Louise Stern: A new book with a story that cuts through to what the deaf experience really is

Posted on August 28, 2014

Born in Northern Ireland, reared in Scotland, the writer and translator Donal McLaughlin lives like a nomad.

His work takes him all over. The flow of speech and vocabulary the world over is his delight – both in his day-to-day life, where he takes a keen interest in every character that turns up, and in his work.

This requires deep sensitivity to the details that make up meaning. The tiny change in tone that tells of a huge shift in mood and feeling; the slang, proudly kept from one generation to the next, that holds on to emotional value and a fiery loyalty.

Donal McLaughlin

Donal McLaughlin

How to explain these things to an outsider, through words that come from a completely different cultural source, via a story and not explanation or analysis that sucks the life out of ideas and feelings?

This is the job that McLaughlin does for some of the most interesting writers working in Europe today.

In addition to his work as a translator, McLaughlin writes fiction. His most recent book is called beheading the virgin mary, and other stories, and McLaughlin read from his book last week at the Edinburgh Festival.

Every other story in the book turns back to a regular character, Liam, who shares McLaughlin’s cultural background and his focus on how people communicate.

McLaughlin takes Liam through the Troubles and Bloody Sunday. Liam experiences these traumas by listening to his mother and father talk and to the news as he runs in and out of the house.

The hard facts as shaped by the news; the anger, hurt pride, and determination of the family in their Scottish home trying to understand the violence happening elsewhere to people they know, love, and feel.

BVM_cvr_012014We see all of these things through the daily chatter of these people and their world, and through the words McLaughlin gives us. His love for these people and his understanding of why they live as they do makes us love them too.

McLaughlin’s life and the life of his characters centre on the voice, the words it speaks, and what these words and how they are formed tell us or don’t tell us. There is not much description of the physical world.

That is why it is even more beautiful and interesting when he takes on a deaf character.

In his story “the troubles (for you)”, McLaughlin draws on memories of an aunt, who is removed from the world by her deafness and by other aspects of her life .

In fragmented, tactile language, he describes his impressions of her as a child. The way she sometimes grabs at her nieces and nephews when they tease her.

As the children pile one on top of another in their play, things shift – just as their understanding of her does, in a very different way than the characters in the rest of the book understand one another.

As the world around them changes and time and death stand in front of them, another member of the family refuses the affection that this aunt offers and wants. They do not understand because she herself does not understand or say. She only feels.

McLaughlin’s honest, tender story cuts through bureaucracy and official explanations – from all sources – of what the deaf experience is.

It reminds us of the core understandings and misunderstandings that are so easy to stumble into as a deaf person in a hearing world and as a hearing person in a deaf world, whether you are lucky enough to have language or not.

The words fall away; there is only the flesh and blood person, their emotion, and what is in their eyes.

What is in their eyes?

beheading the virgin mary, and other stories is published by Dalkey Archive Press. To find out more and buy the book, click here.

Louise Stern grew up in Fremont, California, the fourth generation deaf in her family. Her art, which is based around ideas of communication and language, has been exhibited in Geneva, London, Port Eliot, Cornwall, New York City, Paris, Madrid, and other places.  Her book of short stories, “Chattering”, was published by Granta in 2011 and her body of work also includes performances and a contemporary art magazine for children.  She has a novel, “Ismael and His Sisters,” coming out with Granta in 2015.

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