Well, I did not know this was one of Reese Witherspoon’s book club picks til I got the notice my hold at the library was ready and saw the stamp on the cover. (A word. I, like many other readers, hate that shit. Get your name/brand sticker off the cover – the cover art deserves its own space and also just, it ruins the whole aesthetic…ugh.) Anyways, I read Nović’s first novel Girl at War, years ago (like it has to have been over 5 years ago, at least, because it was before I had started my official blog, so my review exists only on Goodreads). I remember loving it – being invested in it, learning a lot, etc. So I was excited to see her name on a new release. And then I learned it was about the Deaf community, something I’ve had very little exposure to previously, and was super excited for another page-turning and eye-opening read.
“…all those years of energy poured into achieving the aesthetic of being educated rather than actually having learned anything.”
True Biz revolves around the students and staff of the River Valley School for the Deaf. February, a child of deaf parents, is the principal of RVSD and lives with her wife, Mel, in a “just off campus” school-sponsored home. Charlie is a high school student who just transferred to RVSD from the local high school after a custody battle between her parents. She has spent years struggling to fit in as a hearing person, dealing with a number of complex side-effects of her cochlear implant. Austin is the golden boy of RVSD, a legacy of a generations-long deaf family. And while those three are our main perspectives, we also get snippets of the story told from some of the other students at RVSD, including Charlie’s roommate Kayla, Austin’s roommate Eliot and ex-girlfriend Gabrielle, February’s ex (and a teacher at RVSD, Wanda), and others. Anyways, these characters all just want to live their lives: the mundanities of daily paperwork, high school crushes, the school play, etc. but are instead faced with financial cuts and healthcare decisions that throw their lives into deep turmoil that is out of their control and bring them together in a dramatic finale.
Let me just say that this book had a *lot* going on, with all the characters’ and their individual worries and family drama and relationships and interactions that each get just enough page time to bring them to your attention (but not *always* enough to satisfy, as far as dimension of development). Of note, I liked the way the additions of single sections from various side-characters’ perspectives were included. It allowed for nice insights into their POVs, as these are complex topics with lots to consider, but without actually trying to make the characters themselves more likable (understanding without “giving a pass”). However, as I said, they were more for awareness than depth, and those side characters still remained pretty flat. And then on top of all the individual pieces, there are the greater messages and educational points, about Deaf history and culture, about the nuances of American Sign Language (ASL) and Black ASL (BASL), about the ethics and morals of cochlear implants and teaching (or not, as it were) ASL, and more. And then there was the side-plot of Charlie’s friends from her old high school and their anarchist philosophies and (violent) protest plans. I was incredibly invested from start to finish, and I am going to talk more about all of it as this review progresses, but I did want to just start by noting that, in an effort to include so much background and represent so many realities, there was a bit of depth that was sacrificed along the way.
Now that we’ve touched a little on my one major-ish critique, I want to spend the rest of this review talking about how awesome this book was. Oh my goodness, I really liked it. As I had hoped, I learned so much about the Deaf community. The snippets of deaf history and syntactical/grammatical/artistic notes about ASL were fascinating. I super appreciated the pictorial visuals that accompanied the descriptions of the language – I practiced every single one (and am now looking into ASL classes at my local community colleges too). Of note, I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, which seems slightly counterintuitive but I am so glad I did because during the ASL portions of the dialogue, the audio narration was layered with the sound of a person signing the dialogue and hearing what that movement sounded like behind the vocal version was…wow, what an amazing experience. I highly recommend it, as a hearing reader. (But, as I did, I also recommend having the physical book on hand for the visual accompaniment. The dual experience was very rewarding.)
As I mentioned earlier, Nović also touches on a number of complex and intersectional topics, like the differences between ASL and BASL (which has paralleling lingual prescriptivism attached to it like AAVE does for hearing Black populations). And she ties it into the history of racism and segregation and ableism in the US to give it historical context as well. Again, this is more like a primer on these topics, but it’s a deeply important layer to these conversations about racial justice that, for all my experience to date (which, at least in a literary sense, is reasonably representative), has rarely been included.
One focal topic throughout was the tension between the Deaf and hearing communities; primarily, the way that the hearing world (especially parents and families) see deafness as something that must be fixed. There is a concentrated amount of commentary from February’s experiences as headmistress and Charlie and Austin’s familial experiences, that highlight the ways children are harmed by this deep push for “normalcy.” The ethics of cochlear implants and other major medical decisions that parents make for their children (minors, who cannot legally make another decision), as well as genetic editing and practices like withholding of ASL, are a heartbreaking central theme throughout. Nović explores the false binary (created by the hearing world) of sign language and assistive technology, and the resulting language deprivation (for the one that isn’t “chosen”) as a cruel and immoral reality for children. The vocabulary “modern institutionalization” was used to describe the isolation that results, the way that refusing to teach ASL, in an effort to force assimilation for English, and the following language deprivation of children who are stuck between not enough comprehension in the hearing world and never being taught ASL, is heartbreaking and visceral (as we see it through Charlie’s eyes).
Nović provides thought exercises, presented as snippets of her deaf history lessons, woven throughout, to address these complex questions head-on, make the reader really interact with them, but not provide the answers. Because while some things are obvious, some are more grey-scale and deserve our time in considering the many facets. (Plus, individual preferences and worldviews must be considered as well. So, being handed the answers would be too easy.) A few of these philosophical thought-experiments reminded me of other works that tackle these topics (of deafness and blindness), like Haben Girma’s memoir Haben and the MC in River Solomon’s Sorrowland, that also present questions like “if accommodations are made for deafness and everyone could sign, would it still be considered a disability?,” in the way that the accessibility of glasses/contacts has allowed being seeing-impaired to become a negligible issue.
And finally, education. The financial issues RSVD faces are representative of a much wider issue of how little high-quality education is valued in the US. Yet again, and for yet another reason, the chant of “education needs more funding!” remains a steady chorus. This is a deeply necessary, imperative, change. Honestly, though the ending felt a bit rushed in comparison to the rest (like breakneck and slightly melodramatic), I liked that the anger from each of the characters over their lack of power to get/maintain access to basic educational (and related) needs had a chance to be expressed. That anger is real. And deserved. And the fact that we are left with a sort of nebulous resolution is a bit of a narrative “easy out,” but does keep the drama very grounded in reality, because there isn’t really a resolution IRL either.
Although there was some unevenness in pacing and some aspects got only a surface level exploration, I still really enjoyed this compelling and unique coming of age/identity story. Charlie must find herself both in regards to what she believes and who she is, now that she is among her peers (not just “the deaf girl”) and has a chance to get to know herself and finds a community to fight for. And with Austin and February guiding her (and dealing, too, with their own coming of age and “what do I stand for” issues), this whole novel can only be described as, that most cliché of phrases, “a love letter” to the Deaf community, their culture and language and the sense of self they can only find there, and I am grateful to Nović for sharing this world that she loves with the wider world that could/should to more to help preserve it. An awareness-raising, inspiring, and engrossing novel.
“…when it came to language, more is more.” (assistive technology and sign language are not an either/or)
“It is so damn depressing […] that the biggest dream some people can muster up for their child is ‘look normal.’”
“…the kids whose parents’ affections were distributed on a sliding scale tethered to how well said kid could perform normalcy.” (oh my heart – that a child closer to hearing would be more worthy of love – I cannot)
“What are the medical community’s ethical obligations when it comes to preserving human dignity? At what line does the practice of ‘designer babies’ become unethical, and who gets to decide?”
“She cannot decide whether the heart’s craving for opposites – not only from itself, but from the others it loves – is its greatest strength or biggest failing.”