‘Deaf Utopia: A Memoir – and a Love Letter to a Way of Life’
By Nyle DiMarco
around 2022, William Morrow
By Sara Novic
circa 2022, Random house
In the 1970s, while I was driving the T in Boston, a man tried to get my attention. He seemed to be talking animatedly with his hands. Knowing nothing about sign language, I thought he might be drunk. I ignored him, unfolded my white cane and got off at my stop. I’m legally blind, but I have some vision. But, I don’t always recognize the people I’ve met.
Later that day I learned that the guy on T’s name was Fred and he was deaf. He had seen me at a party and waved hello. Fred, I’m so sorry for my rudeness!
Then, aside from the sad deaf character in the novel and film of the same title “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”, deaf people, like queer people, were largely not present in books, movies, television – nowhere in pop culture. Except as victims, villains, or metaphors for loneliness or deviance.
Fortunately, after decades. it changes. As Troy Kotsur said of “the deaf community, CODA [children of Deaf adults] community and the disability community,” when he became the first deaf male actor to win an Oscar, “This is our moment.
Today, people who are deaf and disabled, queer and non-queer, from models and artists to filmmakers and authors are creators and icons of pop culture. Two of the most lively, entertaining and moving books currently being published are written by Deaf creators.
“Deaf Utopia” is a fascinating memoir by Nyle DiMarco with Robert Siebert. DiMarco, 32, is proudly deaf and queer. His parents and grandparents are deaf. He knows how to keep your attention. His stories range from his first kiss with a man to auditions with reality TV executives (who want him, a deaf whose native language is American Sign Language, to “use his voice”) to heartbreaking tales of being abused by his father. DiMarco is an activist, producer, actor and model. In 2014, he became the second male winner and first deaf contestant on Cycle 22 of “America’s Next Top Model”.
In 2015, DiMarco, along with professional dance partner Peta Murgatroyd, won the Mirrorball Trophy on season 22 of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” His acting credits include roles in “Difficult People” and “Switched at Birth.” DiMarco, a Gallaudet University graduate and Washington, DC resident, was the executive producer of the Netflix docuseries “Deaf U.”
Growing up, he and his twin brother Nico had “got a taste of the cruelty of hearing people out to the deaf when childhood bullies laughed at our signature,” DiMarco writes.
As with homosexuals who were made fun of as children, DiMarco, as he grew older, realized that bullying could “take more harmful and sinister forms: blatant oppression and discrimination.”
He learned from his mother that in 1995, five years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, his grandfather was denied an interpreter while in the hospital. When he had surgery, his family didn’t know if his “life was in danger,” DiMarco writes.
The deaf community is not immune to homophobia. In his youth, DiMarco was told the story of a handsome, acclaimed deaf sprinter. After marrying a woman, having two children and living the life of a “perfect” family man, he committed suicide.
Years later, DiMarco discovered the legendary athlete was gay, when he met the sprinter’s European deaf male lover. The athlete told his lover that he could not go out.
“I was wondering how long it would take me to see him again,” the athlete lover told DiMarco, “I never did. Shortly after, he killed himself.
Despite these sad stories, “Deaf Utopia” is far from being a depressing one. It’s filled with moments of pride and exuberance from DiMarco’s mother when he and Murgatroyd were presented with the Mirrorball trophy when asked to executive produce ‘Deaf U’.
Coming out, DiMarco had to deal with homophobia and being excluded from the queer community because he is deaf. He’s met plenty of “cool” gay people at LGBTQ events and he spoke in American Sign Language at the 2016 Human Rights Campaign Annual Dinner.
Still, “my new gay acquaintances heard and didn’t know ASL,” DiMarco writes.
But he didn’t give up. With time and patience, DiMarco taught ASL to hearing queer people, and hearing LGBTQ people began to include it in their conversations.
“Deaf Utopia” has an entertaining dish on what it’s like behind the scenes of reality shows. But it’s not a celebrity reveal.
The memoir is an exhilarating mix of stories from DiMarco’s life and intriguing tales from deaf culture. Just take one thing that “Deaf Utopia” made me realize for the first time: silent films, without spoken dialogue, were accessible to deaf people.
If you hear, you’ll probably be surprised by a sobering story about deaf history: Alexander Graham Bell was instrumental in banning sign language, the native language of deaf people, in schools for the deaf.
If you like reality shows, dancing and parties mixed with queer and deaf culture, “Deaf Utopia” is the book for you.
“True Biz” is the dazzling new novel by Sara Novic, a brilliant deaf writer. Like DiMarco, Novic, author of “Girl at War” and “America Is Immigrants,” is proud to be deaf.
“Being a member of the deaf community has been a source of great joy in my life,” she wrote in an “author’s note,” “it has made me a better writer, thinker, parent, and friend.”
Schools for the Deaf have been vitally important to Deaf culture, language, and community.
“True Biz” takes place at the fictional River Valley School for the Deaf. Riverdale risks closure. The main characters of the novel are February Waters, the headmistress, and two teenage students Austin and Charlie.
February is a CODA (child of deaf adults). She and her hearing wife Melanie love each other. But like many marriages, their marriage has its constraints. February has to deal with everything from teen sex to the impending closure of Riverdale.
Austin is a proud deaf teenager. His family has been deaf for generations. Nothing comes to rush his life until he meets Charlie, a new student.
Novic is a master at creating characters that stick in your heart. Charlie, who is deaf, will touch your heart the most. His divorced parents are hearing. His parents won’t let Charlie communicate in American Sign Language. Charlie attends mainstream schools where she doesn’t meet any deaf people. Her mother insists that she have a cochlear implant.
When she fails academically, Charlie is sent to Riverdale. Adapting is difficult for her because the students of Riverdale communicate with ASL. She must quickly learn to sign. February asks Austin to help her fit in.
You’ll miss and root for these characters after reading this page-turning novel. You’ll want February and his wife to stay together and good things to happen to Austin and Charlie.
“True Biz” is an American Sign Language idiom. In English, it means “seriously” or “for sure”.
Seriously, read “True Biz”.
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