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From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

Language Shaped by Silence

The mind and craft of a deaf writer

Linda Besner

Voice: Adam Pottle on Writing with Deafness

Adam Pottle

University of Regina Press

144 pages, softcover

ISBN: 9780889775930

Every language is foreign to me,” Adam Pottle writes. Born with sensorineural hearing loss, he got his first hearing aids at six. He learned to fill in the gaps with the help of lip-­reading and captioning devices, and today he speaks with a “deaf accent” — prompting some to ask if he’s Australian or Irish. He and his family learned a bit of American Sign Language, but growing up in Kitimat, British Columbia, with a population of about 10,000 at the time, he didn’t have much occasion to use it. There were no other deaf, Deaf, or hard-of-­hearing people in his life.

Voice is the second book in Writers on Writing, a University of Regina Press series in which authors grapple with formative questions of their craft. With his contribution, Pottle explores a relationship with language shaped by silence. “I write according to how words feel rather than how they sound,” he explains. “Words are tactile. I feel like I can hold them in my hands and throw them at people; I feel like I might scratch myself on their edges; they roll around in my mouth like barbed marbles.” The violent imagery is telling. For Pottle, who has struggled with suicidal thoughts, language has been a site of pain. On some days, “I can’t tell where my deafness ends and my mental illness begins.”

There is a difference between being deaf and being Deaf. Small‑d deafness is a medical condition, whereas Deafness is a cultural identity. Capital‑d Deaf people use ASL or other signed languages, and they identify as members of a linguistic minority. Educators and health professionals confronted with a child whose hearing is impaired frequently guide parents to seek medical and technological supports that will allow the child to attend a mainstream school and participate in the hearing world. Some are very successful (Pottle has a PhD in English literature). But many Deaf people see a form of cultural suppression in institutional pressures to struggle with spoken languages rather than develop proficiency in signed languages — pressures to work hard at passing for hearing rather than embracing a Deaf identity.

In Voice, Pottle relates the isolation he has felt as a deaf person and writer, making a life in a language he can’t fully access. Some of his most interesting commentary deals with how technological mediation has influenced his aesthetics. Closed captions, which he watched for hours as a kid, have had a powerful effect on his sense of the poetic line, for example. Where many poets talk about the ideal line length as the length of a breath, Pottle’s ideal is the width of a TV screen. “Captioning is full of enjambments; it makes a great film or television speech into a poem.” He describes a “subtle skidding rhythm” that has worked its way into his prose.

Pottle seems most conflicted about the effect of his deafness on his writing when it comes to his ability to close himself off from the outside world — to retreat into his imagination. On one hand, he’s developed a rich inner life. The book is threaded with a series of imaginary conversations with Lemmy Kilmister, the front man of Motörhead. Pottle values silence and the space it creates for contemplation: “If I have any advice to give, it would be ‘Sshhh.’” On the other hand, he believes in the writer’s duty to empathize and seek to understand the experiences of others.

His academic research, on literary depictions of disability, has left Pottle frustrated: “Few Canadians, on their own initiative, will pick up a book about amputees having filthy sex, or men with cerebral palsy hollering and cavorting in a men’s bathroom, or a deaf woman selling heroin.” Why should all disabled characters be saintly and chaste like Helen Keller? He wants his people to be a bit more metal, like the wheelchair-­using narrator of his novel Mantis Dreams, “a rambunctious asshole.”

Reclaiming space for being a deaf asshole creates some difficult moments in Voice. Pottle’s occasional dismissal of the world outside his head is at odds with the empathic perspective he enjoins writers to cultivate: “Being deaf makes boring people easier to ignore.” He relates one early writing experience in which he retold “The Three Little Pigs,” recalling, “I named the three little pigs — really three prostitutes — after three snotty female schoolmates.” His teacher, whom Pottle describes as “the ideal high school English teacher, vulgar one moment and philosophical the next,” loved the story and read it aloud to the class, chortling. Having his work praised was memorable for Pottle. (He dismisses his offended classmates, writing, “If they knew and were upset by it —
if they walked past my locker and shot barbs at me — I never heard them.”)

For Pottle, not hearing has gone hand in hand with a sense of not being heard. He describes his practice as emanating from hopelessness, which he argues can be a useful starting point for a writer. “If you see the world as a void, you can scream whatever you want,” he tells Kilmister in one of their imaginary exchanges. The tension between language that is perceptible to others and language that is perceptible only to the self informs how “voice” develops. As his hearing has continued to deteriorate, the gap between the voice he uses to speak aloud and his interior voice has widened.

The episodes detailing Pottle’s difficulty in making himself heard in cultural contexts are painful testimony. Arriving at his master’s thesis defence, Pottle discovers that his external examiner will be asking her questions over the telephone. Wensafdel inos mellibluddelteffering questionszink sospaoosability. . . is about all he can make out. A literary festival in Saskatoon invites him to read from his work, but when Pottle inquires about the availability of real-time captioning and ASL interpretation — even offering to waive his reading fee to cover the cost — the festival drops him from the program.

In the latter case, a tweet from Pottle sparked a campaign by Deaf and disabled artists and advocates. He was reinstated, and the festival provided captioning and interpretation (in an email, the festival board told Pottle the incident had jump-­started a conversation about budgetary allocations for accessibility supports). “Abled people seldom expect Deaf and disabled people to protest,” he writes, “believing they are either incapable of making a difference or too small a community to do so. There are over one billion Deaf and disabled people in the world, with over four million in Canada. It’s a potent chorus.”

Language is a mystery for all writers, and Voice nudges practitioners to consider how the writing voice blends speaking and interior registers, as well as how more visual or tactile approaches can be brought to bear on stylistic choices. Pottle loves the word “fierce” because “when you say it, you end up looking like you’ve bitten down on something.” It’s an observation drawn from a lifetime of lip-­reading, and it hints at more embodied notions of linguistics than traditional writing handbooks imagine.

Linda Besner is a writer and poet with two collections to her name, Feel Happier in Nine Seconds and The Id Kid.