Friday, August 12, 2011

The Unheard

The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa
by Josh Swiller
New York : Henry Holt and Co., 2007.

In the 1990s, Josh Swiller joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Africa to build a well. Born with significant hearing loss, Josh was mainstreamed (that is, sent to public school with hearing kids rather than to a Deaf school where he would have learned ASL). He can speak and read lips, but has always felt on the margins in a hearing world; he learned ASL at Gallaudet, but was not a part of the Deaf culture there, either. In Mununga, a practically forgotten village in Zambia, Josh finds that his hearing loss doesn't matter as much. There is less background noise to contend with, people face him to speak, and don't mind when he asks them to repeat themselves. But this small village is fearful and violent, and Josh soon finds out that building a well is the least of his worries.

I had a love/hate relationship with this memoir. The stories Josh tells are absolutely heartbreaking and maddening. I generally felt depressed about the state of Africa while reading - in the face of childhood diseases, AIDS, and fear as he describes, what hope is there? Also, I didn't particularly like Josh. His bullheaded way of trying to move projects forward grated on me, and I was annoyed rather than amused by his anecdote of "cultural exchange" via showing some of the locals the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. But he does know how to craft an exciting narrative, keeping me reading despite my misgivings and pacing his stories in such a way that I was hard put to find a good stopping point.

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