November 22 at 09:30
by Juliet England
Hearing Times first met US-born writer Louise Stern, the fourth generation of her family to have been born profoundly deaf, last summer. Over a year later, what has she been up to? Juliet England takes tea and catches up.
Last time I interviewed Louise Stern, she was flat-hunting. Less than 18 months on, she has found herself an East London pad, but, true to her restless, fearless spirit, is indeed on the move again.
Home, Stern-style, is “something within yourself”, rather than a physical place, “If that isn’t too New Age-y”, she adds with a typically self-effacing, half apologetic shrug.
In December, thanks to funding from the Arts Council, she is off to Mexico for seven months to finish work on her first novel.
Her London life, though, will be here when she returns - the flat is being sub-let and the day job as assistant and archivist to film-maker Sam Taylor-Johnson is being kept open.
Stern adds that she is keen to retain her links with London and Europe.
But she is no stranger to Mexico. It “feels familiar” and is where she has a greater sense of being at home than anywhere else, although, as she points out through interpreter Oliver Pouliot, it’s a tough country.
This time, she is taking in Mexico City, and a potentially safer small Mayan community on the Yucatan peninsula where a genetic quirk has caused unusually high levels of deafness. But she’ll also be on the coast near Zihuatanejo, combining the mental rigour of wordsmithing with the physical exercise of surfing.
Life on the coast will be in stark contrast to the village community, “which is very communal, people are in and out of each other’s homes and personal space becomes very different. It can be hard to get anything done.”
Using Mayan sign language and gesture to communicate, she will be there finishing her novel, which has the working title Kinil, the name of the fictional Mexican village in which it is set.
The book is now three quarters written, and Stern is confident that being in Mexico will give it a fresh injection of energy.
“I still have some things to work out, but I feel excited to be going back.”
She adds in a later email, “My editors like it but say it needs to be less ‘uncompromising’ to sell. So I’m my work will be cut out while I am there.”
The plot centres on three adult siblings, all deaf. The brother has returned to Kinil having disappeared for years. Each of them communicates in a different way and Stern’s twin passions, communication and language, the driving forces propelling her much-lauded 2010 short story collection, Chattering, remain at the forefront.
Another key theme is the way the characters handle what the author describes as “a traumatic event” which overshadows the whole story.
“I know what the thing is, although it is not referred to explicitly because I did not know how to give it a name.”
The viewpoints of the three main characters are interwoven, with an omniscient narrator giving the reader access to the heads of all three at various times.
“I wanted to develop the ideas behind the stories in Chattering. With those, each one had its own context, but you only saw a shard of that world. Not much was explicit - I had to get straight in there with little build-up. With a longer work, you are focused on different things, and have a different relationship with your characters.
“In Kinil, I have more back story, I understand my characters better, their histories and relationships, emotional landscapes and the forces propelling them.”
Stern is clearly relishing the transition to novel writing, even if the fears that “after Chattering, I would not be able to write anything again” inevitably still bubble up occasionally.
Since we last met, Stern has also completed a story for radio, The Electric Box, broadcast on Radio 4 in September.
“It was a little strange working on a shorter piece while still doing novel. But it was an exciting part of the transition.”
There is, of course, the obvious irony of writing a radio play she will never hear.
“I try not to think about that. But I’d love to see it in print one day.”
As with the novel, there is a sense of foreboding throughout. Set at a barbecue, the story centres on the emotions and expectations of a fight which, in the end, does not happen.
Stern spent September in Scotland at a castle called Hawthornden, on a writing retreat owned by the Heinz family of baked beans fame, whose matriarch is a great supporter of the arts. With conversation banned during the working day, all writers were plunged into the same silence.
“I managed to communicate with pen and paper, although Oliver, my interpreter, came up for one night. My deafness was like the elephant in the room in some ways.”
There’s other work in the pipeline. She’s in talks about the photos she shot during a previous trip to Mexico, and has ideas for smaller projects, at various stages of completion, which will depend on funding.
Then there’s a play, The Ugly Bird. This came out of a workshop and considers how sign and spoken languages work differently theatrically. Stern has done a read-through with some actors and hopes it may be staged. (She is keen for this not to be done by an exclusively deaf cast.)
“With spoken language, it’s more evasive, you can hide more because of its disconnection from your body. With sign language, you analyse things differently. The signs become like an extension of your body - the analysis feels more concrete.”
The work, which Stern clearly loved writing, deals with emotional expectations and body language.
“I enjoy pushing different ideas into different media and getting varied angles on the same concepts. I love playing about with notions of language and communication.”
It is still, she admits, not always easy to be seen as “a writer who happens to be deaf” rather than “a deaf writer.” (A subtle yet important distinction.)
Happily, though, not everyone insists on using the label.
“That’s important to me, because I want plenty of room to manoeuvre in my work, as much flexibility as possible.”
Stern has far from abandoned the deaf world, just also needs space and freedom to do what she believes in and what feels right for her. That means leaving behind her roots in the deaf community in the States in which she grew up, although she returns once a year.
“You don’t need to take a stand all the time to face deafness. And I think there is something I can give back if I continue to work hard over here.”
And work hard she undoubtedly does, with great patience - and countless, painstaking revisions.
Hearing about her writing process, it’s tempting to see her as a potter, endlessly shaping and tightening.
“I read a piece through again each time I sit down to go further with it. I root out spare words, think about where I am going.
“And, each time I re-read, the work just feels more right.”
Chattering is published by Granta.