Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Introducing Sign Language Literature: Folklore and Creativity

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Introducing Sign Language Literature: Folklore and Creativity

Article excerpt

Introducing Sign Language Literature: Folklore and Creativity, by Rachel Sutton-Spence and Michiko Kaneko (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, paperback, 280 pages, $45, ISBN: 9781137363817)

WHEN PEOPLE talk of literature, they typically mean printed literature. Literary critics typically do not analyze oral literature and sign language literature. That is their loss. This book, Introducing Sign Language Literature: Folklore and Creativity, presents background information, examples, and analysis that illustrate the richness of sign language literature. Studying it can teach us much about cultures, linguistics, and the nature of literature itself.

The chapters suggest further readings and class and individual activities, making the book a perfect vehicle around which to build a course. A YouTube channel goes with the book, as does an extensive list of sign poems, stories, and interviews from Brazil, Britain, South Africa, and the United States, along with information on how to access these materials.

The book outlines the following sociolinguistic facts and discusses their repercussions. Sign language literature historically includes faceto- face performances in places such as deaf clubs and events such as weddings and funerals. However, it now also includes videos; thus individuals and small groups can experience these performances without living in or having access to a deaf community. Sign language literature includes folklore (which reflects the culture of a community), fiction, and poetry, as well as oratory, autobiographies, chronicles, and religious literature. In some regions (e.g., Brazil and Britain) it puts a high priority on deafness, but in other locales (e.g., South Africa) it prioritizes matters of pressing interest to the larger community (e.g., racial and political issues). The fact that sign language literature is signed is as important as its content, or perhaps even more so; that is, the act of creating and performing sign language literature is political inasmuch as it supports community identity.

Given these facts, the context for sign language literature is crucial: when and where it occurs, who the performer is, who the audience is, why the event is occurring, and whether the material reflects cultural heritage or is created solely by the performer. Importantly, sign language literature belongs to everyone. Indeed, signing a joke or a story can be an act of declaring membership in the deaf community. Hearing people who grew up in a family with deaf members can also perform sign language literature for deaf audiences. Still, there are recognized masters-and many of the greats are introduced in this book.

Many functions of sign language literature are common to all literature, particularly that found in oppressed communities. Thus it teaches people about the world and their culture; it helps them make sense of the world; it creates and maintains community identity; and it allows performers to demonstrate their skills and artistry. It can put deaf characters in a position of privilege. In all of this, it is particularly helpful to deaf children, the great majority of whom are born into hearing families and may feel that the complications they experience are unique to them. They are in need of being welcomed into deaf culture and experiencing a community in which they are ordinary and normal.

But one function of sign language literature is particular to deafness: the linguistic function. For the vast majority of hearing people, access to language is a given. …

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