Book Review: Where I Stand (John Lee Clark)
Reviewed by Kristen Ringman
John Lee Clark is a brilliant writer, so I knew a little of what to expect when I began reading his debut non-fiction work Where I Stand: On the Signing Community and my DeafBlind Experience (Handtype Press, 2014). As someone who grew up hearing but went deaf myself during adolescence, I was able to personally relate to many of the conflicted issues John Lee Clark tackles with finesse in these pages and I recommend this book to anyone remotely interested in deafness and deaf culture.
To give a nod to his background: John Lee Clark has already proved himself as a poet and an editor before putting together this compilation of essays. His previously published work includes his debut poetry collection Suddenly Slow, Deaf American Poetry: An Anthology and Deaf Lit Extravaganza, the latter two of which he was the primary editor. For the more literary inclined, I would recommend reading all of these in addition to Where I Stand, because what better place to begin a study of the deaf perspective, but through the poetry, fiction, and memoirs of its people? In Clark's own words:
"The work of Deaf poets serves as a prism through which Deaf people can know themselves better and through which the rest of the world can see life in a new light."
Where I Stand is exactly what the title suggests—part memoir and part commentary on the signing community, which is composed of not only deaf people who use American Sign Language or another sign language, but anyone else who has become a member of the community through learning its language and a connection to deaf people. There are a handful of great book out there that can be used as a window into deaf culture—The Mask of Benevolence, A Journey into the Deaf-World, and When the Mind Hears by Harlan Lane, For Hearing People Only by Matthew Moore and Linda Levitan, and Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks, to name a few—but many of these book are older and somewhat outdated. John Lee Clark's collection offers up a fresh, more concise volume of essays discussing the most recent advancements in cochlear implants as well as the impacts of audism, the translating of ASL poetry, and the future hope for written ASL.
Where I Stand is an enjoyable read as well. Clark's narrative, storytelling style of writing comes through by offering the reader not just a window into deaf culture, but a door to walk through and stand beside him for a while. That is his gift to us through the pages of this book.
I particularly appreciated the way Clark organized the book itself. He begins with the first things that come to mind considering deaf people and their culture—deafness as a disability (or not), and then he moves on to deaf people's contributions to literature and ASL poetry, and ends with his own experiences. It reads like a spiral path leading to the heart of the author himself, giving the reader a few details at a time so that by the end she ends up on the inside of a beautiful spiral with a clear view of deaf culture though the mind of one of its members.
In the first essay, Clark encapsulates the core issue he is about to grapple with within the first two lines: "Every time there is an advance in surgical audiology or genetic engineering, a wave of alarm ripples through the signing community. Doctors are intent on eradicating deafness."
Clark doesn't fail to give the rest of his essay the same detailed attention he gave to the crafting of those first lines. He uses his own personal experiences growing up deaf in an all-Deaf family, as well as examples from literature, music, and scientific advancements to prove that disability is likely to be "not merely natural. It may even be vital to the human race."
One of the many important questions he poses for the reader to consider is: "Shouldn't we be thankful for the diversity that evolves among us, instead of arbitrarily deciding that one thing is normal and another is not?"
This is not just a question for the deaf or the disabled, this is a question for anyone who has ever considered himself or herself to be outside of what society has deemed 'normal.'
His final two lines of the first essay push even deeper:
Narrowing down the possibilities would limit human resources—language, skills, and
creativity born in diversity—available to the world.
As a reader who is not only deaf, but also a member of the LGBT community, a traveler, sailor, and weirdo, I applaud this sentiment. I am seeing a change in the world's perspective towards diversity especially. I hope that disability might also gain the respect and attention it deserves, and this book is a small testament to the importance of both disability as well as diversity to the human family as a whole.
In a later essay, Clark touches on this again:
We disabled people have always shaped the world around us, and our fingerprints on every aspect of life cannot be removed. To remove our presence and influence on American culture is to remove American culture. It would be a totally different world without us, as it would be without any other minority community.
Clark's essay "Why Hearing Parents Don't Sign" is also spot-on in its unveiling of a simple explanation for why "ninety-seven percent of hearing parents never learn ASL": "…they don't want to communicate with their children." At first, this statement is confusing. Why wouldn't parents want to communicate with their children? What is the author actually saying underneath this?
Some of the reasons given are:
Most parents are conditioned, from their birth up, for the simple reason they were
parented first before they became parents themselves, to engage in a power and control relationship with their
This second essay ends with a harsh judgment of those ninety-seven percent, which include my own parents, but I personally did not feel it was unwarranted:
The question to ask hearing parents, then, is 'Do you want to communicate with your children?' If their answer is yes, there are no excuses for not learning sign language. No excuses. If their answer is no, their crime goes beyond merely neglecting to sign. Their crime is perpetuating the oppression and abuse of children, passing on the power and control cycle to the next generation, and who knows when it will finally be broken?
The frustration I have felt with my non-signing immediate and extended family members is palpable. It continues to divide us, even though some efforts are now being made to learn sign language. As a reader who has experienced the difficulties this author brings to light, reading his essays makes me feel emboldened and empowered as well as hopeful for a more enlightened future.
But he is not just writing for people like me.
Again, Clark is zeroing in on a problem that does not just encapsulate the deaf experience, but a problem that is evident within all countries and cultures. I know many readers might not agree with his "open-minded" or "radical" parenting approaches, which I myself applaud, but the author himself states in the Foreword:
While I don't expect my essays to change readers' minds, I do hope that they are engaging and stimulating enough to tug readers forward. Their positions may shift, either closer to mine or else I'd have helped them to disagree but in a deeper, more satisfying way for themselves.
There needs to be more writers out there who are as conscientious as John Lee Clark in considering the perspectives of all readers—in considering our diversity.
That is why I ultimately feel this book to be important not only to people interested in deaf culture, but in people interested in considering the ways that human culture can be improved upon—the ways people need to be more open with each other and listen to each other's voices, whether through words on paper or a computer screen, words written in braille, or words spoken or signed. Every human life has a voice, and every voice should be equally heard.