Festival interview: Louise Stern – 'I grew up with people unable to communicate with anyone'
Author of Ismael and His Sisters discusses language, growing up in a deaf community and creative ways of presenting her writing
This article is from 2015.
Growing up in a close-knit deaf community has given Louise Stern a particular literary voice. The American author tells us about language, words and their place in the world
‘Language is simply a tool to express concrete reality, not an end in itself’, says author Louise Stern, as she reflects on its place in her first novel, Ismael and His Sisters. Set in a village in Mexico, where the inhabitants exclusively use sign language, the book explores how three deaf siblings exist in a world where the spotlight is turned on communication, and language is both a bridge barrier between a self-contained community and the wider world.
‘Language is often used to control and intimidate rather than to clarify or communicate,’ Stern insists. ‘It’s all too easy to take it for granted. The main characters of my novel have a different experience of language than most people in the world, and I hope that their story gives a fresh angle on what it means to try and make yourself understood, and to try and filter the world through words.’
As a deaf writer growing up in a close-knit deaf community in California – which she describes as a ‘fiercely proud and loyal group of people with a beautiful language at their core’ – the strength of her writing lies in an ability to translate personal experiences into fiction. ‘Communication was always at the forefront of my life and that of my family’s. I grew up with people unable to communicate with anyone, who couldn’t take language for granted. That was good preparation for writing this novel.’
Ismael and His Sisters, then, feels almost cathartic to read, something that she acknowledges was a part of the writing process. ‘I always struggled with a particular sense of the world that I felt I had to express. This novel isn’t a perfect book, but for the first time I feel I’ve said what I needed to.’
Though she is a relatively new writer (Chattering, her book of short stories, was published in 2011), there is a strong authorial voice that resonates in her work: a sense, as she astutely puts it, of saying what needs to be said. This becomes particularly apparent when asked how she feels the deaf community is represented in the arts. Her response she is clear, blunt, and wonderfully exact: ‘horribly’.
Explaining further, she says: ‘my sister, also deaf, is an actress in Hollywood and we have an ongoing conversation about the vacuity of the material she is asked to consider. Roles are most often written with little to no real understanding of the deaf community or the deaf experience. When convenient, roles are given to hearing actors while deaf actors are very rarely considered for non-deaf roles. On the rare occasion that feedback is asked for, it’s often in a way that smacks of tokenism … for the most part, this is true for deaf characters in literature as well, although I like the deaf character in Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.’
Stern’s writing is the perfect antidote to tokenism. It is full of characters carved from knowledge, experience and heart; something Edinburgh audiences can experience for themselves when the author appears here in August. Working with Omar Elerian, an associate director at London’s esteemed Bush Theatre, Stern and her long-time interpreter / collaborator Oliver Pouliot are presenting a creative performance / reading of the book, followed by a moderated discussion on its content. It’s a chance for her to communicate with audiences the way her characters communicate on page: thoughtfully, honestly and memorably.
The performance will be a unique expression of her literary work, though this is not the first time she’s experimented with exploring creative ways of presenting her writing. ‘I’ve worked with different mediums – video, performance, photography for example – trying to understand how I could remain faithful to the visual nature of sign language and to its visceral, dramatic essence through written words without betraying my community,’ she says, whilst acknowledging that the whole experience for her has been ‘a process’.
That process has taken Stern around the world and she now brings her work to Edinburgh, the City of Literature and home to a massive celebration of the written word. While she admits that appearing on a bill alongside some of the world’s greatest authors is somewhat intimidating, ‘it’s mostly inspiring and a motivation to keep going. Edinburgh definitely has something that I identified with literature while growing up: an appreciation and characterful-ness.’ That is a description which could easily be applied to Louise Stern herself: full of character and irrevocably linked with the language of literature.
Louise Stern, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 30 Aug, 7pm, £7 (£5).