Graphic Silence

Being deaf can be pretty raw deal for someone wanting to live a full and happy life. Describing deafness in illustrated form requires an understanding of how it feels to be deaf in the first place. Cece Bell describes the journey very cleverly in her illustrated world using the graphic novel genre to her advantage In Her novel El Deafo. We the readers are always reminded visually of Cece’s hearing impairment due to Bell’s choice of using rabbits as the characters. Rabbits have large, quite noticeable ears and Cece’s hearing aids are always shown as a result. Speech bubbles in grey indistinct font or just filled with blank white colour truly illustrate to the rest of the world what a person is feeling when they cannot hear in clear distinct detail.
It is white noise or an indistinct jumble of words that can lead to some peculiar challenges and assumptions when you are deaf….bake or lake? Cake or fake?.CeceBell also addresses the hardships and isolation endured with hearing loss.
How do I know these challenges? I was born deaf in my right ear. This is something I have in common with the author, Cece Bell. El Deafo’s protagonist Cece contracted viral meningitis at the age of four. While I don’t have the harrowing experience Cece did being in hospital, being deaf does put you in a certain club. Many deaf people I am certain, would really like to leave the club if they could. Cece’s formative years are spent dealing with the everyday difficulties of being deaf and trying to fit in with her classmates and friends who are not deaf… I was always aware that something wasn’t right hearing wise, I suspected that I was deaf long before I was officially diagnosed when I was sixteen. My formative years were spent undiagnosed and looking back it explains so much about my childhood.
Deafness has a profound impact on your life. The self-esteem of many hearing-impaired children is usually much lower than in other children in their formative years. It can cause the delay of speech and language skills leading to social anxiety and poor social skills generally. This can also make you less willing to try and work on these skills, if like me, you don’t know why everyone else is getting along so much better than you. I just assumed I was dumb.
This also flows onto poor academic achievement. Many schools are now employing the use of trained aides to sit with hearing impaired children or the use of electronic microphones as depicted in El Deafo. I really struggled with mathematical concepts, which apparently is common with deaf children. Visual and English subjects are more readily picked up by the hearing impaired. As many people will understand this leads to isolation and poor self concept, which can follow through to adulthood which has its own unique challenges.
Deafness poses everyday challenges to your most important one to one relationships. Asking small favours may seem to hard if you need to sign or talk loudly to your hearing impaired loved one. Deafness has one of leading divorce rates for disabilities. Simply put, communication really is one of the main aspects of any relationship. If spontaneous communication isn’t really available, for example, you really like that flower over there and you want to say it to your partner, you may be discouraged if it feels like too much effort to sign. Harsh but true, sorry to say. Which leads to frustration, for both people. For Cece, in El Deafo the inability to hear, when her microphone is dropped, leads her teacher to interpret Cece’s lack of hearing as disrespect. If I had a dollar for every time I got in trouble for ‘daydreaming’ as a child I’d be a rich woman today. Daydreaming was interpreted as laziness or disrespect.
My deafness does pose some amusing relationship issues as well. My incredibly lovely partner will occasionally whisper sweet nothings into the wrong ear…and all I’ll feel is the tickle of his breath. I then have to gently remind him it was the wrong ear…awkward. But worth it when I get to hear what he wants to say.
However it can become a major obstacle in major life circumstances. Only very recently a Georgia, USA hospital awarded damages to a deaf mother that had given birth and wasn’t provided an interpreter that could sign. This actually violated legal standards within the hospital but what was the worst part for me was that during the birth by C-section, this poor woman would have felt so isolated. I imagine that being wheeled into surgery and having your abdomen being cut open would already be a harrowing experience.
While thankfully most of the time this doesn’t happen, when it does, it reinforces the isolation deafness brings. Deafness makes even the smallest things like crossing the road a little more tinged with anxiety as I ran out in front of many cars as a young child, not hearing them coming. In fact Id say I’m probably more anxious due to the need to constantly be aware, listening for sounds. My work in a retail store relies on my hearing, so I need to be constantly alert. Many times I think I’ve heard my name, but it’s a word that rhymes with mine, something I am sure Cece would have dealt with too. Basically it’s a world of unease.
That’s what makes this book so remarkable and inspiring. Cece, the protagonist turns the things she needs to do like lip reading, into a detective story, still wants to have friends and socialize with the world. But best of all she finds a way to turn her disability into positive by realizing that she can hear her teachers when her other classmates cant. She helps them skive off class and her newfound ability leads her to renaming herself ‘El Deafo’. She becomes a super hero to herself, classmates and importantly to ‘deafo’ readers like me.

The Ugly Side of the Literary Other and Societal Implications

Ancients Romans writing about their battles with ‘Savage and Terrible’ Celtic warriors, English explorers writing about how ‘Beastly’ American Indians were towards them and how in the book The Help ‘Home Health Initiatives’ were introduced so black maids didn’t have to share bathrooms with their white employers because…’They have different diseases than we do’. What do all these things have in common? They are strong examples of othering by a colonising race over the colonised.

The concept of othering within Literature is not an unusual or new concept by any means. What is basically meant with the term ‘othering’ is a simple but dangerous concept. There is an enlightened superior  ‘us’ and a ‘Savage’, ‘Inferior’ and lowly ‘other’. The other is usually different in physical appearance or social status, so a real or imagined line should not ever be seen to be crossed in the eyes of society.

Where this thinking becomes truly dangerous is when injustices such as mistreatment, neglect or in some cases genocide in horrific circumstances occur with the belief that the other that is persecuted is inferior, in some way, therefore is unworthy of the basic right to live in peace.

While this all sounds like something that only exists in post colonial fiction that we see published in the 18th and 19th centuries, the post colonial gaze still lingers in todays society.

With migrants coming over in boats in Australian waters the media teaches us that something needs to be done about ‘them’. The line between the self and the other is still as clear as ever.

For years in Australian culture the definition of the self was to be an ‘Aussie’ and migrants and even some first generation Australian’s with parents hailing from another country would be seen to be told to ‘Go back where you came from’… Cronulla riots anyone?

Thankfully this type of behaviour is changing but the fear mongering about unknown ‘other’ races still exists. As long as there are people that perpetrate stereotypes that unknown cultures need to be automatically feared society remains fragmented at best.

When a society aims to work together to become another within rather than creating fortunate few and misunderstanding and fearing the other a more peaceful society exists. And no I don’t believe that its an utopian ideal…I just think the media needs to lay off the fear and take the time to understand people different to yourself……