Interview with Louise Stern

INTERVIEW: Louise Stern is deaf, which makes her debut novel much more sharp and expressive, writes JOHN CRADDEN

THE SHORT STORY is a genre at which many Irish writers excel, but in the UK it’s said to be almost impossible to publish short stories if you’re a first-time writer. Yet 31-year-old American artist and London resident Louise Stern has managed to do just that with her first book, a collection of short stories published this month by Granta.

Chattering tells the stories of mainly young, restless men and women who test their desire for new experiences to the limit. Like the author, many of the characters are deaf, and communicate using one or a combination of sign language, lip-reading, note-scribbling, guesswork and instinct.

The book has already won plaudits in literary circles and among bloggers. Scottish novelist Alan Warner praised it as “an amazing debut . . . Already, some of these tales are simply masterful examples of the short story form.”

Having read the book in one sitting, I find myself wishing I could meet Stern in person, but since we are both deaf and divided by the Irish Sea, we talk via an online instant-messaging service. She confesses to being severely hungover on the morning of our chat, but any worries that this would end up a stilted, awkward interview quickly dissipate shortly after we start. The words pop up thick and fast on my screen.

Stern grew up in California surrounded by deaf people, including her entire family. She is the fourth generation of her family to be born deaf. Her parents were teachers at the California School for the Deaf at Fremont, where she and her siblings were pupils.

Based in London since 2002, her day job is as an assistant to artist and film-maker Sam Taylor-Wood. But she has made her own art using mixed media, photography, video and, most intriguingly, a sculpture made of the scraps of paper she uses for back-and-forth written conversations with people who don’t sign.

She is keen to express ideas about silence, communication and the importance of language, particularly in how it mediates our relationship to the world. So while her work, including the book, is not necessarily about deafness or deaf people, “deafness is a great metaphor for that, for being away from language.

“I grew up with people who weren’t comfortable with language at all, but their experiences were intense but not recognised. Many deaf children grow up with hearing families who don’t know sign and refuse to learn, so they don’t have any language at all.”

Chattering isn’t quite Stern’s first foray into the written word, as she is also the founder and publisher of Maurice, a contemporary art magazine for children. “Maurice came out of my interest in concrete language. I was trying to use contemporary art as a concrete visual language to communicate.”

In the book, Stern writes in a style that is predominantly clear and concise, almost to the point of being plain. “By writing clearly and crisply, I hope I am depending on language less to convince my readers and more just relaying what is there.”

The stories are all about people whose lives briefly come together and then separate, mostly without any drama, moving on quickly to the next phase of their lives. Yet the characters and situations stay with you, even as you know their lives are moving on elsewhere.

There is very little dialogue, but lots of internal monologue and precise visual observations that convey peoples’ presences in a way I’ve never read before. It’s clear that being a native signer has allowed Stern to offer a perspective that is both piercingly insightful and startlingly new.

“With sign, the way you talk about your emotions is so different. It is a different relationship to the world, much less filtered through abstract concepts, although not less sophisticated. That has had a huge impact on my writing.”

On the other hand, and I wonder if it’s something to do with the short story format, the stories often seem inconclusive, or unresolved. But Stern has her own distinct reasons for liking the format. As a reader, she enjoys novels that are entertaining, but with those “where you try to get at something”, she says many of them have too much of an “over-arching narrative” for her liking.

“With the stories, I wanted them to be entertaining enough for anyone to like it, and not only literary sorts, but at the same time [I didn’t want them] to be complete worlds into themselves. But now I’m gonna try and write a novel next so maybe that idea will come back and bite me in the arse.”

Stern says she is proud to be deaf and loves the deaf community in which she grew up, but she often feels claustrophobic within it. “Most of my friends nowadays are hearing, to be honest. I can’t live in the deaf community wholly and I don’t think anyone should feel pressured to.”

But when I ask her has she gotten any reaction to the book from readers in the deaf community, she relishes the question. “Yes, they loved the stories. That means so much to me. They said they rang true, and this from people I barely dared to hope it from. It means the world to me.

“Hearing people’s responses mean a lot to me too, of course, but just in a different way, maybe more intellectual or something, I don’t know. But with deaf people, it’s where I come from. I really wanted to say it like it is.”

Chattering is published by Granta, £10.99

This article first appeared in the Irish Times

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