THE UNHEARD: A MEMOIR OF DEAFNESS AND AFRICA
By Josh Swiller
Holt, 265 pages, $14
Some people go to Africa to try to save the world. Others, like Josh Swiller, go to Africa to save themselves.
Josh Swiller lived what a stranger might consider a charmed life. From the cushiony comforts of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he was born into a well-off, tightly knit Jewish family. He attended Yale University, then graduate school, reading everything he could get his hands on from Nietzsche to Xaviera Hollander. He kissed soft-skinned girls who smelled of powder and draped attentiveness over him like gossamer.
He was also completely deaf by age 4. But strangers who met him might not have known. Deafness, Mr. Swiller writes, “doesn’t announce itself when it enters a room like a spastic limb or a Seeing Eye dog does.” Thanks to a hearing device that amplified sounds up to a thousand times, the hard-earned ability to read lips and only a very slight “deaf” accent, he often could mask the severity of his disability from those whose lips he read but whose faint words he barely heard. He passed through his Yale years disillusioned by lecturing professors whose foreign accents he couldn’t decipher, and whose racing lips his weary eyes couldn’t keep up with.
Raised in a home where self-pity was not an option, where the “we all have our burdens” mantra held strong, sign language was never discussed, and Josh was pushed from a young age to strive for excellence, to eschew any stigma associated with deafness, and to communicate like anyone else in the world. But trying to communicate in this foreign language of the hearing stranded Josh in a world of emotional isolation. By the time he was 23, very few people actually knew who Josh Swiller was. To them, he was a tall guy who said “What?” a lot, and spoke with a bit of a slur.
To them, he was not deaf.
Looking for companionship and a sense of meaning, he pursued a master’s degree at a university for the deaf—but even here, where people quipped and cracked jokes in sign language like they were shaking the lulav, he was again out of place. Cursed with the double-edged trappings of his vocal talents, he was deemed by other students “not deaf enough.”
An outsider both in the world of the hearing and in the world of the deaf, he sought out “a place past deafness.” He found it in Africa.
From a remote village in Zambia, Mr. Swiller describes a silent land of bloated bellies and H.I.V., sweeping horizons and mango trees. He writes of a place where people drunk on banana wine “laugh more and worry less,” and where a boy can have his leg cut off for something as trifling as a stolen fish. During his two-year Peace Corps sojourn, a naively enthused Mr. Swiller strove fruitlessly to bring clean water and a new health clinic to his village, eliciting the ire of chiefs and elders, along with the licentious advances of pay-per-love ladies and 20-something spinsters. Along the way, he took a local boy into his home, “ruined” a virgin girl and cheated death a hundred times.
Josh Swiller rewrites the familiar African narrative with a purity that makes the tragic beauty of that devastated continent a stunning novelty for readers. We experience the rich, tangible passions of love, honor and revenge in Africa, amplified a thousandfold in the quiet world of the deaf.
Nicole Dweck is a graduate student at New York University’s School of Global Affairs.