The Silence of Sounds
How do writers portray the absence of one or more of our senses? In particular, how do they convey the absence of hearing? The question arises for me because I was born deaf. While I have the occasional complex or awkward experience because the world is designed by the hearing for the hearing, I have never experienced the sensation of my other-hearingness as a grief or a loss. Instead, I experience my deafness as another sensory perception: different from the hearing person, but a sense all the same. In this essay, I take up the challenge of examining the portrayal of deafness in contemporary fiction by comparing Vikram Seth’s novel, An Equal Music, in which the heroine, Julia, is a deaf concert pianist, with Frances Itani’s novel, Deafening, a fictionalized account of a Canadian deaf woman, Grania. I show how, in Seth’s novel, the reader witnesses the impact of hearing loss on Julia through the observations and experiences of Michael, her former lover and fellow musician. In Itani’s novel, I show how the reader is vicariously immersed in the experience of deafness through the cumulative impact of the omnipotent (and apparently hearing) narrator’s reports of the reactions of the other characters to Grania’s deafness, together with Grania’s interior monologue in which she reports her own observations of hearing people’s reactions to her deafness. Of course, while some of my observations inevitably draw on my particular insights as a deaf reader, this does not mean my observations are representative of all deaf people (just as one hearing reader is not representative of all hearing people).
Literature and Sensation