Tag Archive | conference

The Evolution of a Deaf Character

As I mentioned last week, I attended the Linguistic Society of America’s annual meeting at the beginning of January. One of the talks I was particularly looking forward to was the plenary address by Susan Goldin-Meadow, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and a pioneer in the field of gesture studies. Her speech was entitled “From homesign to sign language: Creating language in the manual modality.” The reason I was so interested in this talk is because Susan Goldin-Meadow actually had an indirect influence on Sparkers. In the book, Marah’s younger brother Caleb is deaf. His deafness has been one of the few points of intersection of my writing and my study of linguistics, and it’s certainly the one that has preoccupied me the most.

The summer after my sophomore year of college, I worked for a University of Minnesota professor who was studying the gestures preschoolers make as they talk in the context of make-believe play. My job was to watch videos of preschoolers over and over and transcribe and categorize their gestures. I also began a literature review, which is how I first came across Goldin-Meadow’s work.

Goldin-Meadow has two main research interests: co-speech gesture and homesign. It was the former that was relevant to my summer research, but the latter also piqued my interest. Homesign is “the gestural communication system developed by a deaf child who lacks input from a language model in the family. This is a common experience for deaf children with hearing parents who are isolated from a sign language community” (thank you, Wikipedia). I don’t remember having an “aha!” moment, but that must have been the first time I had the vocabulary to describe how Caleb talked to his mother and sister. He was using homesign, but I had never known to call it that, nor had I thought much about its linguistic or non-linguistic properties.

In her speech in January, Goldin-Meadow demonstrated that homesign is more language-like than gesture (that is, what hearing people use when they talk) but is not full-fledged sign language. Though of course I learned a lot of new things from her talk, the core distinctions between gesture, homesign, and sign language were the ones I remembered from before, the ones which had been shaping how I thought about Caleb and his ways of communicating for years.

Some background information: Caleb is the only deaf member of his family, and he has never interacted with other deaf people. He and his family communicate using a system of signs. In Sparkers, he’s ten years old. Although he doesn’t go to school, he’s very precocious and enjoys reading his fourteen-year-old sister’s school books.

Originally, Caleb was born deaf. In the earliest drafts, I occasionally referred to the way he and Marah communicated as “sign language.” It’s hard to trace the precise evolution of how I conceived of and portrayed Caleb’s deafness, but it seems it wasn’t until the end of 2011 that I changed my mind about Caleb being deaf from birth. In a document in which I was planning revisions, I noted that Caleb’s reading level was implausible for a child who’d been born deaf. I decided he’d lost his hearing as a toddler as a result of meningitis. In this revision document, I also specifically called Caleb’s signs “homesign.”

Early last year, while visiting grad schools, I met several linguistics students and professors who were doing research on sign languages and language acquisition and reading ability in deaf children. This was during a time when I felt like linguistics and writing were pulling me in different directions, so I actually appreciated that these visits were drawing the two together by making me think hard about Caleb. But they also made me wonder just how well or badly I had written this deaf character, who was now an inextricable part of a novel that was about to be sold.

Attending Susan Goldin-Meadow’s plenary address three weeks ago brought all these old wonderings back, as well as sparking some new ones. I’m not finished thinking about Caleb, so I don’t really have an ending to this post, except to say that I’m grateful for the occasional convergence of my linguistics and writing lives.

Musings on Character Naming

At the beginning of January, I attended the Linguistic Society of America’s annual meeting in Minneapolis. Meeting concurrently were the LSA’s sister societies, including the American Name Society. The ANS is dedicated to onomastics, the study of proper names. Practically all the ANS talks sounded fascinating, from “Ojibwe name giving” to “A sociolinguistic analysis of first names given to Lebensborn children within Nazi-Germany” to “How pet owners in Taiwan choose names for their dogs” (!). But the only one I managed to attend was “Contemporary authors: The naming of their fictional characters and places.”

The presenter, a novelist, discussed the origins of some of his own characters’ names and shared responses to a survey he had sent out to other authors (of literary fiction, mostly) about how they named their characters. The responses were fairly mundane, but I was struck by a remark one author made. He said that if you have a clear idea of your character’s personality, the name shouldn’t matter. The name shouldn’t have to fit the character, necessarily, because after all he knows lots of people whose names don’t fit them. I found this interesting for two reasons: 1) I think there’s an assumption that authors try to choose names that suit their characters in some way, whether by their sound or their meaning or their historical or intertextual echoes, and this author seems to discount the importance of character naming; and 2) He almost seems to suggest that authors sometimes use a character’s name as a crutch, a substitute for adequate characterization, and that they shouldn’t do this. Maybe I’m reading too much into his comment, but there’s plenty to ponder there.

I still think a lot of authors do choose their characters’ names carefully and with certain intentions. Perhaps an extreme (but wonderful!) example is Lemony Snicket. The names of the characters in A Series of Unfortunate Events are a carnival of literary allusions (one of the reasons I think this series is extraordinarily sophisticated and meant for readers of all ages). The more well-read you are, the more nods to literature you will pick up on, and I think this is appropriate given the value attached to being well-read in the series itself. I remember the moment I realized a character in The Hostile Hospital was named after the narrator of Albert Camus’s La Peste (The Plague–appropriate, right?).

As for my own character naming practices, since I mostly write fantasy, I usually either invent proper names (while striving to keep the names in a given world linguistically coherent) or choose a language/culture to draw proper names from. In Sparkers, most people from Ashara have names of Hebrew origin while people from Xana, a country across the sea, have names of Arabic origin. (I’m not sure I would make the same choice today, but it’s too late now.) Of course, Ashara and Xana themselves are made up.

I generally choose names by figuring out what sounds good or right to me. I consider the meaning of a character’s name, but it doesn’t necessarily have to have a clear connection to the character’s personality or role or actions. I just like to know what it is, and if it adds something subtle to the totality of who the character is, so much the better. That said, my main character Marah’s name means “bitter,” and this was a meaning I wanted. Marah started out a bitterer character than she is now, her bitterness having been tempered over years of revision. But the name of the other main character, Azariah, means something like “God has helped,” and I don’t mean this to have anything to do with who he is. I just liked the name.

On the other hand, I once did select some characters’ names much more intentionally. This was in a short story inspired by a fleeting episode in the Bible:

And [Gideon] said unto Jether his firstborn, Up, and slay them. But the youth drew not his sword: for he feared, because he was yet a youth. (Judges 8:20)

In the Bible, Gideon is an Israelite hero who here asks his firstborn son to kill two enemy kings who have killed Gideon’s brothers. I transposed this episode into an alternate 19th c. America and into the context of a violent family feud. The biblical text supplied the bare bones of my plot, but in my story, the father who commands his son to shoot two men from the rival family in vengeance is not a sympathetic figure. I kept the name Gideon for him to preserve the link to the Judges text and because the name fit well in the new setting. I abandoned the name Jether because I don’t like it and it’s too unfamiliar. Instead, I named the son Absalom. I chose this name for several reasons. Most trivially, it has the Swedish form Axel. My alternate 19th c. America was peopled by immigrants of English and Swedish origin, and I liked that Absalom could be nicknamed Axel. According to some sources (alas, I don’t know Hebrew), Absalom means “my father is peace,” and I liked the irony of this. Finally, I liked the reverberations of the name given the story of the biblical Absalom, the son of King David. Absalom rebels against his father, which in a way my character does too. But when Absalom is killed by David’s own men, David says, “[W]ould God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (II Samuel 18:33). Despite everything, David still loves his son Absalom in a way that my character Gideon does not love his son Absalom. However, the anguish my Absalom feels over the ultimate deaths of the men his father tries to make him kill echoes King David’s. The parallels are imperfect, but what interests me is the stirrings of connection.

Incidentally, in Sparkers, Marah’s father is also named Avshalom.