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Off the Page: Frances Itani

With Frances Itani
Novelist and Short Story Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2004; 1:00 PM

In the opening of Frances Itani's debut novel, Deafening, a grandmother fights to save her granddaughter from the silence of her new deafness--both the silence she now hears, and the silence she will succumb to if she doesn't learn how to talk. "Your name," the grandmother urges. "If you can say your name, you can tell the world who you are."

Based in part on her own grandmother's story, Itani's novel traces the girl's growing isolation, her years at a school for the deaf where she learns to speak and sign, and a romance she develops with a hearing man just before he goes off to World War I.

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Itani is the author of four short story collections published in Canada; this is her U.S. debut. She was online Thursday, Feb. 12 to discuss researching and writing Deafening. A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: Hello booklovers, and welcome today's "Off the Page." Canadian novelist and short story writer Frances Itani is joining us and is ready to answer questions. And we're off.

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Austin, Tex.: Reading your book, I quite enjoyed how a deaf character felt the kind of isolation in a town where no one was able to sign to her, even her family, who did not sign at all. I was impressed by your research. Initially, I was a bit concerned about the wrong impression on the ignorant public about the way deaf people lived. I did not think that after reading it. Being deaf myself, I enjoyed imagining myself as the deaf character. I would not want to be in her position. I do not advocate oral method. You did a very good job researching the background.

Do you know some signs or basic sentences?

Frances Itani: During my research, I decided that I had better learn American Sign Language (ASL), and I studied with three deaf teachers and did six levels of ASL. I did this so that I would not need interpreters while I was interviewing deaf people, and I knew that I couldn't write Grania's character without having access to deaf people. So really it was the generosity of various members of the deaf community who helped supply the detail for that character.

As far as the research goes, I spent six years reading documents and studying various books and mostly reading school newspapers from the old 1870 Ontario School for the Deaf. I read 20 years worth of those school newspapers.

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Carole Burns: You write about language quite directly in Deafening. As a child, Grania develops a secret language with her sister, then she and her husband, Jim, also create their own language. In writing about a deaf character, what did you discover about language and sound?

Frances Itani: Language has always been important to me in my own childhood and adulthood, and now as a writer, it's really the most important thing for me. For sure, I wanted language to be one of the important focuses of the book, and Grania's grandmother, Mamo, in fact, saves Grania's life twice, and the first way she saves her life is through the gift of language. This becomes very important later during the war sections of the book, because it turns out that Grania is the one who has had all the language training during her residential years at school.

Thematically, I was working with several issues. Sound and silence were important from the beginning, and I tried to balance the various parts of the book so that in the background, the reader is always aware of these two concepts. Sound, of course, as I learned in my research, is not important at all to deaf people. And Grania herself goes along with her husband, Jim, who is always trying to explain the world of sound to her. But sound, as she says, is more important to the hearing. In my book, sound is very important to the young soldiers who take part in World War I. I learned in my research, from reading hundreds of journals, diaries, documents, letters, that every man who was at that war wrote home about sound.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: As with most stories that are based on factual experiences, I'm curious: Which portions of your novel are real and about how much is totally fictionalized?

Frances Itani: As a fiction writer, my job is to create story, but because DEAFENING is set during a particular period of time, I had to do factual research so that I could learn the social and cultural history. In the book, I tried to stay true to actual happenings at the school for the deaf, and for sure, the war scenes are set in real time for the period.

What is made up is the entire story, and all of the characters. But the reason I did so much research was to make sure that every small detail, which grounds the story, is entirely accurate.

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Washington, D.C.: Is this your first novel? How does writing a novel differ from story? Did you know this was a novel when you began?

Frances Itani: I have written nine books, but this one is my first novel. My other books are short stories, poems and one children's book, all published in Canada.

The book before DEAFENING is called LEANING, LEANING OVER WATER, and that is a collection of linked stories, so I consider LEANING my cross-over book. And that really helped me when I began DEAFENING to start DEAFENING as a novel. There was no question in my mind from the beginning that DEAFENING would be a novel.

But this is a very different form from the short story, which I had been writing for decades. The short story is a very tight exact genre, and doesn't have the broad scope of the novel. But it a huge challenge to ensure that every word in a short story attaches to themes. In some ways, short stories are my favorite genre to write, and I'm just working on a collection now, which will be out this fall. But the book after that is called CELEBRATION, and that is going to be a novel, and will be out in 2006. And I have to say that I'm really excited at the thought of getting back into the novel again.

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Carole Burns: Your grandmother became deaf at the age of 18 months due to scarlet fever, similar to your character, Grania. Did you always know you would write about your grandmother? When did the book actually begin to develop?

Frances Itani: I never knew that I would be writing a book about a deaf child and woman. My own grandmother did become deaf when she was a baby, but my character, Grania, becomes deaf at five years old, because I wanted her to have a good understanding of language before her deafness. It was in 1996 that I decided to write this book. My grandmother died when she was 89 in 1987, so she was not, unfortunately, around to answer my questions. However, I was very close to her and remembered many things about her behavior and mannerisms, and I used a few examples of these in my book. I think most books begin as a surprise to the writer, and in 1996, when I became hooked on the idea for DEAFENING, it was certainly a surprise to me.

I did it out of absolute love for my grandmother, and that's what kept me going, really, because six years is a long time to work on a book. And when I was right smack in the middle of this book and wondering if I'd ever finish, I would call up my love for my grandmother and keep going.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Your book has made you a millionaire. Do you have any plans to "thank" the deaf community?

Frances Itani: The financial part was erroneously reported by a journalist in Canada and is simply not true. As for the deaf community, I am very much a part of it in the city where I live, have volunteered for many years, and have served on the board of directors at the deaf center. I have also visited and talked to students at Gallaudet, at Rochester, in Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland, and my readings and presentations throughout Canada and the United States have all been interpreted into ASL and often with real-time captioning for Oral Deaf. I am also holding two large fundraisers for the deaf community for literacy programs in two major cities this spring and fall.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you have a favorite author? Do you have an author whose work you emulate, or use as a compass for your own? Are they the same?

Frances Itani: I have favorite authors, but not used as compasses. I would say that I learned a great deal from Chekhov, also from the letters and diaries of Virginia Woolf. And I read many contemporary writers. People whose work I read recently are Kaye Gibbons, Helen Dunmore, Charles Frazier, and many many others.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Please share your reading list with us. What's on top of the "to read" pile?

Frances Itani: I just read a great collection of short stories by Penelope Lively, called BEYOND THE BLUE MOUNTAINS, which has great wit. Alistair MacLeod is one of my favorites. He won the Dublin IMPAC award and should certainly be read. I also enjoy Sebastian Faulks. Arthur Miller--I go back to his plays every once in a while. And to-read--I would say Seamus Heaney for sure. And Kate Grenville, an Australian writer, and her book, THE IDEA OF PERFECTION, is one of my favorites.

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Gullsgate, Minn.: Frances Itani: Unprepared to discuss; but waiting to discover your book now ordered through my favorite independant bookstore (Northern Lights Books).
Canada seems to have nourished so many good writers--is it something in the soil? If so, maybe we need to import a few truckloads.

Frances Itani: It's something in the cold air. I speak from a city that was 36 degrees below zero when I stepped off the plane from the book tour two weeks ago. There's definitely something in the cold air. But we do have many fabulous writers here.

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Arlington, Va.: First of all, Congrats on your success! My question is simply the mechanics of the industry, such as how hard was it to find an agent? How much say-so did you have when you took your book to the publishing agency? Also, for all inspired and up-coming novelists, are there any words of wisdom that you could share?
Thank you, and again, congrats on your major accomplishment!

Frances Itani: Put in the groundwork, write your way through all of the problems, don't sit around thinking about the problems, you actually have to write your way through them, and don't ever give up. Perhaps the most important, the one I follow myself, is follow your instinct.

About agents, I believe it's difficult to be taken on as a beginner, but once you have proved yourself as a writer, agents are more willing to look at your work. I was fortunate in that both publishers and agent came to me, so I felt that I was lucky in that regard. My early work was published in literary journals, and I also won a number of national prizes, so that helped for sure.

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Washington, D.C.: I noticed in the book that when you described various signs, they were produced in the same way they are today. Since ASL sign production has evolved over time, did you do any research into signs used at that time, or did you just go with what people are using today for convenience?

Frances Itani: Although I learned sign language as it is today, and I'm speaking about ASL, in fact, all of the signs in my book come from two very early and rare texts from the United States. One was from 1910, the other 1923. And these were used exclusively. The only sign that might not have existed during the period 1900 to 1920 is the sign for dormitory, and my teachers and I could not find a definite answer on that one. The rest are all early 1910 signs. These books can be obtained from the States on interlibrary loan.

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Carole Burns: I am so amazed at the level of research you've done, yet how that isn't horribly obvious when you're reading the book. The world feels very authentic, but it isn't laden with the research.

Frances Itani: The really difficult part for the writer is to try to remain as subtle as possible during the storytelling. Focus has to be on story and story line, and not on the information one has researched. So even though an enormous amount of research must be done to authenticate historical setting, etc., this really helps the writer to feel comfortable in the period and comfortable with the language of the times, but the trick, if there is a trick, is to almost make the information disappear and allow detail to emerge through story and character.

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Cleveland, Ohio: There is a university for deaf students in Washington, DC, called Gallaudet. I believe that many Canadian students go there, since there is no other university in the world for deaf students. Have you visited Gallaudet? How was your book received by the Deaf community?

Frances Itani: The book has been very well received by the deaf community, and many deaf people have reviewed it in the major newspapers of North America. When I was in England and Scotland, I was also interviewed by five or six deaf writers and the same in Belgium and Holland.

I went to Gallaudet in September, as well as the school in Rochester, and I was very warmly received by staff and students. I am in touch now with a number of people from Gallaudet whom I met at that time. As much of my research was done in Canada at a very large school for the deaf in Ontario, I also maintain my ties there, and recently visited and spoke with the students.

I do hear occasionally that deaf people wonder if I will get the character right, but after finishing the book, people seem quite anxious and eager to tell me that I got it right. And that, no doubt, is because of the help I had from deaf people over the years, who shared many of their personal experiences with me.

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Carole Burns: And we are out of time! Thanks so much to Frances for joining us today -- "Off the Page" returns in two weeks.

Get announcements about upcoming authors on "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

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