American Sign Language (ASL) does not have a written form. So this post isn’t going to be about writing ASL. Rather, it’s about the joy and challenge of talking about writing (in English) with Native ASL speakers – in this case two 2nd generation Deaf Adults who also happen to be avid readers in the genre I write.
To set the scene… I went to an Interpreting workshop about getting back to the basics of ASL (something all interpreters need to do every now and again). This particular workshop lasted two days, was taught by the two Deaf readers I mentioned earlier, and was using “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins as the topic. I was excited of course because “The Hunger Games” is a really good read and is one of my favorite topics these days. I was sad to learn that most of the other participants hadn’t even seen the movie. By the end of the first day I was feeling rather disappointed, but at least it was good practice in my second language and good for a large number of CEUs (Continuing Education Units – required to keep my certification current).
The second morning I misgauged traffic and arrived half an hour early, which left me alone with the presenters for about 20 minutes. It only took about two before they had asked me what I do for fun and then we were talking about books and writing and all that fun stuff. It turns out that we have a lot in common when it comes to books. More than that, they were fascinated to learn that I write and wanted to know how I did it.
I can’t answer that question in English (my native language), let alone in ASL. How do I write? I sit in front of a computer and think about the words. Long years of practicing typing means that the words then appear on the screen in front of me with little additional thought. I can talk about my methods for developing characters and worlds and plots. I can even talk about them in ASL fairly easily, if not so eloquently. But that wasn’t what they were asking about.
For them, Written English is their second language. One they learned very young when it was easier to learn new languages. While they read well, writing does not come easy for them. Grammar and spelling, confusing to native speakers of Spoken English, like me, are even worse for native ASL speakers. They can get their point across easily enough, but it never has the magic of books they love so much. To tell you the truth, I feel the same way about ASL. I’ve seen some really gorgeous renditions in ASL. I can get my point across, but the art of it still alludes me. I did my best to explain my positions. Grammar is a funny thing, and art in language is deeper skill than I have yet learned in ASL.
Then the conversation took another challenging turn. They wanted me to describe my Works in Progress (WIPs). I admit, I usually love this part of the conversation. It’s a chance for me to start marketing the books, and check my own understanding of them. Many a conversation about my WIPs has resulted in figuring out the blocked point. This conversation meant that I had to explain my stories in my second language. I was still just as excited to do so (I’m a writer, what can I say). This is where the visual/spacial nature of ASL was at it’s strongest. I hadn’t thought about the maps very much in either “Daughter of the Revolution” or “In the Dark… We Hope”. I needed them in ASL. I know my stories very well, and was able to make up the maps on the spot – and in the process learned a lot about the connections in both novels.
I learned a lot at that workshop. A new way of thinking about fingerspelling, better choices for classifiers, quite a few signs I hadn’t seen or understood before, and that I should try reading my stories in ASL.