Magazine article The Spectator

The Chattering Classes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Chattering Classes

Article excerpt

Louise Stern on what the deaf really think of 'hearing people'

I'm at my desk in London chatting to a deaf woman in Mexico. We are communing through the internet. At 17.57 GMT , an instant messenger bubble pops on to my computer screen: 'Louise Stern: Hi Freddy, it's Louise' and the interview has begun. It's miraculous, when you think about it.

Louise Stern is the author of Chattering Stories , a recently published collection of short stories about adventurous deaf girls in the big noisy world. Louise has a very original writing voice, and critics say that she enables them to understand for the first time what it must be like to be deaf.

She isn't comfortable writing in instant messenger, however. 'I tend to avoid it, ' she says. She prefers talking to the non-deaf - assuming they can't speak sign language - through pen and paper, face to face: 'I miss the intimacy of seeing the handwriting, people's body language, eye contact and so on.'

It's easy to see what she means. Instant messaging is fun, but awkward. You type, they type, you type, they type. . . but you end up typing on top of each other and the conversation chases its tail. At one point, Louise is discussing the Middle East - she's Jewish and sympathetic to the Palestinians - while I am still tapping on about deaf education.

I switch to her Jewishness, only to find that she has reverted to describing Galludet, the all-deaf university she attended in Washington DC.

Such muddling is strangely apt, however, because Louise's writing is all about misunderstandings and the mysteries of human interaction. 'We construct our own worlds and realities out of language, ' she tells me, 'which is a beautiful thing, but it is also dangerous because we forget that they are purely our invention.'

Like many others, Louise feels that language is being warped in the media age. 'It is getting further and further away from the physical world, ' she says. 'We have greater saturation today with the net, media, television, technology. I am not a luddite in any way, but look at the way people write in magazines and newspapers. It is different now.

The authors assume that their readers are familiar with terms that only come from this media world, whether it is pop psychology or political jargon. . . If that makes any sense?'

It does. To see this phenomenon clearly, though, perhaps it helps to be deaf. Hearing people, as Louise calls us, are so bombarded by sounds, by songs and jingles, that we cannot spot how our words are changing. To the deaf, we must seem drunk on noise - and in fact intoxication is a recurring theme in Chattering. There are lots of passages about hard drinking. 'I didn't really think about that at the time, ' she says, 'but now you mention it. . . yeah! !'

Louise's new book, an account of life in a village of deaf people in Mexico, is about a 'different sort of intoxication'. What exactly? 'I can't define it yet. . . maybe when the book is finished. It's something to do with oblivion. . . ' There's a nervous pause. Skype's wiggly pen icon, which tells you when somebody is typing, stops wiggling. I can't think what to say. Have we got stuck in pseuds' corner? Thankfully, after a minute, Louise says 'sorry if that sounds pretentious!' The tension breaks and we move on.

Louise is fourth-generation deaf. She became aware of it when she was four. …

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