Nick Lake on Deafness and Diversity

Nick Lake on Deafness and Diversity

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So: There Will Be Lies is a twist-filled road trip across Arizona, featuring a girl on the run with her mother, pursued by something or someone that may or may not be a real threat, and featuring a talking coyote who takes the girl into a magical world called the Dreaming where she must defeat a powerful Crone. It makes a lot more sense than that when you read it, hopefully, though it’s hard to describe without giving away that aforementioned huge twist.

But what I want to write about here is:

Shelby Jane Cooper, who narrates There Will Be Lies, is deaf. Actually, she’s mostly deaf: she can hear a little, and this makes her very good at lip reading. She also signs with her mother. I’m a text and typesetting geek – I’m an editor by day as well as a writer by night – and this means I get to play around with the punctuation and styles in the early section of the book: anything Shelby lip reads or signs is rendered in italics instead of quote marks, and if someone speaking turns their face form her, she misses parts of their sentences, loses whole XXXXXXX of what they’re saying, like that.

Shelby, then, is maybe 90% deaf. I, meanwhile, am 50% deaf. Or 100% deaf in my right ear. (Please accept this as a pre-emptive apology if I am ever sitting to your left at a dinner party and fail to laugh at one of your no-doubt hilarious jokes.)

But the strange thing is: it didn’t even occur to me that Shelby and I had this in common until after I had written the book. Because, in fact, her deafness was motivated by something else. And this is where I have to be careful about the book’s big twist, but let’s say…

… Let’s say that there are some people Shelby meets, and I wanted her to be separated from them by a language barrier. I toyed with having her be Mexican and them American, or vice versa. But I felt that would introduce a geopolitical element to the book that, while interesting in another book, wasn’t the focus in this one. Finally, it struck me: she should be most comfortable signing, she should feel self-conscious about using her voice, and the people she meets should be hearing. It fitted the plot needs, and it tied in with life-long fascinations with sound, speech, and hearing (I spent a fun two years on a Masters in Phonetics).

And then I thought, oh yeah, and I’m deaf too. Partly, anyway.

Which, I suppose, is interesting. I really don’t want to get into general pronouncements about diversity in YA, other than: there should, obviously, be lots of diversity in YA. The genre should reflect the whole beautiful panoply of human life, for everyone. But this whole rambling story does lead me to one general thought, which is that I feel (I think?) that diversity should come from the story, organically, not be imposed on it. Story comes first. I didn’t set out to write a story about a deaf girl, I set out to write a story about a girl who finds herself in a situation where she can’t smoothly communicate, and it arose from those constraints that she was deaf – which I then tried to convey with as much truth, empathy and love as I could muster.

But I did become very interested by it too. In the same way that I’m currently very interested in the character of my next book, Whisper to Me, a girl who begins to hear a voice that isn’t there (in a manner she is the inverse of Shelby).

And maybe that’s another generality that my rambling leads me to: diversity, really, is in some ways the same thing as interestingness. That is, a world without it would be unimaginably boring; variety is what gives the world its beauty; but also: it makes for interesting stories. When I heard that some editors suggested the character in Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not might be straight instead, I was hyper-aware of the irony – I mean, it’s a story literally about a boy who feels the need to brainwash himself into not being gay. Changing that would make it… not it. But I also didn’t get it on a more fundamental level: it would make the story less interesting.

I have a hard time imagining how it could not be interesting and mind-expanding and empathy-building and wonderful to read about diverse characters, from every walk of life, and with every kind of experience. So maybe that’s one way to approach diversity? Let’s fight homogeneity. Let’s tell interesting stories. And let’s do it with truth, empathy and love.

I mean. Not to generalize. Or anything.

There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake is available to order online today as a Hardback, Paperback or eBook.