This April we've chosen artist and writer, Louise Stern to feature as Hate's Writer of the Month. Growing up in the deaf community in Fremont, California, Louise's unique experience has given her an acute understanding of the nuances of language.
Louise published Maurice, a contemporary art magazine for children between 2002-2009, which led to her publishing a collection of short stories called Chattering. Her most recent novel, Ismael and His Sisters, published in 2015 by Granta, follows the lives of Ismael, Rosie and Cristina who are all deaf. Set in a Maya village, Louise explores what it means to communicate.
WHEN DID YOU REALISE YOU WANTED TO STUDY ART AND BECOME A WRITER?
It wasn’t a lightbulb moment. It was a long, slow realisation. I always felt more comfortable in the world of books than anywhere else, but I also always felt strongly that my native language couldn’t be represented via written words, which pushed me to study art. I wasn’t sure that I was brave enough to actually be an artist or writer myself, but then over years and years I realised it was the only thing for me.
AS A WRITER, DO YOU THINK WE CAN COMMUNICATE WITHOUT SPOKEN LANGUAGE, WITHOUT WORDS?
Oh yes - I think that’s where most actual communication happens, and that we often use words to block out communication rather than attempt for real understanding of others.
HOW IS SIGN LANGUAGE DIFFERENT TO OTHER LANGUAGES? AND HOW DOES IT DIFFER ACROSS CULTURES?
Other languages differ from each other, but have the same modality - they’re spoken, written, or both. Sign language is an entirely different modality - a physical one. That colours everything you express in sign language, which I think is a beautiful thing. Across cultures, sign languages differ as much as spoken languages differ across cultures. However, there’s always a gestural core, even though it’s much more obvious at some times than at others, when certain signs in certain languages can seem quite arbitrary. But then again, most words seem arbitrary to me!
‘Language’ is just a word too and you could say anything is a language. I guess it’s more accurate to say that I’m interested in communication and in what we commonly identify as languages. I definitely think that the impressions we collect through our other senses are incredibly powerful and that they tell us much about other people and about the world. And I think that these impressions are at the heart of what we often say is 'language'.
YOU LIVED IN MEXICO WHILE YOU RESEARCHED 'ISMAEL AND HIS SISTERS', WHAT WAS IT LIKE LIVING AMONGST THE DEAF/HEARING COMMUNITY THERE?
Living in the Mayan village where I researched the book felt like coming home. It was the first time in my life that I could get up in the morning and know I could communicate in sign with everyone I might chance across on the road or in the grocery store.
Later, when I went to another area to actually write the book, I met my husband, the father of my baby girl - so obviously, that was wonderful! Mexico overall is such a visceral and charismatic place to me. Life there is hard in many ways, but it’s never empty.
MEXICO SEEMS VERY VIBRANT DO YOU REMEMBER ANY DISTINCTIVE SMELLS?
The fresh salt of the sea…. metallic blood, because in rural areas they’re always butchering. Spicy, rich salsas. Bright, cold Victoria beer and the stale, cloying smell of it when warm. Hot dirt and sand in the sun on long walks. Burning fireworks set off by the kids in the villages and during fiestas. Corn tortillas, earthy like nothing else, on the griddle over the open fire in the Mayan village. And sweat, because it’s so hot.
HAVE YOU EVER FACED ANY DIFFICULTIES BEING DEAF? HOW CAN THE 'HEARING' WORLD BETTER UNDERSTAND DEAFNESS?
Oh, of course. It’s like being from any other minority but the assumptions that people have are made that much more in your face because they're about how you communicate and understand the world. A classic one is someone writing, ‘Can you read?’ which happens pretty often. I write back, ‘No I can’t’…
I don’t think it’s necessarily about how this world can better understand deafness but how it can better understand all kinds of people. You can study up on deafness till you are blue in the face and you might not understand any more than when you started if you don’t get it. People are people but with different experiences - if you approach with love, no expectations or impositions, and are able to go with the flow and feel others rather than trying to solve people like an intellectual puzzle then you’ll do okay. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
ARE YOU WORKING ON ANYTHING AT THE MOMENT?
A short film called Boat which I wrote and directed with the support of Film 4 and the Arts Council - it’s based on a short story from my first book “Chattering” (Granta), expanded with things developed through my visual work. It features spoken, handwritten, and physical dialogue and was shot on 16mm film by DOP Patrick Meller - Claire Wetherall and Patrick O’Kane lead the beautiful cast.
As for what I’m working on at the moment - we are off to Morocco for a month next week - I hope to write a feature film screenplay while there. I’m also on a visual art residency supported by the University of Manchester. I am working with the Romford Deaf Club, making photographs of regulars there signing and collecting scraps of written conversations which I will ask them to engage in. I want to make a series of collages out of this material.