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Review: True Biz

Updated: May 19

4/5 stars

So many thoughts! I really enjoyed this book, but it also has some issues. Since I am Deaf-community-adjacent (work at NTID, so I'm around Deaf and hard-of-hearing [DHH] coworkers and students all day, but am not DHH myself), I've been lucky enough to learn what a lot of folks in the community think of the book. And because of my work, and the fact that my mom is a CODA (child of Deaf adults), I also have that perspective.

The book follows three main characters, all connected to a school for the Deaf in Ohio. The principal, whose name is February, is a CODA, and lives with her wife and her aging mother on the campus of the school. Austin is a student at the school. He comes from a strong Deaf family - mother is Deaf, father is hearing but an ASL interpreter - and is what some playfully call "Deaf royalty" because on his mother's side deafness goes back many generations (which is rare). And finally, Charlie is a brand new student at the school, having been mainstreamed for all of her life to that point. Her hearing parents had her "implanted" when she was very young (i.e. she has a cochlear implant), but it never really worked for Charlie. She grew up language-deprived, with no ASL, and almost no hearing.

The plot really centers on the different experiences of these three individuals (plus a few other minor characters) with and in the Deaf world. February struggles to find ways to help Charlie integrate into the school, all while grappling with how it will feel when her mother dies and she no longer has that familial connection to deafness. Charlie learns a whole new way of existing, where she can communicate with others and understand everything being said - and what that means for her relationships with her parents, individually. Her father is easier - he is taking the time to learn ASL. Her mother, though, refuses to accept her daughter's deafness, and will not learn ASL. And Austin realizes his picture-perfect Deaf family may not be quite so rosy, when he learns that they are considering implanting his baby sister.

And all of this is on the backdrop of a school in a district that is facing extreme budget cuts. Unfortunately, it is a well-worn path, schools for the Deaf being shuttered. The book does not sugar coat any of the hardships each character faces, including the fact that the ending of the book feels as abrupt as the closing of a school might feel to February and all of her students.

Nović herself is Deaf, which gives credence to the book as a whole, though it's also clear that she has a real axe to grind when it comes to cochlear implants and DHH students being put into mainstream schools, as opposed to schools for the Deaf. The vehemence with which she discusses both seems a little dated - like yes, this is how people felt in the 1980's, but this book is set in the present day, and attitudes have changed. That's not to say that there are not those in the Deaf community that agree, but that being mainstreamed and having a cochlear implant are no longer the exception. They're closer to the rule (for better and for worse).

I wondered as I read, "Who was this book written for?" It's certainly of interest to the Deaf community, in part because there are so few representations of deafness in pop culture, but ultimately I think this is a book for a hearing audience. Scattered throughout it are instructional pages that describe different aspects of ASL grammar, Deaf culture, etc... things the Deaf community already knows. Like the 2021 movie CODA, this is a glimpse into ONE story about Deaf people, written by ONE person reflecting their perspectives. No two stories will be the same. Hopefully a hearing audience does not take this for "the truth" of deafness, and recognizes that it's one story of millions.

One thing I learned, as a hearing person, from the informational/instructional pages was about the dialect of Black ASL. I knew nothing more than that it existed. Amongst other things, I learned of the divergence of ASL from BASL because of school segregation.

My book club, The Book Thieves, will be discussing True Biz next week Thursday, September 14 at 6:30 pm at Writers & Books (740 University Ave), if you'd like to join!

(P.S. Turns out this is my 200th post since I started this blog on January 1, 2020!)


UP NEXT: Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, by Rivka Galchen

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