Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Josh Swiller (page 4)
 Talking with
Josh Swiller
page 1
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page 4

Throughout your book, your friend Augustine Jere is your guide, and you mention that he is the best friend you ever had. Have you been in touch with him since the Peace Corps?

This is the great frustration of my life. I’ve tried to contact him in so many ways for so many years. Through letters, through newspaper advertisements, through messages sent along with people traveling over to Zambia. But he’s been hard to find and I worry that he might not be alive. My hope is that this book will help me find him again. I plan on going to Zambia early next year.

How did your relationship with your deafness, if that’s a fair description, change after you left Africa?

Oy, it sometimes seems to never stop changing. I lost what was left of my hearing around 2002—3, went two years communicating almost entirely in sign. Then in August 2005 I had surgery for a cochlear implant. Nowadays, I hear so much better than I ever have that I really don’t know how to define my deafness. For the first time in my life I can talk on the phone!
     But for me, the lesson of Africa has been that how well one hears really doesn’t matter. I searched for years for the place past deafness and as soon as I found that place, it rearranged itself in unexpected and terrifying ways. The world doesn’t put much weight in our quests. All you can do, in Africa, in sound, in deafness, is just be grateful for what comes.

Are you the only deaf person in your family?

No. I have three brothers, the youngest, Sam five years younger, is also deaf. Also a cousin, eight years younger, is deaf as well. Sam and I got implants the same month. Having him to share this experience with has been a great blessing. I could not do it without him.

Tell us a little more about a cochlear implant and the deaf world argument about it?
A cochlear implant is a 3-centimeter electrode coil threaded into the inner ear (in my case the right one). It is wired to a transmitter embedded into the skull. Behind the ear there’s a removable external piece, a processor, which captures sound and translates it into ones and zeros. Signals from the processor pulse the implant, which stimulates the hearing nerve in lieu of sound itself. The end result: sound goes to the brain through a computer, bypassing the defective ear.
     It’s an amazing piece of technology, but not without controversy. For many people — including me, thankfully — hearing improves to near-normal levels. For a few, however, hearing does not improve and because the operation is irreversible (the nerve to the ear is cut), they can’t go back to wearing hearing aids.
     The main controversy regarding implants is their impact on the signing deaf community. The signing community is a beautiful one, full of deep emotional connections — the connections of lost people finding a home — and it feels under assault from implants. More and more parents are opting to give their infants implants and keep them from the signing community. The community is becoming smaller and more marginalized and, to a degree, has responded by “circling the wagons.” This is not, obviously, a long-term solution.
     I hope this conflict ends well. I’m not sure it will. But you can be sure I’ll be writing about it.
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