variety of things in Deaf history and 'oral' culture that support this idea. For example, one popular story involves a hearing astronaut who is stranded on a planet populated entirely by Deaf people.

In this book, I want to give them this opportunity. There are too many obstacles in the modern world, I think, for such a separationist attempt to succeed on Earth. But a community in space, if they could just get there, might have a shot.

The first part of the novel will be devoted to showing what it's like to be Deaf, as thoroughly as possible. There will also be a catalyst — technological or legal or both — that threatens the Deaf community very explicitly and sets the separatist attempt in motion.

Once the external problems of where the Deaf separatists will go and how they will get there are more or less solved, an internal conflict arises. The most militant Deaf people believe that this should be a Deaf-only refuge, no hearing people allowed at all. A more moderate Deaf faction hopes for a mixed and equal community.

There are precedents for both. In the nineteenth century the community of people on the relatively isolated island of Martha's Vineyard (near Massachusetts) had a very high incidence of genetic deafness. Approximately one in thirty people were born deaf. (By comparison, the number of prevocational deaf people in America today is estimated at one in five hundred.) And under those circumstances a very interesting phenomenon occurred — no one on the island, hearing or deaf, considered deaf people to be handicapped. Whether or not a person was deaf was not even worth mentioning. Residents were more likely, in describing a person, to indicate whether he was a Democrat or a Republican than whether he was hearing or deaf. Deaf people were full participants in the community, and did not form clubs of their own or keep to themselves at all, as mainlanders did (and do).

And everyone on the island spoke sign language. All of the hearing people grew up bilingual. No one thought this was in any way remarkable.

On the mainland, most Deaf people marry other Deaf people, and always have. A small percentage, however, will marry (or, in the case of gays and lesbians, form partner relationships with) hearing people. By contrast, most deaf children are born to two hearing parents. Only about 4.5% of deaf children are born to two Deaf parents. So it's obvious that in order to have a sustainable Deaf community of any sort, some serious technology would have to come into play, or else they would die out in a generation. And you can imagine the uproar that would ensue among hearing people upon finding out that deaf people intended to deliberately engineer deaf children.

And with a Deaf-only community, every Deaf adult with a hearing spouse or lover or parent or child would have to choose whether to lose their community and culture forever — to remain on Earth and watch their language slowly die for lack of people to speak it while suffering not just passive discrimination but new distrust and even active hatred from many hearing people — or to turn away from their loved ones and never see them again.

There are a hundred other stories and issues and subplots here that I see arising out of these events. There will be hearing people who think the Deaf people are selfish and morally repugnant, and ones (often hearing children of deaf adults) who are sympathetic and want to help. There will be Deaf people who in their pride refuse the help of hearing people, to their own detriment. There will be logistical problems in acquiring a habitat, and getting there, and planning for an independently sustainable community.

And I want to present an entire spectrum of characters — from the most militant separatist Deaf leader to their most fervent hearing opposition — sympathetically, and tell their stories and their beliefs and their loves so clearly that no matter how far you leaned toward one viewpoint or another when you began the book, by the end your heart is divided.

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