Power, Privilege, and Love in a Residential School for Deaf Students

Sara Nović" on bias, representation, and the challenges of depicting American Sign Language in her novel "True Biz"

Photo by Bucerius Law School on Unsplash

How do you fit into a new community of people who see and understand you better than the world at large does? That’s the central question at the heart of Sara Nović’s enamoring second novel, True Biz.

True Biz by Sara Novic

From the opening pages, we immediately empathize with a teenage girl, Charlie, who struggles to hear and fit in. After her hearing parents’ divorce, she is enrolled at River Valley School of the Deaf, a residential school for Deaf students. But not everything is paradise. The headmistress of the Deaf school, February Waters, struggles with the shifting sociopolitical climate and how much she can give to those under her care. Austin, the school’s shining beacon of Deafness, is taken aback when his new sister is born hearing. As Charlie settles in at her new school and starts to master American Sign Language, she begins to fully see the nuances of the world around her.

Inquiries of community, isolation, and social expectations are nothing new to Nović, who is Deaf herself. Beyond her excellent fiction writing, she consistently writes nonfiction about social justice issues, disability, and representation in media, in places like the New York Times, Slate, CNN, and elsewhere. She is a force and an inspiration, both on Twitter and in person. She demands space to ask her questions about the world; in doing so, she makes the world a better place for the Deaf writers who come after her. 

I met with Sara Nović over Zoom to ask her about how True Biz took shape; the following conversation was conducted in American Sign Language, and then translated into written English.

Ross Showalter: River Valley School of the Deaf (RVSD) is the central location of True Biz. It’s a Deaf institute, meaning it houses, feeds, and educates Deaf students from kindergarten to 12th grade. It’s an institution with its struggles—financially, bureaucratically, and so on. It’s also fictional, Google tells me. What was the process like of developing that setting?

Sara Nović: That was one of the fun parts of writing True Biz, for me—the opportunity to invent that whole place. That whole town is fictional—it’s not a real place.

When I started writing about RVSD, I wanted to find a balance between invention and being able to show people and the experiences they’d had within an institution. So I did a lot of research. I was also touring for my first novel. I went to different Deaf institutes and talked with the students, which was really fun and probably the best part of the tour. I learned about the way those Deaf institutes were set up. I also interviewed some adults and we discussed their experiences at the institutes because that wasn’t my experience growing up. It was important to go in-depth and see what was important to them about that experience. One thing that kept popping up was racism, biases, and the petty types of cliques that grouped the students away from each other. That changed the direction of some parts of this book, obviously, but that’s only in the book because people told me about their experiences dealing with that.

RS: I’m so curious about one of the book’s central figures, February. February is a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), and she is the headmistress of RVSD. Where did her character come from? How did you decide to make her a CODA and to put her in a position of power in a Deaf setting, where she has enormous privilege as a hearing person?

The Deaf community as well is having a lot of conversations about who has power and who has privilege within the community.

SN: A lot of my friends in college were CODAs and I was just drawn to their perspective. It was so interesting to me to encounter someone who saw the world similar to me but not exactly. February, as a character, is one of the most surprising to me, where I had no plan for her, but she evolved so much in the process of writing. I didn’t even know she was married and then, one night while I was writing, her wife, Mel, just walked into the room.

RS: I just love that relationship. I love the relationship between them.

SN: Thank you! I was so happy she showed up, but I had no plan. I had no idea she was a part of the book. She walked into the room and I was like, “Okay. Hi. Back up and let’s write you in.” 

I think the Deaf community as well is having a lot of conversations about who has power and who has privilege within the community. CODAs and interpreters have both power and privilege, and I wanted to find a way to include all those kind of experiences within the Deaf community. I think February’s interesting because she really will do anything for the Deaf community, but maybe she’s not always thinking clearly because she’s trying to prove herself.

RS: All these characters in True Biz get themselves in conflicts with ableist people and ableist systems and ableist ideas. There are so many conflicts and obstacles throughout this book that revolve around having a disability in a society that largely ignores disabled people. I wonder, now that you’re on the other side of this book, if you find it easier to define what ableism is or if you consider it an insidious thing that’s hard to really pinpoint.

SN: I think the problem in defining it is that there’s always something new. I think when I was writing the book, there were different types and different layers of ableism and bias I had in mind. But, now, the world is just so different from when I started writing the book. Now, we have all these different kinds of biases popping into our consciousness every day. Technology, for example, creates barriers even when it’s supposed to support. Like, when the pandemic started, it was like, “Okay, we’ll have Zoom meetings.” Then when we got there, we realized, “Right. We need accommodations there too.” So I always want to learn things while I’m writing, that’s important to me. But I also have to understand that there’s new things that are going to evolve on their own, and new things are always going to pop up. Things are always changing. 

RS: I think in deaf literature and disability literature, Deaf and disabled authors often feel like they have to educate through their work. Authors can feel like it’s their responsibility to teach hearing, abled people what it’s like for disabled and Deaf folks. Do you envision disability literature moving past that starkly educational role?

If a reader is confused about something, my reaction is, ‘You don’t get it? Try harder.’ Try harder and it’s okay for you to feel uncomfortable for one minute.

SN: I believe, in general, it’s not our job to educate through creative writing. We can teach about our experiences without being didactic. I resisted this book for a while, but then I realized it gave me an opportunity to teach because it was set at a Deaf school and a teacher is one of the top characters—why not take that opportunity? It was silly for me to feel like, “I don’t want to teach through writing,” but then I gave myself the space to do that and it worked out. But we should be allowed to write the way hearing people write about the world and tell stories from our points-of-view. Readers do learn from that, and they should, yes. But, if a reader is confused about something, my reaction is, “You don’t get it? Try harder.” Try harder and it’s okay for you to feel uncomfortable for one minute.

RS: Language is a major topic in this book, not only in theme but in form. There’s a lot of super rad ASL lessons peppered throughout the book and asides about ASL slang. Did you envision that from the beginning, or was it something that happened when Brittany Castle (the ASL artist for True Biz) came in?

SN: Yeah, that process took forever. I was writing these characters and their stories and I struggled with wanting to show ASL on paper. How do I do that? There’s so much I could do. So I tried a bunch of things. I tried colors. I tried organization. Then I tried playing with syntax and realized that hearing people would read that and think ASL is nothing but broken English. I really wanted to show for certain characters that ASL is better than English. I decided to use space on the page and show how clear it is for certain characters when signed communication happens, compared to English dialogue. I showed the gaps in lipreading and what the character gets and doesn’t get when lipreading. For signed conversations, I basically tried to orient sign to a specific space on the page, according to a specific character, and essentially use dialogue tags but in a visual way.

But I also wanted to do more in representing ASL in the book. And because Charlie was learning sign, that gave me the opportunity to show ASL on the page and direct readers to look at what the sign is, visually. I took a bunch of signs from the internet that I knew I wanted in the book. I laid them out in the way I wanted them to be in the book and then I asked Brittany Castle to draw like 100 signs. It was a very weird project, but it was important to have Deaf artists depict the signs. I’m really happy that Brittany said yes because I’ve loved her work for a while. And it was so smooth working with her because she knew what I meant with my list of signs and pictures from the internet. A hearing artist would never have been compatible with this project the way Brittany was, because she knew ASL and knew my intention. 

RS: There’s this gorgeous thread throughout the book about language deprivation, not having the language for how you feel, and how that often results in miscommunication. I wonder if you could speak to the role of language and miscommunication in True Biz and how much of a role it plays in these Deaf characters expressing themselves.

SN: Charlie’s an interesting character. She has had access to some language, and she’s interesting because of that. She’s an example of what happens to most people like her growing up. She was never fully deprived of language, but the access and communication she has is still too much work for her. She misses a lot. She can’t communicate well with her family. It was important to me to show that middle experience too.

RS: That sort of liminal space that can exist for Deaf folks.

SN: Exactly. I have a friend who’s done very well for themselves, but, back then, she was often put in special education. And I think that is the norm in mainstream schools, depending on where you are in the country or your family’s involvement in your education. That’s an experience many people have because that kind of special education classroom has equipment to engage with behavioral problems, but not the root causes or the student’s actual needs. I think that happens more than people realize.

RS: There’s this interesting dynamic between Austin and Charlie, two deaf students at RVSD. Charlie is the only Deaf kid in her family, has a cochlear implant, and comes to ASL late. Austin is from a Deaf family and grew up with ASL. There’s this moment where Charlie is told that Austin is like royalty, because he came from a Deaf family, and he typically gets what he wants. This sort of prestige, being Deaf and growing up in a Deaf family, has been covered in other media about Deaf people, like the Netflix show Deaf U. What’s your opinion on the role that that Deaf lineage plays in the Deaf community?

SN: That’s something I never really thought about that much. It’s not my experience. When I was at the Deaf institutes, I saw that that kind of family was important to the school. It’s tough, because I think Deaf families are important to the community because they do a lot of the work of passing down the history and the knowledge of the Deaf community. I think sometimes people who live that experience, growing up deaf in a Deaf family, don’t realize the privilege they have. Maybe they look down on other people because that access to sign is automatic to them. Other Deaf people don’t have that automatic access and it’s not their fault because they don’t know. They couldn’t make that choice for themselves and that lack of a choice is a problem. It’s a big problem.

RS: I’m also curious about your opinion on Deaf U and all of the books, shows, and films that look at Deaf people and that are ultimately shepherded by hearing folks. I wonder if it is authenticity or if it’s just Deaf people hiding the hearing mastermind and the hearing point-of-view. Do you think it benefits us to have more media about us, even with a hearing person in charge? Or do you think Deaf stories can only truly be told by only us? It’s a hot-button topic, I’m sorry.

SN: Yeah, no, it’s tough! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially because we’re working on a TV show for True Biz. It’s still in the very early stages, but if we have the chance to make this show, then it’s really important to make sure there are Deaf people everywhere and in every stage of this process. Deaf people in the writers room. Deaf people behind the camera. We see things differently, and if this gets made, then I hope we can show people that the outcome can be better when you make it authentically. But, I think having Deaf people on screen is valuable. I think it’s cool for Deaf kids to grow up and see Lauren Ridloff as a superhero. That’s cool. That’s important.

For a long time, I didn’t realize I could be a writer, as a job, as a profession. Like, I was studying writing in school and I still didn’t realize, “Oh, this is my job. I can be a writer. I can tell stories, like anyone else.” And I think I would have come to that understanding faster if I’d seen other Deaf writers out there. Representation has value, but I don’t think representation does all the work of authentic storytelling that we need to have happen.

RS: I wonder about the audience that you wrote for, for this book. Did you write this for the Deaf community? For the hearing community? Was that something you had to think about? Or did you just decide to write this book for yourself?

I want a place where Deaf people can see themselves and their experiences, but at the same time, I still want hearing people to see these characters in ways that they can identify with.

SN: A good story always starts for yourself. But, obviously, when I realized, “Okay, this is going to become something I want other people to read,” I had to start thinking about the audience. And for me, it’s a balancing act.

I want a place where Deaf people can see themselves and their experiences, but at the same time, I still want hearing people to learn and see these characters in ways that they can identify with. So, throughout the editing process, I was always cutting and adding so many different explanations. My editor’s really good for winnowing out those explanations, because she’s a hearing woman. But if she had a question or a moment of confusion, it would be a chance for me to ask myself, “Will most people understand this? Do I care if they understand this or not?” So, I had to decide how much I wanted to explain versus how much I wanted to make the reader work for it.

RS: And that’s really the million-dollar question: How much do you want to explain?

SN: Many times, hearing readers ask me for more. Most of the time, I resist. Sometimes, I’ll take their questions and I’ll answer what they want to know. So, I hope I’ve found a balance in that the explanations aren’t boring for Deaf readers, they still enjoy the story, and they’re able to see themselves in the characters I’ve invented. But, if I want hearing readers to empathize with those Deaf characters too, I need to give them a trail of breadcrumbs that they’re able to follow.

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