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].
“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.