True Biz by Sara Nović is a book that taught me so much about Deaf culture and the breadth of deaf experiences. The narrative follows several characters at the fictional River Valley School for the Deaf. In between chapters, Nović includes excerpts of nonfiction about Deaf history and American Sign Language (ASL), complete with drawn diagrams of signing. This spotlight on Deaf culture is what makes True Biz a gem of a book, even if I thought some of the storytelling was less than perfect.
Nović has given us several characters who all experience deafness in different ways; there are three main characters, but brief perspectives from other side characters also appear throughout the book. First, there’s Charlie - a teenager with hearing parents who has never used ASL and has a cochlear implant that’s on the fritz. There’s Austin, the golden boy who comes from a proud Deaf family and is fully immersed in Deaf culture. And there’s February, the headmaster of the school who is the hearing child of Deaf parents. River Valley School for the Deaf connects them all, but soon the school may be shut down due to budget cuts. True Biz tells the story of how these characters face that crisis as well as many more, all while celebrating their Deafness.
As a hearing person with admittedly little exposure to Deaf culture throughout my life, I learned a lot from this book. Nović constantly educates, through both the explicit nonfiction segments and through the story itself. I loved the nonfiction interludes - they feel like a brief and readable textbook on Deaf culture and ASL. Nović explores several sides of Deaf history and politics, from Black American Sign Language (BASL), to controversy over cochlear implants, to religious extremism attempting to “cure” deafness. True Biz made me curious to learn more about Deaf culture while also highlighting many injustices perpetrated by hearing folks. Nović herself is Deaf and did a lot of research for True Biz, including interviewing students at Deaf schools. Of course, it’s never a good idea to let one person be the voice of a whole culture - I tried to find reviews of True Biz from people in the Deaf community to see what they thought about the representation, but at this time was unable to find anything.
True Biz was fantastic for providing an abundance of Deaf representation, which is all too lacking in media. But while it was an enlightening and engaging read, some of the plot points were odd and I found the ending to be extremely abrupt. About 50 more pages would have been perfect to wrap up all aspects of the story. While I did care for the main characters, it sometimes felt like some of the side characters in particular were there just to show different types of Deaf representation rather than to be fully formed characters.
Overall, I highly recommend True Biz for anyone who wishes to learn more about Deaf culture and explore that experience from different perspectives. True Biz has inspired me to learn more about ASL and Deaf history, so here are a few resources at the Johnson County Library that I will be checking out:
- American Sign Language for Beginners by Rochelle Barlow - JCL has a large amount of ASL learning materials. As a beginner who only knows the alphabet, I’m going to try out this to “learn signing essentials in 30 days.”
- Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America by Jack Gannon - this is an updated version of a 1981 history that was the first to fully document Deaf culture from a Deaf perspective.
- Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky - this is a book of poetry in which Kaminsky examines his unique experience immigrating to the U.S. from the Soviet Union as a child while also being Deaf. Explores, war, conflict, language, Deafness, and more.
- Through Deaf Eyes: a Photographic History of an American Community by Douglas Baynton, et al. - this is a Smithsonian-backed project to showcase Deaf history through photographs, largely drawn from the archives at Gallaudet University.
- No Walls of Stone - this is an anthology of poetry, short stories, and essays from several deaf and hard of hearing writers.