‘I feel outside of language’ - author Louise Stern on silence and communication

Louise Stern.

Louise Stern.

AMONG THE many notable writers coming to Cúirt this year is American Louise Stern, author of the much-praised short story collection, Chattering.

Born in California, Stern now lives in London where she works as an assistant to artist and film-maker Sam Taylor-Wood. She is also a visual artist in her own right and has exhibited in Barcelona, Madrid, and London.

The other thing about Stern is that she is deaf and grew up within an extended deaf family. The experience of deafness and of living as a deaf person within a hearing world strongly informs both her visual art and the stories in Chattering.

Reckless compared to who?

Growing up within a deaf community, Stern communicated via sign language but as she ventured out into the wider, hearing, world and then moved to London she found herself often having to converse via numerous scribbled notes.

“I felt and feel outside of language,” she says in describing how these experiences influence her writing. “That led me to question how it is used to define things in a false way, and made me crave substance and solidity beyond this falsity.

“All of this drives my writing. I wanted to conjure up people, situations, and ultimately ideas without making assumptions through my writing, to allow the reader to make determinations of their own through sensation and emotion.”

Most (though not all ) of Chattering’s stories feature deaf protagonists. They are frequently 20-somethings looking for parties and adventure, getting caught up in wild capers and sometimes dangerous situations.

Reviews of the book have commented on the degree to which Stern’s characters are reckless or keen to push boundaries, but she takes a more nuanced view of them.

“People have said that about my characters and often also about me, but I’m not sure what these words actually mean,” she says. “Reckless compared to who? Whose boundaries are being pushed? If you put these judgements aside then something much more interesting might come out of the stories.”

Nonetheless the book has received glowing reviews. The Observer declared it “utterly compelling, it expresses what it is like to be deaf in a way I have never read or understood before”, and writer Alan Warner described it as “an amazing debut: vibrantly perceptive, gentle, funny, and profound”.

Art and language

Stern reveals that Chattering has led her to delve further into the world of writing, including writing on a novel set in a Mayan Indian village where there is a high occurrence of deafness.

“The novel is half finished and I’m hoping to complete it back in Mexico,” she says. “In the meantime I’ve finished a play which seems to be going forward, and worked on a few other projects.

“I’m still not sure how to explain the play, but it’s about a man who has an existential relationship with language and how this plays out in his relationships with his wife and his mistress. It incorporates gesture and written dialogue as well as spoken dialogue. It isn’t with a specific company yet., but it grew from workshops done at the National Theatre Studio here in London.”

Another intriguing accomplishment on Stern’s CV is her editing and publication of Maurice, a contemporary art magazine for children.

“Like the stories, Maurice came out of my frustration with language,” she reveals. “I wanted to find a way to communicate in a genuine way, and I thought the visual language of contemporary art had potential to do this.

“I was interested in taking contemporary art out of the frameworks of jargon and the market, and using it to look at ideas and emotions. Because children approach things without preconceptions, I thought they were an ideal audience. Maurice took art from gallery artists and placed it next to the children’s own work, so that it became a conversation about people’s everyday realities. It was distributed free at schools in London.”

In a fascinating piece she did some time ago in The Daily Mail, Stern vividly described what it is like communicating via scraps of paper; “Some mornings I wake up and around me on the bed is paper with all the words of the night before,” she wrote. “Often I look down and see words written on my arms and legs, because I ran out of paper at some point…Writing down conversations with people forces you to have a closer look at why people say things and how. It doesn’t make you understand any more, but you still think about it more. All the things that are carelessly said, for some forgotten reason, become more important. You see the words there on the paper and you think about them further.”

I ask her about adapting to this mode of communication.

“I don’t think you ever completely adapt to communicating via pen and paper,” she replies. “It is an artificial way to communicate for everyone. But discomfort and awkwardness aren’t bad things. I kept going, and my expectations lessened as time went on, which puts less weight onto the situation.”

That Daily Mail piece concluded with her observation “Written words have a longer life than spoken words; it makes you want that life to mean something.” The written words in the stories of Chattering ensure that for Louise Stern and her readers, it does.

Louise Stern will read from Chattering in a fiction/multi-media event at the Town Hall Theatre on Thursday April 26 at 3pm as part of Cúirt. Chattering is published by Granta Books (£10.99 sterling ). For tickets contact the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or see www.tht.ie

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