The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness in Africa

With all due respect to my book club's selector this month, I must admit, I wasn't gung-ho about this book when I agreed to it. When I went to purchase it, I even hoped that the little bookstore in my neighborhood wouldn't have it so I could buy myself an Agatha Christie novel for that weekend instead. But it was there and so I bought it... and I quickly realized that I had underestimated this book and the author. Josh Swiller did a great job with this. It wasn't necessarily the events in his story that kept me going at a steady pace, but the narration of the author.

You know the story will be heartbreaking and you know that Peace Corp volunteers are often thrown into situations where they're expected to make a difference in the face of incredible odds. But really made the book for me is the fact that you just really like Josh Swiller. He has a wonderfully snarky sense of humor. Born and raised in Manhattan, Josh lost pretty much all of his hearing by age 4. But rather than surround him with a deaf community, his parents didn't really discuss it much and he (and one of his three brothers) went to regular schools, relying on lip-reading and hearing aids. He didn't even meet many deaf people (again, besides his brother) until he was in his twenties. He fights with his brothers (particularly Zev) and he admits that he might have used the sensitive soul angle to get laid in college, but after attending Yale, he wasn't sure what to do with himself. So he signed up for the Peace Corp... and he was shipped off to a small village in Zambia.

If only for his style, I recommend this book. Unlike some people who write memoirs of going to Africa and having their lives changed or being deaf, Swiller is first and foremost a guy you can relate to, and it's only on the second level that he happens to be deaf. He articulates his experience as a deaf person in ways that I have never encountered. Perhaps the most interesting point is that he finds his deafness minimized in Africa. People make a point of speaking directly to this important white man in their community, so he can read their lips with greater ease. Otherwise, he's just another white guy in Africa who realizes that he doesn't know how to achieve his lofty goals and so he's got to adapt to the situation and do what he can.
So I say "Well done, Swiller," and thanks to this month's book club selector for making me read a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and wouldn't have otherwise picked up.

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