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December 3, 2003

Belleville-born author opens world of the deaf to readers around the world

From: Stirling Community Press, Canada - Dec 3, 2003

by Erin McCracken

Flanked by two sign language interpreters and accompanied by another voice interpreter, Belleville-born author Frances Itani faced the audience she wrote much of her latest book for: people who are deaf or hearing impaired.
It was also because of them that she could do just that because she actually interviewed deaf people in order to learn and write about their silent world "and they shared with me with huge generosity," Itani explained when she took to the stage at the Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf last Wednesday, November 26. She even learned American Sign Language to conduct the interviews. Researching her fiction book, Deafening, which hit bookstores in September allowed Itani to return to her Belleville roots and explore the school that her deaf maternal grandmother attended at the turn of the century.
Itani herself was born in Belleville although she grew up in Quebec. During the research phase of her novel which began in 1996, Itani commuted between her Ottawa home and her birthplace on a regular basis. "My first visit was to see the place where my deaf grandmother had been a student 100 years ago," Itani told the Sir James Whitney students who gathered in the gym to sign question after question to her.
Many of the students clutched their own copies of Deafening and they leaned forward with interest when Itani talked about how deaf people were viewed during her grandmother's time 100 years ago. Even Itani admitted she had much to learn in order to write her book with authenticity. "I was naïve about the world of deafness," Itani explained. "For us it was normal to have a deaf person in my family." Still, she remembers people staring at her grandmother signing on the train.
Although the book takes place from 1900 to 1920, especially during the war years, the literary work actually "begins at this very school," Itani said. "I did a lot of research at this school." Retired school residence counsellor Keith Dorschner assisted her in sorting through the school archives over the years. It was there that Itani discovered the real-life writings of deaf children in school newspapers dating from 1900 to 1919. "It took a long time for me to write this book," the author continued. "It took me six years." Once her research was complete, Itani came to Belleville with her scribbler in hand to begin writing the novel.
In Deafening, it is through Grania O'Neill's childhood in Deseronto (Itani's grandmother was born in Deseronto) as well as through her life as an adult that Itani explores the innermost world of the deaf, juxtaposing it against the world of the hearing at the most extreme: through the ears and eyes of Grania's hearing husband, Jim Lloyd, who is sent off to work as a stretcher bearer on the scary and horrifyingly loud front lines of World War I. Itani even visited these old Western Front battlefields while researching her book.
While the novel is fiction, Itani crafted it to be historically accurate. "When you tell a story, it helps the reader become invited into the story," she said, and readers benefit at the same time by learning about the period. And while Itani imagined her characters, there are a few similarities between Grania's character, who becomes deaf at age five from scarlet fever, and Itani's grandmother who was just 18 months old when she contracted the disease. And while the book isn't about her grandmother, Itani has written it as a tribute to her.
Deafening marks Itani's American literary debut although she has written eight other books over the years. She is the author of four acclaimed short story collections, poetry and a children's book. Itani has also written for CBC Radio as well as newspapers and magazines and her literary endeavours have garnered her several Canadian awards.
So far, Itani's latest book has received a number of favourable reviews particularly for the way she writes about deafness as a normal condition rather than as a handicap. And while Itani is flattered to have been approached by two Hollywood companies who want to turn Deafening into a movie, the author is more thrilled about what her deaf readers are saying about her book including one young Sir James Whitney student who got up on the gym stage to speak to her before his peers. "I'm very proud that you have written this novel," he signed to Itani, prompting her to forego the need for a translator to speak for her as she signed back to him: "Thank-you."
Deafening will soon reach international audiences and when Itani is finished her current book tour, she will resume work on her next novel entitled, Celebration, which will be published in 2006. In it she explores the lives of four women, each one the mother of the next.

© 2003 Stirling Community Press