A dozen stories, nearly all about women and girls who are deaf, Louise Stern being the fourth generation of her own family to be born deaf.
See all those dots on the cover? Sure, more than a dozen, so imagine them as characters, not stories. Then imagine that each of the stories in Chattering is told from the perspective of one cipher, alone, off to the side.
“When she thought about Abel and her granny it brought back that feeling of being far outside the usual ways of seeing and thinking.”
This is from “Abel, Granny and Him”, but the feeling is shared by many of the characters in this collection, though expressed differently in their lives and experiences.
As in “”The Pirates”, too: “The isolation was complete and the enclosing heat lazy and smooth. Every gesture and word was heightened, but slipped away too quickly.”
There is little verbal dialogue reproduced in these stories, and what does appear is marked with dashes to indicate signing.
Mostly what might appear as dialogue in other fiction is relayed as summarized information. This serves to emphasize the added layer of translation that occurs between the hearing person who is vocalizing and the deaf person who is receiving that information (often via lip-reading but sometimes via note-writing).
(As if there wasn’t enough potential for misunderstandings when there is simply a brain between the speech and the ears, let alone adding another layer in there.)
— Don’t you know I don’t understand anything you say either? she signed to him, the tears almost visible now. Don’t you know you are as ridiculous to me as I am to you? (“Roadrunner”.)
Louise Stern’s use of language is deliberate and each story embodies the voice of the observer. One suspects that not only has she, herself, spent a great deal of time in that role but that she, like many of her characters, has used writing as a primary means of communication with hearing people who cannot sign, so that she has learned to economize her words.
Perhaps in an effort to reduce the hand-cramp, she has eliminated all unnecessary words, stripped her language of extras. As has Joey, in “The Deaf School”, but his expressiveness in other forms fills the gap:
“Joey telling a story was almost better than a movie, because you could see and feel the emotion and the physical sensations on his face and body, as you couldn’t really see and feel in movies.”
The stories in Chattering are on the opposite end of the spectrum of feeling, far from Joey’s stories. Each sentence is like an extremely tidy room, all figurative language slapped away with gestures.
This, too, serves to emphasize the sense of distance for the reader, mirroring the narrators’ shread sense of isolation, of living separately from the rest of the (hearing) world.
“For a long time Beth believed that the dog actually could smell hearing people, that they had a strange scent all their own. It made sense when she thought about it. Deaf people communicated with their bodies. Their language was physical.” (“Black and White Dog”)
(I recall Frances Itani’s Deafening, which has such a different style: sparse, yes, but still poetic and lush. Such a contrast. Though, with their focus on young female characters, I am reminded of short story writers like Elise Levine, Suzannah Dunn, and Lisa Moore.)
Nonetheless, these stories offer a perspective on the world which is uncommon in fiction, so that just as Laura imagines what it’s like to be Eddie, readers can imagine what it’s like to be Laura (and the other narrators, too, of course).
“Laura had taught herself to pee standing up because she was so fascinated with King Eddie. She wondered what it felt like to be him.” (“King Eddie”)
Louise Stern’s stories are short and they read quickly and easily; they are perfect for commutes or for before-bed story-dipping, and Chattering is of a size to slip into a purse, coat pocket, shopping bag or beneath the pillow. Even if you normally inhabit a cluster of dots yourself, inhabiting the margin for the length of time that it takes to read this collection is a worthwhile experience.
Project Notes: It’s clear that I could read from the House of Anansi backlist on the subject of lives of girls and women for a good while, but I’ll just stay on this theme for a few more days. In the meantime, I’m also reading from Michael Winter’s One Last Good Look, which is like reading Lives of Boys and Men right alongside.