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October 26, 2003

The sounds and the silence

From: Contra Costa Times, CA - Oct 26, 2003


WHEN FRANCES ITANI started her first novel a few years back, it was a simple story about a young deaf woman living in Canada in the early years of the 20th century. That led her to research about World War I, which in turn brought her back to the world of the deaf.

The realms of sound and silence come together with powerful results in "Deafening," which Itani says was inspired by her maternal grandmother.

Itani, who is Canadian, has worked for 30 years as a poet, short-story writer and journalist (although this is her first American release, she's published eight previous books in Canada and is a regular contributor to the Ottawa Citizen). But she says that writing the new book was an unexpected journey of discovery. In an interview during a recent stop in the Bay Area to read from the novel, the author traced its beginnings to 1996, when she visited the century-old Ontario School for the Deaf in Belleville, Ontario.

"My grandmother attended that school," said Itani, who grew up in Quebec and now has homes in Ottawa and Geneva, Switzerland. "She was deaf from the age of 18 months from scarlet fever. All I knew was that she had been there; I didn't know what years, and I knew nothing of her background as a child or in the school. She never discussed it."

Itani had grown up with her grandmother, who died in 1987 at age 89. "She married a hearing man, and they had 11 hearing children," says the author. "My mother, who is 83, is the eldest of those children. Those were the farm days of big families, and they lived on a farm outside Belleville, so I knew my grandmother very, very well and loved her very much."

Hidden language

What she didn't know was anything about her grandmother's experience as a deaf person -- including the fact that the older woman knew sign language.

"She never used it," says Itani. "In those days, it would have been shameful for her to be seen signing. She was a lip-reader, and she used voice with her family. But as I was digging around in the archives, I found out that of course, she learned to sign."

Looking at her grandmother's school records, Itani says a story began to take shape in her mind. "As soon as I saw those documents, I felt very moved," she says, "and I knew that there was probably going to be a book there."

"Deafening" is the story of Grania O'Neill, who, like Itani's grandmother, loses her hearing as the result of childhood illness. In the first part of the book, her parents send her to the Belleville school, where her self-taught sign language is discarded in favor of the school's regimented methods.

According to Itani, those days were the beginning of a struggle between various schools of thought about how to educate the deaf -- a struggle, she says, that continues today. "I read 20 years of newspapers from the era, and there was controversy right from the beginning," she says. "Education for deaf children has gone through huge cycles and polar extremes throughout the last century. In my grandmother's time, sign language was forbidden. Her particular school and many schools in the States switched over to the oral method entirely because of the views of the hearing people who were running the schools."

In Belleville, Grania meets and marries Jim Lloyd, a hearing man. The newlyweds quickly establish their own private vocabulary, but it's a short-lived union; two weeks after their wedding, Jim is one of many Canadians sent to the European front in the beginning of World War I, and much of the book is told from his vantage point as a stretcher-bearer during three years in England, France and Italy. Part love story, part historical epic, the story follows Grania and Jim through the end of the war to what Itani calls one of "the saddest happy endings" ever written.

Volumes of research

The author didn't initially intend to write about the war, but says it was inevitable. "I hit the year 1914 and thought, 'Of course, you can't leave out the war,'" she says. "It affected absolutely everything, and it certainly affected the children I was reading about in the deaf school."

Itani spent six years writing "Deafening," and she says half of that time was taken up with research. She learned sign language and volunteered at the Ottawa Deaf Center, where she interviewed dozens of students and teachers. She also traveled overseas, visiting World War I battlefields, graveyards, museums and monuments.

As she worked, the two threads of the story began to merge in unexpected ways. "I knew I was going to be writing about sound and silence," she says. "Silence on the home front, and the terrible sound that came out of World War I. I spent a summer in the archives of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa reading journals, letters, diaries and memoirs. And every single account recorded by those boys -- and they were just boys -- included an account of the sound. It was so terrible that some of the boys tried to dig their own graves. Some went mad, and they were so shell-shocked they lost their hearing and their speech."

Those accounts inspired another character in the book: Kenan, Grania's brother-in-law, who returns from the war a shadow of his former self. Seriously wounded and unable to speak, he retreats from his wife, his family and the world into a private, silent realm.

After the war, Itani learned, some veterans were actually rehabilitated at the Belleville school her grandmother had attended as a girl.

"I found it so interesting that those same teachers of the deaf were put to work training those post-World War I boys back into speech," she says.

Brutal facts

Itani says she was surprised -- and horrified -- by much of what she learned about the war.

"I really didn't know much about World War I when I started," she says. "I knew much more about World War II, which is in our recent memory and our parents' memory. But when I began my reading, I was overwhelmed by the brutality of World War I and the numbers of young men who lost their lives. On a single afternoon, 500,000 were killed in one battle. When I went to visit those battlefields, I thought, 'I have to keep this in memory. It's part of my responsibility as a writer.'"

Canada was particularly hard-hit, she notes. The country sent 600,000 men into battle; 60,000 died. Itani says that her country is still dealing with the loss.

"In Canada, when you scratch the surface, World War I is still right there. Every little village, every tiny town has a World War I monument dedicated to those boys who lost their lives. Everyone has a family member who was there. Everywhere I went, people told me, 'My grandfather fought in that war' or 'My great-uncle was there.'"

Remnants of war

Overseas, she found that the scars of World War I haven't healed, either.

"It's especially present in Flanders, up in those two little corners of France and Belgium," she says. "The farmers are still pulling debris out of their land. Tons of it. There's a whole group of people whose job it is to pick up ordnance from the roadside when the farmers pull it out of their fields, or -- if it's a large, unexploded shell -- collect it to render it safe. I read one report that said at the rate they're removing ordnance and World War I debris from the soil, it will take 700 more years. That's just World War I, in that little area of Flanders."

Writing "Deafening" was difficult, Itani acknowledges. "The war scenes took so much out of me," she says, "some days I just sat there and wept."

The memory of her grandmother, she says, kept her going.

"I would say to myself, 'You loved your grandmother, and you're doing this in her honor,'" she explains. "I wanted to honor her, and in particular to honor her deafness."

The greatest reward, she says, is seeing the way deaf readers are connecting with the book.

"We're doing everything possible to reach the deaf community," says Itani, who, along with her publisher, has donated 3,000 copies of the book to the World Federation of the Deaf. She's also arranging for sign language interpreters to be present at every reading on this tour. "I want deaf people to feel included so they will come to readings. When I did my first appearance in Ottawa, there were 400 people there and the two front rows were all deaf people. That was wonderful."


• WHO: Frances Itani

• WHAT: Author of "Deafening" (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24, 378 pages)

© 2003 Contra Costa Times and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.