Friday, February 23, 2007

Book Preview!

I'm back! So nice to be here. Just flew in from LA and boy are my arms tired!

No, actually, I've been hard at work on the final drafts of my book. It comes out in September and the title is The Unheard: A Memoir.

Now that the book's finish line is nearly in sight, I can get back to blogging and keeping Jack happy. So, on that note, below is a description of the book that I recorded for booksellers. It's a little blah, but does a good job describing the basics of the memoir. It's long too, but you will not be tested on it.


I was born with a severe hearing loss and became profoundly deaf by the time I was five. With the help of hearing aids, dedicated (if thoroughly unusual) parents, three wild brothers, and an audiologist who did not believe in limits, I learned to speak and lip-read quite well. Too well, almost, because I was able to pass through the world of hearing people to such a degree that many people didn’t know I was deaf and I consequently could never quite figure out what I was. Deaf? Hearing? None of the above?

I had many questions from a young age. Why was I deaf? But more than that: why was the world created with such things as deafness, blindness, lameness? I was six, eight, and these questions would weigh on me.

As a deaf child among hearing people, you learn to read the subtle cues that people don’t know they are giving. It’s a trick that helps you figure out conversations when the words are coming too fast to follow. The way a man cleans his glasses, the way a woman puts down her water glass – people are open books. With my hearing aids off I would watch people and see in their body language, in their briefest glances and gestures, whole oceans of emotions that went unsaid. Why? Why unsaid?

I went to Yale and I found it a very challenging place. Lectures and social events were not designed with hearing impaired people in mind. Everywhere were extraordinary ambitious young men and women, but no one seemed to be asking the questions that mattered, at least to me, namely: what was the point? If you achieved everything you sought, well, then what?

Then I went to Gaulladet, the national university for the deaf, and discovered an altogether different world with its own unique answers to the questions I asked about life. The deaf community is close and warm and rich, caring and understanding, and if I were a luckier man maybe I’d still be there, but I’d been in the hearing world too long to feel entirely comfortable there. I needed to be back in the world of speech and sound. In the hearing world I was deaf, yes, but in the deaf world, I was hearing.

So I did the logical thing: I went to live in a rural village in Zambia, Africa for two years.

Mununga, Zambia was a fantastical place. Sixty kilometers past the last paved road, phone line and electric cable, it was part timeless village, part refugee camp. There were friendly faces to greet, fish and fried earthworms to eat, banana wine to drink, a beautiful river to swim in, a gang of teenage boys who worshipped Rambo and studied and debated my Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue like Rabbis debate the Talmud. The energy of 50,000 people packed in a small area -- children, mothers, fathers, goats, and chickens, thatch roof huts going on for miles and miles -- was dangerous and exhilarating.

Dangerous because witchcraft and superstition were prevalent, especially in the person of a shady village strongman named Kingston; exhilarating because, as the first white man to ever live in Mununga, I found a place past deafness. The villagers spoke clearly and slowly, looked me in the eye as they spoke so I could read their lips, and there was little or no background noise. They really cared if I could understand them and if I couldn’t, they blamed their English skills instead of my hearing. I was hearing, or about as close as I could get.

I began a friendship with the most remarkable man I’ve ever met, a Health Clinic Officer named Mr. Jere. He was gregarious, kind, funny, wise, and brewer of the best banana wine in the village. We spent many nights sipping wine, playing chess and discussing life. He trained me to help him out as the clinic as I had been instructed by Peace Corps to dig wells but that didn’t go anywhere, and he helped me navigate sticky situations such as a trial for defiling the virgin daughter of a blackmailing preacher. Good times.

But then everything went mad: mobs, violence, bus crashes. Deaths foreseen and unforeseen. And really, who was I to search for a place to call my own in the middle of Africa?

That’s all in the book, but what I want to add is that after I came home from Africa, and after another few years of traveling, I ended up at a Zen Center in upstate New York. I learned meditation there and through meditation I finally took this search for understanding to its logical extreme: to a thorough examination of the searcher. My teacher would ask me: what is it that would search so hard? What is it that makes one feel less than whole? I learned so much in my four years there.

And so while the book is about Africa and deafness it is also about one of the first and deepest instructions my meditation teacher gave me: “Zen practice,” he said, “is about learning to have a sense of humor.”

It took me a long time to understand the depth of that teaching. But I feel that it informs the book, and rightfully so, because the African villagers I met, while poor in many regards, were extraordinarily rich in humor. Even as mobs ran wild, as disease and poverty were widespread, they found reasons to laugh. Do you want a glass of banana wine? Did you see that goat running wild at market?

In telling the story of getting past deafness in an African village, I tried to show this humor, to enable readers to see and experience its power for themselves. With humor comes gratefulness, and that is invaluable. These days I work with the deaf and the terminally ill in Brooklyn, NY, and the experiences I’ve had in this position only confirm my belief in the power and importance of a smile.

As Jere would say: Did you hear the one about the goat that wears pants?

I feel extraordinarily blessed for the life I’ve gotten to live, for the people I’ve met, and for all that they’ve taught me and I offer this book as a gift to them.


Blogger Jennifer said...

I will want a copy of that book! :) My husband keeps telling me I need to write, but my life has been nowhere as interesting as most folks'! :)

9:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really am looking forward to reading the book. vm

10:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn, Josh's life sounds even more interesting than mine. Can't wait to read the book.

10:42 PM  
Blogger Anne Marie said...

Hi Josh,

This whole blog opened my eyes to deaf culture and the cochlear implant process. When I met you at the conference the other day I was barely aware of any difficulty you might be having in hearing except in noisy places and when music was playing. I experienced you as a hearing person, so I was amazed to discover what a journey you have undertaken to reach the place you are today.

One thing that interested me, since you described the difficulty in hearing classical music played by your roommate at one point, is whether that got any better, but more interestingly what kind of music you were hearing when you sang in the shower before the surgery, since you lost most of your hearing by age 5. The thing I wondered was whether a person makes up their own music if they don't have any they remember having heard. I make up tunes in my head all the time, but of course I hear music everywhere all the time, so I never know where I might have heard "my own" tunes.

The other thing I wondered was whether it was scary to hear nothing from one ear (or was it constant tinnitis?) for 30 days after the surgery. I can't imagine this depth of silence, but similar to perfect darkness, I imagine it to be terrifying, at least initially.

Oh, one more thing. A friend of mine in Austin knew Michael Chorost back in the day. She was glad to hear how great he is doing these days. I never heard of him except from your blog, so it feels like another piece of a whole other world that was right under my nose and I never saw. Anyway.

Your book intro reads so well, I can't wait to read the book. Good luck with it.

Anne Marie

9:16 AM  
Blogger Anna Jane said...

More blog! Need more Josh blog!! Blog! Blog!

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Josh, what's the title of the book going to be? I'm looking forward to learning from you how to hear. I am a hearing person, but not yet in the Zen sense.


BJ Soto

11:37 AM  
Blogger Josh said...


Sorry I took so long to reply. The Book is called The Unheard and you can find out more about it on Amazon.

Blog will be back in business at the end of this month. Finally!


10:02 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Congrats on the book, Josh. That's quite an achievement. It sounds like a great read -- both funny and wise -- and I look forward to perusing it.

7:08 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home