Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Deafening

by Frances Itani

“Moving and memorable. . . . Itani is an artist who understands what to include and what to leave out, when to whisper and when to shout. . . . Hers is a fiction of quiet but steady revelation. . . . Itani’s writing is merely breathtaking.” –Dan Cryer, Newsday

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date December 13, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4165-1
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date May 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-1-5558-4654-1
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Frances Itani’s lauded debut novel is a tale of remarkable virtuosity and power, set on the eve of the Great War and spanning two continents and the life and loves of a young deaf woman in Canada named Grania O’Neill

“A gorgeously moving, old-fashioned novel” (O, The Oprah Magazine), Frances Itani’s lauded American debut novel has been sold in sixteen countries around the world, was a Canadian best seller for sixteen weeks, and has been awarded numerous prizes, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book Award for the Caribbean and Canadian Region. Set on the eve of the Great War, Deafening is a tale of remarkable virtuosity and power.

At the age of five, Grania–the daughter of hardworking Irish hoteliers in smalltown Ontario–emerges from a bout of scarlet fever profoundly deaf and is suddenly sealed off from the world that was just beginning to open for her. Her guilt-plagued mother cannot accept her daughter’s deafness. Grania’s saving grace is her grandmother Mamo, who tries to teach Grania to read and speak again. Grania’s older sister, Tress, is a beloved ally as well–obliging when Grania begs her to shout words into her ear canals and forging a rope to keep the sisters connected from their separate beds at night when Grania fears the terrible vulnerability that darkness brings. When it becomes clear that she can no longer thrive in the world of the hearing, her family sends her to live at the Ontario School for the Deaf in Belleville, where, protected from the often-unforgiving hearing world outside, she learns sign language and speech.

After graduation Grania stays on to work at the school, and it is there that she meets Jim Lloyd, a hearing man. In wonderment the two begin to create a new emotional vocabulary that encompasses both sound and silence. But just two weeks after their wedding, Jim must leave home to serve as a stretcher bearer on the blood-soaked battlefields of Flanders.

During this long war of attrition, Jim and Grania’s letters back and forth–both real and imagined–attempt to sustain their young love in a world as brutal as it is beautiful. Frances Itani’s depiction of a world where sound exists only in the margins is a singular feat in literary fiction, a place difficult to leave and even harder to forget.

A magnificent tale of love and war, Deafening is also an ode to language–how it can console, imprison, and liberate, and how it alone can bridge vast chasms of geography and experience.

Deafening is being published around the world by the following publishers:

Brazil (Portuguese) – Editora Objetiva
Bulgaria (Bulgarian) – Uniscorp
Canada (English) – HarperCollins
Catalonia (Catalan) – Enciclopedia Catalana
France (French) – Editions JC Lattes
Germany (German) – Berlin Verlag
Greece (Greek) – Livani Publishing Organization
Holland (Dutch) – Arena
Italy (Italian) – Frassinelli/Sperling & Kupfer Editori
Japan (Japanese) – Shincho Sha
Poland (Polish) – Muza
Portugal (Portuguese) – Dom Quixote
Spain (Spanish) – Ediciones Maeva
UK (English) – Hodder & Stoughton
US (English) – Grove/Atlantic

Praise

“Emotionally resonant. . . . Several profound themes–including the curative power of language, the endurance of faith, and the vital role of storytelling in live, love, and war–are expertly enmeshed in this imaginatively crafted tale.” –Lisa Shea, Elle

“A gorgeously moving, old-fashioned novel.” –Cathleen Medwick, O, The Oprah Magazine

“Impressive. Itani does not shy away from war’s unflattering profile. . . . [She] deftly links sound and silence, war and deafness, bravely confronting the need for human connection in times of war and, in turn, the acute pain of sustaining such connection.” –Laura Ciolkowski, The Boston Globe

“Moving and memorable. . . . Itani is an artist who understands what to include and what to leave out, when to whisper and when to shout. . . . Hers is a fiction of quiet but steady revelation. . . . Itani’s writing is merely breathtaking.” –Dan Cryer, Newsday

“Admirably understated, touching, and restrained. [Itani] writes lyrically about the magical, mysterious way that language, intimacy, and trust enable a deaf woman to hear the sounds of the sea and of music–and of how cataclysmic historical events can touch, shatter, and ultimately strengthen even the most interior life.” –People

“[An] earnest study . . . [that] flits through familial love, the mystery of sound, longing, shell shock and an influenza epidemic. . . . Like Charles Frazier in his massively popular Cold Mountain, Itani possesses a graceful command of illuminating detail and epic sensibility. . . . Itani may be attempting grand statements about the cacophonous death machinery of war, but what she really accomplishes is a simple story of a gentle soul struggling to accommodate to the hearing world.” –Cherie Parker, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“A World War II era love story that, with it’s trove of historical detail and true-to-life characters will enlighten as well as entertain”. This is a book that, with it’s remarkable heroine and attention to history, will help even those of us who are not deaf to hear better.” –Sharon Barrett, The Chicago Sun-Times

Deafening pulls you slowly but surely into its embrace. It doesn’t shock or try to force the page-turning with exaggerated drama; it tells an intimate tale with clarity and sensitivity. The complexities are found in the themes and characters, not in the narrative, which is understated and direct. . . . Itani is able to convey . . . subtleties because she understands the infinite richness of human expression, making use of that vast vocabulary where silence speaks as loud as words.” –Jessica Slater, The Rocky Mountain News

“A story of careful, measured emotion. . . . There are passages here so beautiful that we can’t help straining to hear more. . . . Showing Grania pull herself into the world of language so deliberately and with such extraordinary concentration, Itani revisits words with an arresting power most of us have forgotten. But she wields that power with quiet, remarkable effect.” –Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor

“Rich in every way. [Deafening’s] scope transcends the lives of the characters while bearing witness to the intimate details of their struggles to grasp meaning and share stories. ” Deafening is a classically shaped exploration of love and war and the possibilities of language. It is a story for all time.” –Joanna Rose, The Portland Oregonian

“Sincere. Sweet. Unironic. These are not words we often associate with successful, innovative, contemporary fiction. Canadian author Frances Itani’s Deafening though, is fresh and yet surprisingly devoid of the irony, darkness, moodiness or sarcasm that marks so many modern novels. . . . In a way, the book naturalizes deafness: after reading it, deafness no longer looms like a black hole, a lonely state of numbness; instead, it presents itself as just a different kind of language.” –Rachel Aviv, The Providence Journal

“Itani powerfully describes the power of sound, feeling and communication in all its forms.” –The Salt Lake City Tribune

“Itani’s lean, absorbing prose recreates the different kinds of cocoons enfolding her characters. . . . This mesmerizing and quietly remarkable novel captures a young couple bound by a private language of fingers on lips and thoughts unvoiced and unutterable across the rift of the sea.” –Marion Lignana Rosenberg, Time Out

“An astonishing, insightful, compelling story. . . . [Deafening] has mesmerized the publishing world, with its duel themes of deafness and war, of isolation. . . . Deafening is a gift for its sheer ineluctable power of perception into the interior life (of deaf and hearing alike). . . . Deafening so beautifully conceived and executed, leaves such an august message.” –Hannah Merker, The Maine Sunday Telegram

“In this profoundly sensitive and convincing portrayal of the world of the deaf, Itani explores the sustaining power of love between generations, between siblings, between friends and between partners in marriage. Deafening encourages us to see further and more deeply into an experience of which few of us have any knowledge. Itani makes us look at a different canvas. We touch the silence and celebrate, anew, the gift of language.” –Commonwealth Writers Prize

“This is a magnificent tale, in both breadth and depth, with its battlefield-eye view of the Great War, and its inside-the-head view of a deaf person. At the very least, it is a moving story of love and war; but it is much more than that, and deserves to be read.” –Philippa Logan, The Oxford Times

“Itani’s ultimately uplifting first novel reflects extensive research on the deaf and frontline medical personnel during the first World War.” –Carol Kellerman, KLIATT

“Without flinching from wither tenderness or unspeakable horrors, Itani achieves the remarkable feat of placing us intimately into experiences that are almost impossible for most of us to imagine–living without hearing and being amid the killing fields of World War I. . . . Deafening immediately immerses us in early 20th century life from the viewpoint of an exceptionally perceptive, ‘differently-abled” child. Itani has done an equally admirable job of researching and recreating the unthinkable tragedy of war from the eyes of a sensitive yet resilient young man. . . . It is an absorbing tale that explores the ways human tolerance is stretched beyond what seems bearable, and what might be found for those who make it to the other side.” –Gussie Fauntleroy, Santa Fe New Mexican

“Grania is a strong protagonist in a book that is written in clear, assertive prose. . . . Itani’s writing, which is descriptive without being turgid. . . paints a picture of a world where pictures are the primary form of communication.” –Mark Sommerhauser, The Fulton Sun

“The realms of sound and silence come together with powerful results in Deafening.” –Georgia Rowe, The Contra Costa Times

“[When] World War I erupts . . . Deafening’s theme of loss depends; Grania’s loss of hearing takes on new meaning as we see her friends and neighbors experience their own losses during the war. Itani’s beautifully constructed relationships fill these losses with poignancy, leading to some of the books finest moments.” –Scott Esposito, RainTaxi

Deafening is a true joy, a moving and observant story of love, sorrow, and survial during the days of World War I. . . . Deafening is clearly a labor of love. . . . [Itani’s] a perceptive, sensitive prose stylist who’s gone the extra mile and more to really live in her characters’ skin and breathe the air of their time. That care comes through on every page.” –The Rake

“It is the first time I have read a book on deaf people so well-written.” –John Sarva, SIGN MattersBritish Deaf Association

“The literary equivalent of a cool autumn breeze. War and peace, language and silence, and separation and attachment are among the themes embraced in [Deafening].” –Allison Block, BookPage

“An impressively daring first novel. . . . Itani never loses control of her tricky material: the result is an artistic triumph.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“War and deafness are the twin themes of this psychologically rich, impeccably crafted debut novel set during WWI. . . . A timely reminder of war’s cost, told from an unexpected perspective.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Less a love story than an inventive fusion of a deaf woman’s narrative and a soldier’s tale, Itani’s American debut unfolds with slow, deliberate eloquence and brilliantly described sights and sounds. . . . Her original treatment of classic wartime romance will make Itani’s readers want more.” –Brendan Driscoll, Booklist

“A phenomenally successful novel”. Deafening is a deceptively simple story of love and war set in Canada at the turn of the 20th century. But it has an unusual twist that will hook readers: a fully realized and delightful deaf protagonist.” –Beverly Biderman, The Toronto Globe and Mail (Canada)

“Tells a hauntingly familiar story in a rather astounding new way. . . . Itani’s theme throughout this quietly lovely novel is the complexity of sound and silence and how they can be both blessing and curse to the humans who experience them. . . . Deafening is a . . . graceful read, richly textured, keenly felt and witnessed, and at times almost unbearably moving.” –Bronwyn Drainie, Quill and Quirk

Deafening is a remarkable and absorbing first novel. Itani’s writing is clear-headed and sure-handed; her strong characters will not leave you.” –Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain

Deafening has a very particular grace and eloquence, and the spareness of the writing beautifully complements the power of the emotions which Frances Itani describes.” –Helen Dunmore, author of The Siege

“Brilliantly lucid and masterfully sustained . . . Deafening has the integrity of an achieved artistic vision, the kind of power that is generally associated with the gracious, crystalline prose of Grace Paley, the flagrantly good, good lines of Robert Lowell and W. H. Auden’s poetry.” –Kaye Gibbons

“This exceptional novel moves from the silence of the deaf to the cacophony of “the front” during World War 1. In between are the hopes and dreams which define our humanity. There are scenes in Deafening which will never be forgotten. From the haunting effects of a childhood disease to the random horrors of war, the uncertainties that become our certainties have seldom been so well explored. A remarkable accomplishment.” –Alistair MacLeod, author of No Great Mischief, Winner of the IMPAC Dublin Award 2001

Deafening is a tribute to Frances Itani’s storytelling skills, an affecting and evocative look at those who inhabited a soundless world during the early years of the last century. Grania, a deaf girl growing up in a small Ontario town, is a truly memorable character and the story of her love for her young soldier husband is brilliantly recounted.” –Richard B. Wright, author of Clara Callan

“Deafening is a beautiful book. The juxtaposition of Grania O’Neill’s silent world with the unceasing thunder of the siege guns at the Somme was striking, and Itani makes the pathos of those waiting for news on the home front as dramatic as the events in the muddy trenches of Flanders.” –Marian Nielsen, Orinda Books, Orinda, CA, Book Sense quote

Deafening presents a unique dual adventure, delving simultaneously into the world of deafness and the horrible carnage (and explosive din) of trench warfare.” –Anita Lahey, Quill & Quire

“One of the big books of the fall. . . . [Itani is] on the brink of a major literary success with Deafening, whose heroine Grania was inspired by her beloved hearing-impaired grandmother.” –Judy Stoffman, The Toronto Star (Canada)

“Masterly.” –The Guardian (UK)

“Some books just demand the adjective “wonderful.” This is one of them.” –The Times (London)

Praise for the previous work of Frances Itani:

“Itani is unquestionably a prodigious talent. . . . [Her] voice is pitch perfect . . . the grace of her prose is admirable . . . the subtlety of [her] writing is nothing short of remarkable.” –The Toronto Star

“As beautiful and textured as fine tapestry . . . Itani’s writing is consistently muscular, her characters charming and defined, and her decision to celebrate life and its joys against the sorrows fate brings shines with honesty and daring.” –Books in Canada

Awards

Shortlisted for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize
A Book Sense 76 Selection
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution “Best Choices for Gift Giving”
A Maclean’s Magazine Best Seller
Winner of the Drummer General’s Award
Winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book in the Caribbean and Canadian Region
Shortlisted for the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Author of the Year and Fiction Book of the Year

Excerpt

“Go to my room.” Mamo is pointing to the floor above. “Bring the package on my bureau.”

Grania watches her grandmother’s lips. She understands, pushes aside the heavy tapestry curtain that keeps the draught from blowing up the stairs, and runs up to the landing. She pauses long enough to glance through the only window in the house that is shaped like a porthole, even though it’s at the back of the house and looks over land, not water. She peers down into the backyard, sees the leaning fence, the paddock and, over to the right, the drive sheds behind Father’s hotel. Far to the left, over the top of the houses on Mill Street, she can see a rectangle of field that stretches in the opposite direction, towards the western edge of town. A forked tree casts a long double shadow that has begun its corner-to-corner afternoon slide across the field. Remembering her errand, Grania pulls back, runs to Mamo’s room, finds the package tied up in a square of blue cloth and carries it, wrapped, to the parlour. Mamo pulls a low chair over beside her rocker. Her rocker moves with her, out to the veranda, back to the parlour, out to the veranda again.

“Sit here,” her lips say.

Grania watches. Her fingers have already probed the package on the way down the stairs, and she knows it is a book. At a nod from Mamo she unties the knot and folds back the cloth. The first thing she sees on the cover is a word, a word picture. The word is made of yellow rope and twines its way across the deck of a ship where a bearded captain steers and a barefoot boy sits on a rough bench beside him. The boy is reading a book that is identical to the one in Grania’s hands–it has the same cover. The sea and sky and sails in the background are soft blues and creams and browns.

Grania knows the rope letters because, after the scarlet fever, she relearned the alphabet with Mamo. The yellow letters curve and twist in a six-letter shape.

“Sunday,” Mamo says. “The title of the book is Sunday, but you may keep the book in your room and look at it any time you want. Every day, we will choose a page and you will learn the words under the picture. Yes?” Eyebrows up. A question.

The book is for her. This she understands. Yes. Her fingers roam the cover but she has to be still or she will give Mamo the fidgets.

“There are many words in the book,” Mamo says. ‘so many words.” She taps her fingertips against the cover. ‘some day, you will know them all.” She mutters to herself, “If you can say a word, you can use it,” not knowing how much Grania has understood. “We will do this, word by word–until your parents make up their minds to do something about your schooling. You’ve already lost one year, and a valuable part of another.”

Mamo’s finger points at the book and her eyes give the go-ahead flicker. Grania opens the stiff cover and turns the blank sheet that follows. The word Sunday is on the inside, too, but this time its letters are dark and made of twigs instead of yellow rope. The page that follows the twigs is in colour.

A brown-and-white calf has stopped on a grassy path and is staring at a girl. The girl is approaching from the opposite direction. She seems to be the same size and age as Grania; she might be seven or eight. Only the back of her can be seen–blue dress, black stockings, black shoes. Her hat, daisies tumbling from the crown, droops from one hand. A doll wearing a red dress dangles limply from the other. The doll’s hair is as red as Grania’s. No one in the picture is moving. The calf looks too startled to lift a hoof.

Grania points to two words beneath the picture and looks at Mamo’s mouth.

“‘BOTH AFRAID,’” Mamo reads.

The first sound erupts from Grania’s lips. “BO,” she says. “BO.”

Mamo makes the TH shape with her tongue. “BO-TH.”

Grania tries over and over, watching Mamo’s lips. TH is not so easy. She already knows AFRAID. Afraid is what she is every night in the dark.

“Practise,” Mamo tells her. She lifts herself out of the rocker, leaving behind the scent of Canada Bouquet, the perfume she chose because of its name and because she chose this country and because of the stench of the ship she left behind many years ago, and because Mr. Eaton sends the perfume from his mail-order catalogue in tiny bottles that cost forty-one cents. The air flutters like a rag as she walks away.

Grania breathes deeply, inhaling the scent. She sniffs the closed book and squeezes it to her as if it might get away. Both and afraid roll together, thick and half-new on her tongue. She runs upstairs to the room she shares with her older sister. Tress is stretched out reading her own book, The Faeries. Sometimes, Mamo and Tress read aloud to each other, after Tress walks home from school. Grania watches their lips, but she doesn’t know the stories.

“Say,” Grania says to Tress. She points to the words beneath the picture. ‘say in my ear.”

Tress’s glance takes in the new book. She knows it is a gift from Mamo. “What’s the use?” she says. “You won’t hear.” She shakes her head, No.

“Shout,” says Grania.

“You still won’t hear.”

“Shout in my ear.” She narrows her voice so that Tress will understand that she is not going to go away. She turns her head to the side and feels Tress’s cupped hands and two explosive puffs of air.

Tress listens as Grania practises, “BOTHAFRAID BOTHAFRAID BOTHAFRAID.”

“Pretty good,” her mouth says. She shrugs and goes back to The Faeries.

Copyright ©2003 by Frances Itani. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Reading Group Guide

ABOUT THE BOOK:

Deafening is a tale of remarkable virtuosity and power, set on the eve of the Great War and spanning two continents and the life and loves of a young deaf woman in Canada named Grania o’Neill.

At the age of five, Grania–the daughter of hardworking hoteliers in small-town Ontario–emerges from a bout of scarlet fever profoundly deaf and is suddenly sealed off from the world that was just beginning to open for her. Her guilt-plagued mother cannot accept her daughter’s deafness, so Grania’s saving grace is Mamo, her indefatigable grandmother who tries to teach her language. But when it becomes clear that Grania can no longer thrive in the world of the hearing, her family sends her to live at the Ontario School for the Deaf, where, protected from the often-unforgiving hearing world outside, she learns sign language and speech.

After graduation Grania stays on to work at the school, and it is there that she meets Jim Lloyd, a hearing man.

In wonderment the two begin to create a new emotional vocabulary that encompasses both sound and silence. But two weeks after their wedding, Jim must leave home to serve as a stretcher-bearer on the blood-soaked battlefields of Flanders. During this long and brutal war of attrition, Jim’s and Grania’s letters back and forth–both real and imagined–attempt to sustain the intimacy they discovered in Canada, even while they are both pulled into disturbing and devastating events.

A magnificent tale of love and war, Deafening is also an ode to language–how it can console, imprison, and liberate, and how it alone can bridge vast chasms of geography and experience.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:

1. How well does Itani’s novel convey the world of the deaf, specifically that of Grania? Are we persuaded that we are inside Grania’s silent world?

2. In drawing a character who is profoundly deaf, an author might be tempted to overstate her virtues and triumphs. Is this so in Deafening? How is Grania depicted realistically? Do you find her subject to anger, resentment, and brooding? In other words, isn’t she human? We learn about Grania’s deafness primarily from the narrator, with Grania herself as a prism. But we also learn about it from other sources. What are they? Does Grania’s deafness serve as a litmus test for other characters’ humanity?

3. What makes Deafening a work of consequence? Certainly it teaches us about both the limitations of deafness and the possibilities open to a person of inner strength and determination. What are other concerns of the novel? Is it clear that enormous research has informed the book? Do you find that references to public events like the sinking of the Lusitania or Alexander Graham Bell’s research into deafness connect the story to a larger context?

4. Are there advantages to deafness? Consider the pleasure of a fireworks display without the racket: “a display of Roman candles, fire balloons and skyrockets, pin-wheels and fountain wheels. The night exploded silently before their eyes while, tired and excited, they leaned into each other’s warmth, their skirts tucked beneath them as they sat on the grass of the school lawns that were lighted all around with electric lights hidden inside Japanese lanterns. All of this, she tries to convey to Tress’ (p. 96).

5. Are there times when you have experienced a remarkable quiet? Think of a deep snowstorm in the city when the noise is absent. Do you sympathize with people who buy earphones, not for music but to block sound? Is there a special pleasure about silent movies? Even though we have elaborate technology for sound, isn’t it often abused? Would a film like Winged Migration be more effective without its sound track?

‘she stood at her bedroom window and peered out. In all of the winter whiteness, perhaps silence was everywhere. She would ask Mamo. Beneath the window she saw undisturbed snow in the street, and a glistening over the new layer of ice. When snow covered the earth, did it also absorb sound? She felt safe during snowstorms, although this was something she could not have explained. Perhaps hearing and deaf people were joined in the same way for a brief time in a silent world” (pp. 282–283). Is Grania’s speculative turn of mind a major component of her learning language?

5. From the time Grania insists on earless paper dolls, she asserts her will as well as the reality of her deafness. (In contrast one thinks of the black child in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye who despaired because she didn’t look like her blond doll.) Grania dreams with decision: her earless girl will go to the C-shore and play safely in the waves (p. 47). Can you think of other times when Grania uses her deafness for her own purposes? With the odious Cora, for example?

An ironic footnote is that later in her life when Grania and others are living “inside a feeling of terrible necessity” (endless war, loss, crumbling business because of temperance) Grania “pressed her hands to her ears as if, by doing so, she would silence the flow of her own thoughts’ (p. 265).

6. How can we trace Grania’s learning process? We know she retains a few random shreds from actual pre-deaf experience, and she has a phenomenal memory. How does she accumulate the information and skills she needs to become a fully functioning person? What is the role of Tress? Of Mamo (“. . . the gift of pictures and words, learned and remembered and stored” –p. 44)? Other characters who contribute to her growth? How do Itani’s images help us enter Grania’s thinking? C-shore. ‘she says “C” and ‘shore” over and over again. She twists the word into yellow rope and stores it in her memory” (p. 45).

7. Do you see an identifiable moral sense in Deafening? If so, what would it be? What behavior is condemned, what is extolled, and what merely condoned or tolerated? What do Cora (who seems to resent Grania’s very existence) and her daughter, Jewel, represent? You recall it is Jewel who pins the white feather on Bernard. When we enter the world of the war, the moral senses are both sharpened and made ambiguous. One moment that is clear is the sinking of the Lusitania: “The drowning of those women and babies was a cowardly act. A brutal act by cowardly men” (p. 107). How is history made vivid and relevant? For Grania it is “150 dead babies floating in the sea off the coast of Ireland” (p. 117).

8. What are we to make of Grania’s mother? She prays for miracles, makes pilgrimages, including to the doctor in America and the shrine in Quebec, hoping to cure her daughter’s deafness, to no avail. Guilt assails her. Why? Even when Grania wants to share sign language, her mother resists. “I have too much work to do’ (p. 98). Is the work a pretext? What is the result in their relationship? Grania “felt the hard wall that was Mother’s will, Mother’s intent. Three years after she finished school . . . she could still feel Mother’s will” (p. 124). Is there ever a time that things change for them? Consider Mother’s startling act when Kenan is injured (p. 268).

When Jim enters Grania’s life, how does Mother respond? Remember “No announcements’? In clinging to her guilt and prayers, is Mother dismissing Grania? Does her intransigence further distance her husband? Would it shake Mother’s reality to think Grania might be not only independent but also perhaps happy?

9. The love story: Are there times when the necessity for a private language turns into a delight? “They had begun to create a language of their own. It arose as naturally as the love between them, an invented code no one would ever break” (pp. 131–132). Is it partly their challenges that keep them from taking their love for granted? “He brushed a fingertip over his lips and signalled across the room. . . . Grania’s cheeks reddened furiously when he made this public-private display. . . . He had never known a language that so thoroughly encompassed love. She had never felt so safe” (p. 132). When are other times that the special language links between Jim and Grania become almost enviable?

10. How do Grania and Jim survive their years-long separation and the fear that attends it? As he leaves for war, “he took her hand and held it firmly inside his own and she felt only the pressure of his skin on hers. Don’t let go. The war is close. The war is closing in. Against her will, a part of her was shutting down. It was happening to him, too. He is leaving before it’s time to go. And though she hated what was happening to both of them, she knew that in the same way he was pulling away, she was pulling back, searching for the safe place inside herself. If she could find it, she would stay there until he returned” (p. 149).

Do we regard this pragmatism as somehow counterromantic? Could it be that part of their strength as a couple is based on their strong sense of survival as individuals? These are not immature young people, either one. Jim has been orphaned, twice really, counting his grandparents.

11. If deafness in the novel becomes a world of possibility, a triumph of human ingenuity, then can war be seen as a thematic opposite? At first the war is seen by leaders and soldiers alike as a theater for grand achievements: patriotism, courage, adventure, manhood, and brotherhood. What happens to these dreams of glory on both the large scale and the personal? What do you think is Itani’s purpose in writing the war scenes? It was Irish who said, “These are the sights the mind gorges on in horror forever, Jimmy” (p. 230).

The destruction is made vivid in this scene: “It was one of the horrors of the war–the terrible waste of living creatures. Thousands upon thousands of horses and mules were buried and unburied across the scarred landscape in these corners of Belgium and France” (p. 231). And then the human toll.

One scene in particular is memorable, powerful in its understatement, when Jim meets his German double, also assigned to help the injured. What does Jim take away from the encounter? In this case it is a German who gives first aid to a wounded Canadian and helps load him onto a stretcher. No words are exchanged. Jim tries to hate his enemy “but there was only coldness, no other feeling. Coldness, and the hatred of war” (p. 233). Do we deduce that the young German, same age as Jim, same filthy uniform, feels the same?

12. Jim’s need to communicate with Grania is so strong that he writes letters in his head he will never be able to send: “. . . the fear in the eyes of the horses. . . . My own jostling comrades, as tightly packed as the horses. . . . The stench of being close together . . . The feeling of stagnation. We are ready to go but we are squashed onto a cattle boat that keeps us in England and brings us no closer to the shores of France. A monoplane appears out of nowhere. The buzz in the sky hovers overhead like a portent. It is a wonderful machine to see. I try to imagine the thrill of freedom a man unknown to me must feel up there, sailing through the sky, looking down on us, a luckless clump of men trapped within the confines of an old cattle boat” (p. 166).

The perils of war, the fears, courage, brutality, brotherhood, and waste of war are perhaps universal from Troy to the Somme to Vietnam. How does Itani create simultaneously a specific time, World War I, and the timelessness of all wars?

13. War takes center stage for much of the novel. But the issues at the front and those at home often echo one another. Think of isolation, fear, friendship, and the need for communication. How does Itani create a counterpoint between home and “over there”?

14. How would you compare or contrast Deafening with other war books you have read. Think of some titles. Did those works glorify or at least justify war? Do any of them seem like out-and-out antiwar books? How would you characterize Itani’s novel?

15. How would you describe Itani’s narrative method? How does she structure the novel? Would you say the device of interweaving memories and the Sunday book throughout is a fair evocation of Grania’s thinking process? Of anyone’s?

16. It stands to reason that some things will always be difficult for Grania. What are some of these inevitables? “As always, in a group, words jumped the circle quickly and could not be read. When Mamo and Tress were with her, Grania was included. She had only to cast a sideways glance at either to follow their familiar lips–lips that formed words without creating so much as a whisper, lips that supplied silent commentary as they had been doing since she was five years old. Keeping her inside the circle of information” (p. 244). Do you sense that she will always need dependable allies to help her navigate?

We recall the poignancy of her instinct that “for her, alone is best” and yet her need to reach out to children in the hearing school. She succumbs to the hope of playing their game unaware that she is the game, the butt. She watches and tries to capture their words, but fails. “Whatever it is bounces from one child to another, erupting the way mayflies erupt on the surface of the water, quick, impossible to catch. . . . The children keep it in front, overhead, behind, to the side. But behind does not exist. Not for her. Behind is the darkness outside of thought. It’s the place where sound gathers, sound that she is not meant to hear” (p. 57). Do you find language like this, imagery close to poetry, effective in capturing Grania’s world?

17. Memory translates into smell for Grania often. As she leaves school in June, “Grania sniffs carbolic when she thinks of the trunk; her own and everyone else’s will be fumigated, clothes and all, when they return in the fall” (p. 93). What other smells are particularly important for her? Think of Mamo and her scent, one that comforts Grania after her grandmother’s death. In a parallel way, how is Grania’s understanding of the world heightened in a visual way?

18. Are secrets important in the book? Think of Tress, Aunt Maggie, Mrs. Brant, Mamo, Kenan, Grew, and Father. In this book discuss how secrets are used for connection or exclusion or simply to maintain privacy.

19. Someone has sprung the question: “Can the deaf think?” Why not ask a few more: “Can the deaf eat?” “Can the deaf sleep?” “Can the deaf breathe?” It strikes us that the fool-killer misses a good many possible swats with his club. The Canadian (p. 362).

The absurdity of the passage is blatant to us after reading Deafening. Are there other ‘differences’ that distance us from people until we get to know them? What are some of these? Ethnic, religious, sexual, social, racial? We think of Shakespeare’s Shylock saying, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands . . . affections, passions? . . . If you prick us, do we not bleed?” (Merchant of Venice). In your experience can you remember getting over a moment of similar ignorance? Do you believe that literature can help us in this regard?

20. Do you identify with Grania in some ways? Isn’t the worldview of any person necessarily limited, cobbled together from bits and pieces learned and observed? Relating ideas, thinking, may be as instinctive as the senses, but the raw data to some degree remains random and partial. Do you agree? Discuss examples in your own life or those of others.

21. How does Canada assume importance in Deafening? How does Itani establish a sense of place? Is it a frontier, a place of fresh starts, of self-creation? Is it hard for Americans to comprehend “We are coming, Mother Britain, / we are coming to your aid. / There’s a debt we owe our fathers, / and we mean to see it paid” (poem in The Canadian, p. 128).

Are there ambiguous feelings about the war in Grania’s community? At one point, Grania, observing the piano player for a recruitment concert, wonders “with his son in France, what Grew thought of tonight’s show of patriotism” (p. 144). On the other hand, “the thrill of being part of this moment could not be denied. Jim and all of these men were leaving to serve their country” (p. 149). Do you see analogies in recent days in America, conflicting ideas about patriotism?

It is just as pleasant and grand a thing to die for Canada and the British Empire today as it was for Rome in the brave days of old. The Canadian (p. 262).

“Was she the only one who was angry?” wonders Grania. It is worth recalling Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori . . . ” from 1920. Does Itani create the same tone of bitter irony?

22. In the novel music assumes definite importance. What are some examples? Think of Mamo and Grania, and Grania sitting on the step singing to Carlow. For Jim music is bred in the bone; he plays the piano, the harmonica, and he sings. How does music begin to make sense to Grania? “Grania believed that music and song were everywhere. Not only in clouds but in flights of birds, in oak leaves that brushed the dorm window, in the children’s legs as they raced across the lawns. “It’s silly, isn’t it,” she signed. ‘my memory of sound is gone for all those years–fourteen years–but I feel as if my brain remembers music” (p. 123). Does music, paradoxically, become a bond for Grania and Jim? How do they make this bond?

23. Sound and silence knit the disparate elements of the book together. Can you think of examples? Some of the severely wounded stop speaking: Kenan, for example. Others become deaf without evident cause. Jim, as a musician, has a keen sensitivity to sound, and the relentless clamor of war makes it a circle of Dante’s hell for him. Sound bombards them, terrifies them, blocks out thought. When it’s not the bombs and guns, it is the screams of pain and constant complaining. Do you find that Itani is as effective in describing the horrors of war noise as she is the silent world of the deaf? ‘sound was always more important to the hearing,” said Grania (p. 136). How does Grania later communicate to Jim the joys of Armistice (p. 352)? Do you find it ironic that it is the hearing administrators who dictate the Canadian‘s description? Is it Grania’s love for Jim, her understanding of his sensitivity to sound and music that lead her to share details denied to her?

What does it mean when Grania opens the floodgates of memory to Kenan, her sharp observations of their shared childhood? What is the significance for Grania? For Kenan? He, too, can finally break through with war memories. “It was so dark. So much noise. There was no silence in that place. The boys went mad from the sound. Some tried to dig their own graves’ (p. 305).

24. How is teaching a major force in the novel? Consider the teaching that works and that which doesn’t, such as Grania’s first experience in hearing school where the teacher turns her head away or otherwise ignores her. When does Grania show her remarkable talents for teaching? How does the teaching work both ways with Tress, Mamo, and Jim? Mamo at one point puts down the Sunday book, that breakthrough miracle book for Grania. “Grania begins to teach Mamo the hand alphabet–which the old arthritic hands delight in learning. M-a-m-o, Grania spells, and she creates a name-sign, tapping a three-fingered ‘m” against her cheek” (p. 97). Think about the extraordinary bonds that are created between students and teachers when it really works. After reading Deafening, what do you think are the relative merits of signing versus “oral method”? Do you think either should be used to the exclusion of the other? We recall Fry’s saying, “As long as we permit hearing teachers to disapprove of our language, we will always be made to feel ashamed” (p. 364). Do you find a persuasive picture of some of these issues in the play or film Children of a Lesser God?

25. How does illness figure as a major motif? Consider Grania’s two serious diseases, as well as the results of the epidemic of influenza. As we read daily of SARS, AIDS, and other new infectious diseases, do we feel we have made progress since 1918? As debates rage about civil liberties versus draconian measures to protect against a Typhoid Mary threat, what are your thoughts?

26. How is Mamo crucial in giving Grania a strong sense of herself? As Mamo relates Grania’s own history, she underscores the momentous day of her birth. What happened on that day in Deseronto? ‘mamo falls silent and contemplates the miracle of new life in the midst of destruction” (p. 33). Indeed it is Mamo who serves as midwife to help deliver her granddaughter, a lifelong sustaining connection between them. In what other ways does Mamo provide lifelines for Grania?

27. Frances Itani sees this novel as being about love and hope–despite loss and sickness, war and devastation. She has worked thematically with “emptiness as source.” Do you think she has achieved this, even partially? Discuss.

SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING:

The Miracle Worker by William Gibson; Wired for Sound by Beverly Biderman; Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks; A Loss for Words by Lou Ann Walker; The First Man by Albert Camus; Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language by Nora Ellen Groce; Good-bye to All That by Robert Graves; Ghosts Have Warm Hands by Will R. Bird; Influenza 1918 by Lynette Iezzoni; The Roses of No Man’s Land by Lyn MacDonald; The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery, Vol. II: 1910–1921. Ed. by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston; Letters of Agar Adamson, 1914–1919, Ed. by N. M. Christie; The Great War as I Saw It by Canon Frederick G. Scott; Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker; Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks; Selected Poems by Siegfried Sassoon; The Mask of Benevolence by Harlan Lane; The Wars by Timothy Findley

 

Author Q&A

Q: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?

A: Unlike some writers, who start the lifelong apprenticeship during their middle childhood, I did not begin to write until I was 19 or 20 – and even then, not yet seriously. I always loved to read, however, and my parents read to me and my four siblings throughout our early childhood. There was no library in the small village where I was raised in Quebec, and I always felt that there were simply not enough books! I couldn’t wait to get back to school every September, just so that I could get to the books. Until I was in grade five I attended three one-room schools, but there were no libraries there, either. The reading material often amounted to texts plus a dozen books on a shelf above a water cooler at the back of the room.

I was encouraged by several professors during my university years to “do something with this writing” but I did not actually make the commitment until I met W.O. Mitchell at the University of Alberta in 1972. He encouraged me with the kind of enthusiasm that only W.O. could muster, and the timing must have been right because I began to believe in the possibility of becoming a writer. I was 29 when I began to venture into poetry and fiction. I had already practised and taught Nursing for 8 years and had worked in 5 Canadian provinces and in 3 countries. I had one child and would have another when I was 30. During those early writing years, the acts of child-rearing and writing became so entangled, they are now hopelessly enmeshed in my memory. It would be impossible to untangle the writing, the studying at night while I completed two Arts degrees, and the raising of two babies.

Q: Deafening represents an extraordinary amount of historical research and background reading and yet there is a cohesiveness to the novel, and the characters move effortlessly through your narrative. Can you talk a bit about what it is like as a writer to create such a story and how you were able to make the emotional lives of your characters shine through?

A: I confess that at the beginning, I had no idea where I would take the story I was trying to create. I knew that the novel would encompass thematic contrasts of sound and silence, love and war, survival and loss. I knew that I would be writing about a deaf woman. But when I started to do World War One research, I had to trust my instincts that two separate and very disparate paths would somehow intersect. I began to imagine and visualize various scenarios of sound during possible war scenes while, at the same time, I was reading archival material at the former Ontario School for the Deaf and probing possible ideas about Grania’s world of silence.

Perhaps simultaneously, I was imagining what kind of people Grania and Jim might be and what shape their love might take. As I began to piece their outer world together from my overwhelmingly extensive research (including a visit to World War One battlefields on the Western Front), I was also permitting their inner selves to move around my imaginative landscape. I knew, from the beginning, that Mamo would be a strong and important influence on Grania’s life. Also, that Grania would have a sister with whom she would have a close and complex relationship. I became interested in the way strengths and dependencies shift back and forth between sisters, as well as between other family members. I knew that Grania would have to have strengths of her own if she were to be interesting at all. And I wanted Jim to sing. To have an ability that would be outside of Grania’s sensory realm.

Creation of character happens at so many levels, it would be impossible to be definite about how all of the musings, thoughts, dreams, ideas while I’m out walking, etc., come together to make up credible fictional people. Also, I sometimes use an overheard detail or an observation from an interview or from my own memory to shape the main trait or action of a character. Of course, I was dealing with an entire family and had to work out the multiple relationships within that intimate group. I also had to create and invent the characters of young men who were going off to the Front and who would soon experience the terrible horror that was World War One. I listened closely when I interviewed veterans and experts in the field. I gathered up some of their stories; I paid attention to detail, and I read and I read.

Because I create fiction in an entirely organic way, I allowed the material to begin to lead me. As it grew out of itself, I followed. It is the only way I can write. I never start a story or a book with an overall plan.

Q: What writers do you read and is there any writer who has greatly influenced your work?

A: I would say that the biggest influence as far as craft goes is Chekhov – his attention to detail and his ability to use the suggestion of brush stroke to create an entire picture. For story-telling, it would be Heinrich Böll. For sheer beauty of prose and imagination, Virginia Woolf. I loved reading her letters and journals, and those many volumes helped me enormously during the first decade I began to write. Also, the early stories of Audrey Thomas helped me to believe that I could write about my own world. Paulette Jiles has a wonderful and unique imagination. Her poetry stops me in my tracks, every time I read it, because it always takes me by surprise. Lorna Crozier’s poetry is astonishingly concrete and moving. The poetry of Michael Ondaatje and Seamus Heaney carry me through times when I can’t read fiction while I am writing fiction. I love the stories of William Trevor. His novel, Fools of Fortune, is an engaging work of perfection. I like to read fiction that allows the reader to move in emotionally – fiction that does not rob me, as a reader, of my right to enter the story and “feel” what the characters are feeling. I learned an important lesson from W.O. Mitchell – when to “exercise restraint.” He also taught me the importance of using concrete, sensory detail to tell my stories. I experimented, early in my writing career, with building story from that which is concrete so as to allow the reader to move in to abstract.

Of course, as part of my research, I had to read extensively to prop up my World War One background. During the past six years I read many volumes of history, letters, biography, journal and memoir. I read about sound – John Cage, R. Murray Schafer. For research about the Deaf Community, I read as many books as I could find that were written by Deaf people. I accumulated an extensive library in both fields of research.

Writers I’ve read and re-read within the past two or three years whose work I like very much are: Kate Grenville, Helen Dunmore, the plays of Arthur Miller and Don Hannah, Richard B. Wright, Alistair MacLeod, David Guterson, Charles Frazier, Gabriella Goliger, Robert Graves, Sharon Butala, Rudy Wiebe, Sheri Holman, Bonnie Burnard. There are more, of course, but these are writers whose work I’ve recently read.

Q: In Leaning, Leaning Over Water and in Deafening, you admit to drawing on your family experience for imaginative inspiration. Why are you attracted to such experience as a basis for fiction?

A: I am blessed to be part of a large extended family – particularly the family of my late deaf grandmother. She had eleven hearing children – nine of whom are alive – and each of these had children and grandchildren. When there are more than a hundred people in your background when you are a small child, of course you are going to absorb the many facets of human experience that surround you.

But I don’t write about my own family!

What really interests me is voice and setting. The more human experiences and relationships you have and know, the more possibilities you have to draw upon when you are writing. In Leaning, Leaning Over Water I wanted the Ottawa River as setting because I grew up beside that river during the 50s and wanted to write at least one book in which “River” was “Character.” I knew my territory intimately and from there it was nothing but enjoyable to create characters in that setting. I also knew what it was like to be a child growing up in the 50s. I knew the language, the sights and sounds, the sensory detail. The characters were invented.

For Deafening, I remembered driving my grandmother, my mother and one of my aunts to Deseronto during the 1980s to have a look at the old hotel where my grandmother had lived as a child. I shall never forget the picture of her getting out of the car, walking around the hotel, looking up at the old place that was practically in ruins. She was disturbed and upset, because it had been a grand hotel during her childhood. Some of the windows were boarded up, but she took me up the front steps of the hotel and we peered through a window, which she explained had been the dining room. She pointed to one corner and told me that her family had had their own private table there, where they ate all of their meals.

There is something indelible about such experiences: you know, as a writer, that you are storing them away for some future use.

But my grandmother never spoke about her childhood in the former Ontario School for the Deaf in Belleville, Ontario, where she had been a residential student for seven years, 1908-1915. That is one of the reasons Deafening is not a non-fiction book about the life of my grandmother. I had to invent an entirely original character, provide her with a family and an emotional life. All of the detail about the school comes from research and interview. What sustained me, through six years of research and writing, was my love for my grandmother, who died in 1987 at the age of 89. In order to honour her, it became important to me to try to imagine what life for a deaf child might have been, at the turn of the last century.

In actual fact, as a writer, what I probably use most from family is a certain way of understanding language. Language and VOICE. I use and value and know the voices that are and have been around me, all of my life. Particularly the voices of my mother and my aunts and uncles. A certain way of using speech, the expressions of an area, the particularities of a wry kind of humour and a toughness and ability to laugh through sorrows and woes. All of my relatives on my mother’s side use language in an exaggerated way because of my late grandmother’s deafness. She was an expert lip reader and, of necessity and to include her in everything, her eleven children became experts, as well. It is easy to read an entire silent conversation, across a distance, from the lips of any of my aunts and uncles. They can all lip read one another, and do. I grew up watching the people I love motioning and waving their hands, words spilling from their lips, fingers spelling through the air for my grandmother or hands tugging at her sleeves, feet stomping the floor or fists pounding a table to create vibrations – and I was surrounded by much laughter. All of these things made up what was normal for our family – our everyday language. It is interesting to me now that even though my grandmother has died, when her family gets together they still use “grandmother present speech.” I welcome and use everything I can about this sort of language in my work. I love language and voice. It is voice that makes a work authentic – the voice that is an integral part of a writer’s inner self.

The next step is to create characters that will embody this voice – of a time, of a place. I often purposely use physical models or photographs of people I have seen, but whom I don’t know. That way I can fill their heads with my own imagination. That is what a fiction writer does – creates from the imagination. If one were to try to write about real people in fiction, the real selves would invade and dominate and overtake the ultimate purpose – which is to create illusion. As the late W.O. Mitchell told me many times: “Life ain’t Art!”

For the scenes about separation, I know a good deal about this because my own husband has been involved in wars and in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions during most of our marriage. We have often been separated for long periods – sometimes a year at a time. I know exactly what this feels like. I know the stresses placed on a family – on a partner and on young children – when a loved one is working in a war zone, especially when that country’s infrastructure is down and it becomes impossible to stay in touch. No phone calls, no telegrams, no human contact – only news, media, and imagination exist to fill the space. From these experiences, terrible as some of them have been, it is only the next step to “call up” remembered feelings and emotional responses and attribute these to characters who are separated because of the conditions of war. What a waste it would be not to use these experiences, particularly the emotional dimensions, to give my fictional characters depth and the illusion of reality.

Q: Readers of the novel have commented on your remarkable ability to create a believable emotional world for a young deaf girl at the turn of the century. What were the challenges for you as a writer in creating such a world?

A: The biggest challenge was VOICE. I did not know the inner voice of a young woman who had been deaf since early childhood. This did NOT come out of my background. I knew from the beginning that if I was going to create a Deaf character, I would have to get to know people who are Deaf. In 1998, I contacted several associations in Ottawa and began to learn ASL (American Sign Language). I knew that it would be hopeless to try to interview Deaf persons if I did not use their language. I studied ASL for several years and was welcomed into the community of the Ottawa Deaf Centre. I worked as a volunteer there, and I interviewed, studied, watched and listened – while stumbling along with my own rudimentary Sign Language. I had several excellent Deaf teachers. When I felt comfortable enough to cope with the communication barriers, I began to conduct interviews. Many Deaf persons were helpful and generous, obliging and candid; I could not have written the novel without their help. They answered intimate questions about childhood and offered detailed information about their inner lives – true inner lives I could never have imagined. It was in this manner, and by compiling the sensory detail, that I was able to create my character and to work with the inner voice of Grania O’Neill. Once I had her voice, I was able to begin to tell her story.

I also used actual writings from Deaf children (1900-1919), which I found in the bound newspapers of the archives of the former Ontario School for the Deaf in Belleville (now Sir James Whitney School). I saw, as soon as I began to read these old papers (printed in the school print shop starting in the late 1800s), that the children’s voices emerged without any help from me. The Deaf children were, in fact, telling the stories of their time. I used these school newspaper excerpts exactly as I found them, to head most of the chapters of my novel. I could do nothing to improve them. For me, this part of the research – the discovery of the voices of children from almost one hundred years ago – was moving and interesting and exhilarating.