Deaf history and the art of writing novels

By Frances Itani & Pieter Verstraete

One of the main goals of the Public Disability History Blog is to bring disability history to the public. Although it is of course true that a lot of academic research doesn’t get translated into accessible language, to say that the public isn’t exposed to disability history is just a bridge too far. Indeed, there are numerous examples to be quoted of non-academics who are interested in the history of disability and/or are exposed to it. Often people will not consciously pay attention to the presence of persons with disabilities in the stories they read, tell themselves or watch. But there are definitely also examples to be mentioned where disability is willingly interwoven in the narrative that was invented by someone and made public through the publication in book-format, the broadcasting of a television show, the curating of an exhibition or just through some chit-chat in a local bar.

During the previous Summer break I coincidentally came across one example of disability-history-already-being-public, the novel Deafening written by Canadian author Frances Itani. The scene of the book is that of the first decades of the Twentieth century. Itani tells the story of Grania O’Neill who became deaf due to the consequences of scarlet fever, went to the Ontario school for the Deaf and married Jim – who is mobilized during the war as a stretcher barrier. I was impressed by the detailed accounts of the school experiences and the lived-through descriptions of Grania’s emotional responses to the things she encountered during her rich life. And so I decided to contact the author in order to know a bit more about how the book came about, what kind of research she did, what the author wanted to achieve with the book and how the (Canadian) Deaf people responded.

Pieter: Where did the idea for the book Deafening originate?

Frances: I started research for this book about 1996, while finishing another book, Leaning, Leaning Over Water. I was driving through Belleville, Ontario at the time and as I was passing the grounds of Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf (previously known as the Ontario School for the Deaf), I decided to pull in to the grounds of that very old school and present myself at the reception desk. After I explained that my late Deaf grandmother had attended the same school at the turn of the last century (I did not know the exact years, at the time), I was offered a tour of the grounds and various buildings. During that initial tour, I knew I was going to write a book with that setting. I didn't know, at the time, what sort of book it would be, but I knew that I would be back for more research. That was the beginning of a six-year journey: researching and writing Deafening.

Front cover of one of the many editions of the book Deafening