Bill @ The Australian Legend first mentioned Future Girl to me, a young adult novel by Deaf artist and writer Asphyxia (she/her). In 2021, the novel was published in North America as The Words in My Hands, so I grabbed it from the library. Firstly, I prefer the Australian title more because it better captures the content. Let me summarize the novel, and here are the covers to compare:
Piper is a deaf girl with hearing aids in a private high school with hearing students. Her best friend, Taylor, often serves as a hearing guide of sorts, which resonated with me. I often ask my spouse what another person said, be it the cashier, the neighbor, or our nieces and nephew. However, while my reliance often occurs when I am not wearing my hearing aids because I didn’t feel like it, Piper is relying on very little hearing and years of speech therapy because to her, deafness is a medical issue.
The novel is set in futuristic Australia, where a huge company has defeated cancer, viruses, even fatness with perfectly portioned meals that have specific chemicals, etc. to do all it’s said to do. Piper’s mom is the lead researcher for this company; Piper grew up eating science-y food, along with everyone else she knows, happily. But lately, claims that the science food is making people sick creep into the public, and Piper’s mom loses her job. The company is in peril, and since the country has been convinced that “wild food” (anything you grow) is poisonous, people are starving. They ration their meals as delivery becomes erratic and piecemeal.
Gas is too expensive, so everyone rides bikes. Typically, Piper uses public transportation, but because her mom lost her job, they’re out of fare money. Piper pulls an old bike out of her shed and heads to a bike shop to get the handle bars fixed.There, she meets Marley, who upon realizing Piper cannot hear tries signing to her. Piper doesn’t know Auslan (Australian Sign Language), but their relationship develops with Marley teaching Piper to sign and then introducing Piper to his mom, a Deaf woman who grows food.
This is where I feel the Australian title fits better. Piper comes from a background of pro-fake food. She is converted into someone learning Auslan and gardening, and soon her desire to feed herself — she’s starving — creates a small movement in her neighborhood that gains attention. She’s looking toward a better, more sustainable future. Instead of a focus on Deafness, Asphyxia’s novel makes Deafness just part of Piper. The real tension is whether Piper’s garden will be discovered by authorities and dismantled, or if she’ll be imprisoned for protesting food shortages and a corrupt government that censors its citizens and is controlled by a puppet government.
That’s not to say the author doesn’t continue moving readers through the world of Deaf culture. As Piper watches Marley’s mom sign, Piper realizes what are called instrument classifiers (how you would manipulate an actual object with your hands, but there’s nothing in your hands) and role shifting (when you become someone else through body language). Asphyxia’s choice to let Piper watch the language more closely instead of focusing only on how fast native signers go, or how pretty it is (it is a beautiful language, but it’s more complicated than that word), was refreshing.
Something different I noticed from other young adult books is that Piper and her mom fight, but it gets better and worse repeatedly. The mom doesn’t seem like an unreasonable villain or an absent parent, and there isn’t that incessant tyrant thing that changes to a happy, huggable conclusion based on newfound pride in one’s child. Piper’s mom is always reluctant, even when Piper is happy, because she’s doing what most moms do: try to help their kid fit in by being “normal.” Why would Piper waste all her speech therapy with signing? Piper can speak clearly (for which she is praised), but she still can’t hear. Piper is smart enough to finish her schooling, but being in school doesn’t feed her, nor does it change the dire conditions of Australia.
Lastly, Asphyxia gives space to hearing characters, and I wonder if that’s because D/deaf people interact with hearing people all the time. Hearing people who describe their happy memories with music, or who recently heard a new bionic ear is on the market, or who assume what the D/deaf person would say and speak for them. It truly feels like Piper is navigating the hearing world and constantly making choices about speaking, signing, hearing aids, interpreters, writing notes, etc. But she does all that so she can grow food and develop into herself.
A fantastic novel, and you’re in for a treat with the formatting, which includes colorful pages and Asphyxia’s artwork presented as Piper’s journal.