The Public and Private Performance of the Deaf Body | Raymond Antrobus | Granta

The Public and Private Performance of the Deaf Body

Raymond Antrobus

The audiologist who fitted my new hearing aids was surprised when he took my hearing test. He said he’s around people with my level of deafness who struggle more visibly with it. A common saying about deaf people is that what we lack in hearing is compensated for with another sense, like a superpower.

My superpower has become lip-reading and perfecting my listening face, so it looks like I’m fluidly following speech, nodding, relaxing my shoulders, loosening my jaw. I’ve found that if you physically express your listening then people open up and talk more which gives me more time to get used to the voice and speech patterns of a person. These internal gymnastics mean piecing together the things I hear with the missing parts.

But I was born with my deafness and most of a private audiologist’s patients are late deafened so it’s different. ‘Physicians in particular tend to underestimate the quality of life of disabled people, compared with our own assessment of our own lives,’ writes Harriet McBryde Johnson.

But look, I’m not trying to speak to other people’s deafness, even though hearing people are constantly speaking to what they think it is.

On Hunter Street in Central London, I once passed a broken sign above a shop the i ing of falafel. The broken parts of the letter ‘K’ that became an ‘I’ reminded me of the parts of words I don’t hear and have to be mentally filled in. The I’ing of Falafel matched my internal deaf dilemma and externalised the language of that internal space, the part of me that is wondering if I heard something correctly and the part of me that is wondering if I’ve found a poem to perform.

I started to think that a deaf person asserting their relationship to their specific deafness is a necessary kind of performativity. How we perform seems to depend on the audience we’re performing for. As a deaf poet, I avoided writing about my deafness at first, for fear of being simplified and pigeon holed. Deafness is one part of my identity but the themes I write into aim to have wider appeal. Now, I feel that what’s equally a sign of wide acclaim and success (as performing for hearing mainstream audiences) is knowing who we are as deaf people among ourselves, who we are when we turn away from the hearing mainstream gaze altogether, who might we be if we lived in a world of understanding ourselves first, what music could we be making instead, what beats have we been missing, what beats have we been taking, what could we give and take from our most authentic performances?

I wanted to start writing something about the public and private performance of the deaf body, starting in the early 50s with a skinny, sensitive, bisexual deaf boy from the suburbs who grew up to become the brief spotlit white face of black American music.

America heard Johnnie Ray croon for the first time through the radio in the autumn of 1951 and no one tuned in like the misunderstood misfits did, the ones who felt strange and awkward in their complicated bodies. Ray’s singing swung with so much feeling, was so alive and aligned with such pleading sorrow that myths blossomed all around him.

At first they mistook his voice for a black woman and music executives and critics alike grimaced, said that she lacked smoothness and precision in her phrasing. When they found out that Ray wasn’t a black woman, that he was a white deaf man from Dallas, Oregon, they changed their tune and dubbed him ‘The Prince of Wails’.

Johnnie Ray was touched by black sound since he was a teenager. He heard Billie Holiday and whatever wave hit him never left. But that wasn’t the only thing that struck me when I first watched the grainy black-and-white footage of Ray crooning in the spotlight – it was also his un-concealable boxy hearing aid.

One of the first things I watched after the audiologist fitted my new high-tech hearing aids was Deaf British actress Rose Ayling-Ellis and Italian dancer Giovanni Pernice making it to the semi-finals in the British show Strictly Come Dancing in 2021.

These new hearing aids were the neatest I’d ever had, lucid in sound and smaller than the brown NHS devices I’d worn since my school years. The microphone was clearer and the Bluetooth software synced up with my computer and my phone making my virtual world sharper.

I don’t watch much television, but I was told about Rose and Giovanni’s ‘silent dance’ while being interviewed on Saturday Live on BBC Radio 4 by Nikki Bedi and Richard Coles. They wanted my opinion on Rose but I hadn’t seen the dance, so I just said that it was always great when a talented deaf person is able to thrive in the spotlight.

Raymond Antrobus

Raymond Antrobus is the author of the poetry collections To Sweeten Bitter, The Perseverance and All The Names Given. He also hosted Inventions in Sound for BBC Radio 4 and Recaptive Number 11,407 for BBC World Service. He is a fellow of the Royal Literature Society and his poems are part of the UK’s GCSE syllabus.

Photograph © Adam Docker

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