True Biz by Sara Nović

True Biz by Sara Nović (she/they) is a story that largely focuses on life at a D/deaf residential school, but expands to look at the complicated questions D/deaf people face when the hearing world pushes in on them to integrate, to blend in.

A bit of explanation based on what I’ve learned in my classes: a residential school for the D/deaf is a public school, funded by tax dollars, but often has a small student body that stays at that school all week and goes home for the weekend. In the past, students would stay the entire semester, only going home around Christmas and then again in the summer.

Some challenges include parents letting go of their child for so long, who may be as young as three, according to my interpreting professor. And, because a D/deaf school is small, it can lack resources and opportunities in the same way any small public school can (just ask my Nick about this). Another book I recently discussed that captures life at a D/deaf school is Sounds Like Home by Mary Herring Wright.

I’ve explained in the past why there is Deaf (the culture) and deaf (the medical condition), so why do I use both “D/d” when describing the school in True Biz? Many students, including our main character, arrive knowing nothing about American Sign Language, Deaf culture, nor met any Deaf adults. Charlie is a teen girl who was “implanted,” the verb to describe the surgery for a cochlear implant (CI), as a toddler. Her CI is a problem because it doesn’t work that well, and it gives her headaches, but her mother is adamant that Charlie “be normal” and not embarrass the family. Charlie’s father is more sympathetic but appears a bit spineless about standing up for his daughter. There are so many problems that result from Charlie being denied access to language when her family, doctors, and teachers force her to rely on the CI:

At first Charlie’s own “behaviors” continued, too, meltdowns in the face of unfathomable phonics workbooks. The special ed program was equipped for these moments; Charlie was placed in the Quiet Room — an empty closet lined with blue gymnasium mats.

I’ve also recently written a review about what happens when a person is denied language after I read A Man Without Words by Susan Schaller. In Charlie’s case, she is allowed to go to a D/deaf residential school. Her parents, who are divorced, don’t agree about this, but her dad is trying. Charlie and her father begin attending evening classes to learn ASL, but her mom has Charlie court-ordered to wear her CI while at school . . . where no one talks.

Nović, who is a Deaf person, truly creates an immersive world at the school. Some students come from “legacy families,” meaning they have Deaf family members for generations, but also meaning these students have early access to ASL and support in the Deaf community. Austin is a legacy kid, which both makes him high ranking at school, but also a target because he is privileged. He’s assigned to be Charlie’s guide when she arrives, and the two develop feelings for each other. This isn’t a standard high school romance, though, because Charlie isn’t fluent in ASL and Austin wields power thanks to his ancestry. He gives her a name sign — a replacement in lieu of spelling out C-H-A-R-L-I-E — pretty early upon meeting her:

[Austin] made a C shape with his hand and tapped it on his chin, then pointed back to [Charlie’s] name on the napkin. Was it possible he was naming her? Me? He nodded. She took his pen, another napkin: What does it mean? He wrote: You talk too much.

Nović gets into the gossip at a D/deaf school, such as who is fluent at ASL vs. more English in their signing, who talks and who doesn’t, who’s dating whom, and complaints about classes. It’s both familiar and new for hearing readers. Most of us have never read about a residential school for the D/deaf before, so there may be a learning curve.

If you don’t know much about Deaf culture, will you keep up with Nović’s novel? I can’t answer that because I’ve been immersed in ASL and Deaf culture for about a year now. There are small chapters spread throughout in which we know we’re looking at Charlie’s textbook, which explains different aspects of ASL, Deaf culture, and history. It’s there for both hearing readers and Charlie. The more Charlie learns, the more she feels her CI is a tool of oppression, and why aren’t all the students revolting!? Well, because the information she’s just now learning about herself is history they’ve known for a long time.

Austin slowly understands that his family history isn’t just cool because it means he’s better prepared for life, but serves as a pivot point to consider what his privilege has done for him compared to the life Charlie has tried to make for herself. While Austin’s mom and her whole family are Deaf, Austin’s dad is an ASL interpreter. He can sign, but he is not Deaf. So, come Christmas time when Austin and his parents head to the father’s family’s party, everyone is hearing and talking, and Austin and his mom sit and feel left out:

Normally [Austin] felt sorry for himself at these events, but today he thought of Charlie and realized this was a rare moment he had to experience the world — or rather, not experience it — the way most of his friends did at home.

The head of the school is also a character with her own chapters. She is a CODA, a child of a Deaf adult, whose Deaf mother has dementia. While the headmistress struggles to keep her mom safe and wonders what would happen if her mother had to be put in a home where no one, not even staff, know ASL, she’s also trying to keep the school together. Talk of defunding the school to save money — they are expensive to run, but are a societal good — keeps her up at night. She sees kids like Charlie finally flourishing, and she also sees kids who stand outside on the weekend waiting to be picked by parents who never come because they hoped maybe the school would just keep their “burdensome” child.

Overall, Nović’s book is compelling because it covers so many issues in the D/deaf community. While it’s not a focus, she touches on BASL, which is Black American Sign Language. I even learned that BASL, which developed because even Deaf people were segregated based on skin color, is closer to the original ASL. Why? The white children were forced into oral training — learning to talk and read lips to better “fit in” to hearing society. Meanwhile, people didn’t care enough about Black children to make them fit into society, and thus those kids kept using original ASL. There are a few books out there about this topic, and I need to get my hands on them. Charlie, who sees her new school as a life-changing event, asks her Black roommate more about racism within the Deaf community and Deaf history:

“I don’t know. I guess I just kind of hoped it would be . . . better” [says Charlie].
“Yeah . . . white Deaf people always think that. It’s because you feel safe here” [at Deaf school].
“You don’t?”
“Sometimes yes, sometimes no.”

I could easily see Nović writing a follow-up novel that focuses on this roommate, and from what I’ve read on Goodreads, plenty of readers are upset that she was not more of a presence in the book. To be fair, True Biz focuses on a girl denied language, forced to endure medical treatment she doesn’t want and that harms her, who then comes to learn about the “way of being” in the Deaf community.

In fact, Nović could write several books in this universe. I wanted to know more about Austin’s dad, the interpreter, and his mom, the Deaf woman. Austin’s new baby sister has her own harrowing experiences with hearing that I needed to know more about. Even Austin’s roommate, who has odd scarring on his face (in the end we learn why) could have his own book. Each of these people were so carefully crafted that Nović had me invested in all of them. Highly recommended; a book that will stay with you.

CW: brief racism, audism

*Further Reading: I am not d/Deaf; I am hard of hearing. For a Deaf reader’s perspective on Novic’s novel, visit Asphyxia’s blog.

24 comments

  1. I’m halfway through this at the moment! I don’t know much about Deaf culture (other than having recently seen CODA) but I’m finding it very easy to follow. I’m interested to see how it develops, though – I love the evocation of a Deaf world but in some ways it feels a bit predictable/YA-ish plotwise at the minute. I liked Novic’s Girl At War, but with reservations.

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  2. This sounds really fascinating and I’m glad to learn more about it through your perspective, being a person more familiar with this culture and environment. I’m curious to read it now and see how I would find it.

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    • I think you would enjoy it, especially with your somewhat recent interactions with a deaf customer that you shared. In a way, you’d get more of that customer’s perspective AND learn about a language used in Canada (but not so much Quebec).

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  3. I was interested to read the comments about the cochlear implant – my uncle has one and (I believe) really likes it. Given that they have so many potential side effects, I don’t believe they should be used in young children, and definitely not as an alternative to signed language – but I think my uncle would have some Thoughts for anyone who told him he was being oppressed. Which I guess just goes to show that these things are complicated!

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    • I’ve read that even at Gallaudet, the only university specifically for Deaf people in the U.S., CI are becoming more popular. The technology keeps advancing. However, I’ve been told the process of getting a CI destroys any residual hearing the person has, something True Biz discusses briefly.

      My interpreting professor has talked about not implanting children before they have a say and the importance of using signed language no matter the medical option parents choose. But we’ve also gone over the hours and hours and hours people spend taking their children to speech therapy each week so they can sound hearing but still have little hearing. And in some folks, they do the CI procedure and still hear nothing. It really is complicated.

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  4. Oh the idea of kids waiting outside on weekends for parents who never picks them up just BREAKS MY HEART. No doubt there’s quite a few instances of that heartbreak in this book.

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    • I recently found a memoir about a girl whose parents give her up for adoption, and I think a little later they learn she’s deaf. The memoir is about whether they keep her or put her back in the social welfare system. It IS hard to imagine what these parents are thinking, and abandoning their child seems unethical on its face. But — and I hesitate to say any but at all — I wonder if there are parents who feel that their child will be better off at school, and that maybe the feel too incompetent to raise a person who uses a different language. And then I flip flop right back and think about all the free, easy-to-use resources online that will teach you ASL, and by Deaf people, too.

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      • Yes, I can sympathize to a point with these parents, perhaps they do feel as though they are doing what’s best for their child, and when I question other parents choices, I try to think of this first before judging them. But….that’s hard to do sometimes too, ya know?

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  5. I believed cochlear implants were invented in Australia. Wiki has a much more complex history, but I think there is an Australian company developing and selling cochlear implants worldwide. It hadn’t occurred to me they weren’t an unmitigated good. Do you think the Deaf community is opposed to deaf people (theoretically) getting bionic ears and hearing perfectly?

    I think there was a time when parents were pressured to institutionalise all sorts of less abled children. It would have been unthinkable for instance to keep a blind child at home. And I’m sure some parents were relieved. Our Prime Minister has said recently that he and his wife were blessed that their daughters were perfectly abled – and was widely criticised for saying the quiet part aloud.

    This sounds like a complex and well thought out book.

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    • So, the problem is that you don’t hear perfectly with a cochlear implant. Sometimes they sound robotic and give users intense headaches, and sometimes people have the surgery and they don’t work at all. A person who is hard of hearing or deaf will never, ever hear “normally” again. Even with my hearing aids, I do not hear like “normal” hearing people.

      To my understanding, a big part of the problem is that people find out their BABY is deaf and get them implanted and then try to make the child learn to speak, which can take a dozen hours per week for the first five years of the child’s life, a time during which they could acquire language through signing and and learn content, instead of learning how to look like they can hear. It’s very complicated and I don’t pretend to know what’s best because the entire issue is controversial and personal, and I think parents want to listen to doctors, who come from the medical perspective of “your child is broken, so let’s fix it,” which goes directly against the cultural approach to Deafness, which is “you are part of a minority culture with it’s own history, language, and traditions.”

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      • I understand ‘minority culture’ but very difficult to bring up a child to belong to a different culture than you do as a parent. As a father and grandfather I had children with physical problems (club foot, cleft lip and pallette) and the ‘your child is broken’ doctors did brilliant jobs fixing them. I can imagine feeling the same way about deafness.
        I am starting to exasperate Milly by not getting myself a hearing aid, so no doubt I’ll soon see what you mean.

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        • It’s totally true that the parents have a different culture, and unlike other cultures, the child does not learn the culture from their parents, but from other Deaf adults and Deaf schools.

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  6. I’ve read it AND managed to put my review together now (I link to yours for your very different background). “If you don’t know much about Deaf culture, will you keep up with Nović’s novel?” – yes. I learned so much and kept having to stop and think, and I was glad I was able to ask my retired speech and language therapist friend about D/deaf people’s experiences with CI here in the UK, as I had a lot of questions there! (as I said in a previous post: very similar apart from you do get some therapy and support on the NHS as well as the implant). I really enjoyed the plot and I really, really, REALLY thought the ending was going to be different (trying not to be spoilery, I thought money was going to come out of the US compensation culture to save things) but I can see why it wasn’t done that way. This book will stay with me for a long time and yes, I would love to read the other characters’ stories. I did think Eliot’s was bolted on at the end a bit, but that’s a small criticism.

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    • I’m hoping Novic was simply opening doors to other books, because I also felt like some of the secondary characters didn’t get enough space.

      Deaf schools are funded just like any other public school, to my knowledge, and in my city, currently, they are talking about closing more schools because there aren’t enough students. Now, what that means isn’t clear to me. Sometimes “enough students” means each room needs to have 30 children packed in. Studies show the best number for teaching and learning is about 18.

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  7. Fascinating review and thread. I was an early childhood teacher for the first half of my career and as a matter of course, all my colleagues and I took sign language classes at TAFE as we always had children who were unable to communicate orally or had limited speech (deafness, cerebral palsy, autism for instance). That was when I first learnt that every country has it’s own sign language too – ours is called Auslan.

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    • I just finished a book called “Future Girl” (the Australian title) by Deaf author Asphyxia. The main character learns Auslan, and the alphabet is included in the book, too. I was surprised it required two hands for every letter.

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      • I think I remember noticing that point of difference when I first started learning Auslan, but thirty years later I’d forgotten. Names are often created as you noted in this book though, with the initial letter being given some other defining characteristic.

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        • Yes, the author noted that the letter being one handed and then making a motion connected to a feature of the person is borrowed from ASL (because Auslan letters are two-handed and ASL letters are one). So, Piper’s name is the P shape in ASL and used to make the sign for drawing.

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