Deaf Republic, by Ilya Kaminsky (2019)
This past weekend I was fortunate enough to attend two of RIT/NTID's Big Read events, featuring Ukrainian-born, hard-0f-hearing poet Ilya Kaminsky, and his book Deaf Republic. This powerful book of narrative poetry speaks to not only the ongoing violence in Ukraine and neighboring countries, but makes compelling parallels to violence in the US - particularly police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
I know poetry can be a hard sell for folks not used to reading it, but this is definitely an accessible collection, and well worth the effort. And there are events at RIT and local libraries throughout the month of April that you can check out as well, including book discussions, an art exhibit at Dyer Arts Center, and a play adaptation.
Presented as a play in two acts, Kaminsky weaves a beautiful and heartbreaking tale about a young Deaf boy, Petya, killed by soldiers in a fictional, occupied town. The townspeople witness the murder while they all attend a puppet show in the town square, and in response they choose to go deaf.
Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers.
In the name of Petya, we refuse.
The story follows a few of the townspeople as they navigate living with soldiers in their midst: " a newly married couple, Alfonso and Sonya, expecting a child; the brash Momma Galya, instigating the insurgency from her puppet theater; and Galya's girls, heroically teaching signing by day and by night luring soldiers one by one to their deaths behind the curtain."
The text is illustrated with signs for words like town, tank, and hide, which the townspeople use to communicate with each other. Their silence is a strategy, and also a way to grieve together. But what begins as resistance - silence to combat military violence - soon morphs into a silence of fear - a refusal to speak up when witnessing brutality.
The neighbors peek from behind curtains. Silence like a
dog sniffs the windowpanes between us.
As the saying goes, "silence is violence," and can turn into complacency when taken to an extreme. Kaminsky explores the depths of this silence and its repercussions - in the town itself, as well as worlds away. How do we, in the US, react to violence happening "over there"? What does silence look like from another country, where we remain safe and comfortable? What does it look like from where we sit in our homes, when we know other people's homes are being destroyed (whether in another country or our own)? This is especially on display in the book's first poem, We Lived Happily During the War - an incredibly poignant and sobering reminder of the ease with which humanity learns to ignore atrocities.
We Lived Happily During the War
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house –
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
It's not an uplifting book, but it's an important one. And even though the subject matter is heavy, the writing is beautiful and atmospheric, and Kaminsky himself speaks in poetry. Hearing him talk about his background (born in the Ukraine, moved to Rochester in his teens to escape anti-Semitic persecution), his inspirations and motivations for the book, his family back in Ukraine, and more - he speaks with a (heavily-accented) eloquence that is inspiring.
I'll end with one of my favorite verses from the book:
At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this?
And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?
UP NEXT: Our Missing Hearts, by Celeste Ng