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CODA made history when it won the 2022 Oscar for Best Picture, the first movie to be nominated and to win with a mostly deaf cast (actor Troy Kotsur is also the first deaf man to win an Oscar). But as Philadelphia writer Sara Nović, who is Deaf, points out in a recent essay for Slate, the film is complicated in the Deaf community because it is produced by hearing people, centers a hearing person, and depicts Deaf stereotypes. Nović is already filling the gap: her second novel, True Biz, is a rich and immersive story that places Deaf characters at its forefront.
After years of struggling in mainstream public school, 15-year-old Charlie Serrano transfers to River Valley School for the Deaf, a boarding school in the Ohio Rust Belt, where she eventually finds a sense of belonging that she never thought possible. At River Valley, she befriends Austin Bayard-Workman, who is fifth-generation Deaf. Unlike Charlie, whose hearing parents were advised to not learn or teach their daughter ASL, Austin grew up with sign language and surrounded by close-knit Deaf family and friends, to become “the kind of bubbly, self-assured boy one can only be if he feels wholly understood.” However, the arrival of a baby sister who is hearing upends his sense of security.
Overseeing Charlie and Austin is River Valley’s headmistress, February Waters, who is a child of Deaf adults and a fierce advocate for her school and its students. But she carries the burden of knowing that River Valley will close at the end of the year.
“True biz” is an expression in American Sign Language, meaning “real talk,” which is what Nović gives her readers, illuminating the challenges deaf people face in a hearing world, and the privileges that are taken for granted by the hearing. February was born at home because her mother knew that there would be no one at the hospital who knew sign language. When Charlie learns of a free at-home interpreting service that would allow her to make calls on a videophone, she imagines how this technology would have impacted her relationships growing up: “The classmates would turn into friends, maybe one of them would even grow into that mythical being she’d only witnessed from afar or on TV: a best friend, someone who would call her first.”
True Biz makes the case that a shared language is essential—to intimacy, self-worth, and happiness. In a generous act to readers who are unfamiliar with Deaf culture, Nović shares this language and history. She includes brief interludes of ASL lessons (illustrated by Deaf graphic artist Brittany Castle), and history, from a 19th-century Deaf community in Martha’s Vineyard, the protests at Gallaudet University that resulted in their first Deaf president, and Eyeth, a mythological utopia in Deaf storytelling tradition that centers the eye, not the ear.
These sections underscore another driving theme of the novel: the importance of education and dedicated spaces for marginalized communities to live and thrive. The stakes are high for the students of River Valley, where they not only receive an education, but sanctuary, especially students ignored or unsafe in homes where everyone else is hearing. When this school closes, who will care for them?
More stories to tell
Yet True Biz is also a coming-of-age story, where teenagers experience first love and rebellion. Charlie is torn between two lovers, Austin and the older anarchist Slash, who is hearing. Meanwhile she fights her parents for body autonomy and acceptance of her Deaf identity as they insist on her using an uncomfortable and damaging cochlear implant.
Nović juggles a lot of themes and threads, including brief snapshots of Kayla, Charlie’s Black roommate, who lobbies for recognition of Black American Sign Language; River Valley teacher Wanda, who grew up alienated from her hearing family; and Austin’s traumatized roommate Eliot. Nović leaves us wanting more from these characters, whose stories could fill novels of their own.
True Biz gives an expansive, detailed, and empathetic look into one corner of the Deaf community. There are more of their stories to tell. Publishers—and readers—should meet that demand.
On April 13, 2022, there will be an in-person book launch event at East Passyunk’s A Novel Idea bookstore, in partnership with Blue Stoop, featuring author Sara Nović.
What, When, Where
True Biz. By Sara Nović. New York: Random House, April 5, 2022. 400 pages, hardcover. $28.00. Get it on bookshop.org.
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