Talking with . . .

Josh Swiller

Interviewed by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    JOSH SWILLER (Zambia 1994–96) HAS WRITTEN a wonderful new book, The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa, published by Henry Holt. Writer Laurence Bergreen says in a blurb for the book that “Africa transformed him, and this book will transform readers.”
         We know that it is tough enough to be a PCV, but how about being a deaf PCV? Josh Swiller went to Zambia, to a rural village, and spent two years digging wells and working with deaf children, and trying to understand himself and Africa, and discovering that his “deafness” actually helped him survive.
         Josh came to us in a roundabout way. While working as a housepainter in New York City, he met up with [I think on the sidewalk] Jason Boog (Guatemala 2000-02) who is editor of the website The Publishing Spot, and they started talking and comparing histories and the Peace Corps came up, writing came up, and Josh’s new book, and Jason said to him, “do you know about” So Josh emailed me. I had heard about Josh from the publicity people at Henry Holt as they are publishers of such Peace Corps writers as Maureen Orth (Colombia 1965–67), Sarah Erdman (Cote D’Ivoire 1998–2000) and Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968), and are quick to let us know about new RPCV writers that they are publishing. With all of that as background, here’s what Josh has to say about his new book.

    Where are you from, Josh?
    I was born in Philly, grew up in New York City and then moved to the Westchester suburbs. I went to college at Yale.

    What was your Peace Corps assignment?
    I was part of the first group to serve in Zambia, back in 1994. From an initial group of twelve, eight finished. Our assignment was water sanitation — specifically we were supposed to dig wells. But we were assigned to such remote villages that had no experience with community development and no infrastructure to get necessary materials, that none of us Volunteers actually finished a well.
         We had been sent way out to the boonies because President Chiluba of Zambia had requested that the initial Peace Corps group go to his home province. I think he had a mistaken idea of what Peace Corps was and what we could accomplish. But to be fair, so did we.

    Explain what the Peace Corps has in the way of assignments for deaf PCVs. I know there is the Kenya project. I understand you were the first in your host country?
    I don’t know much about the deaf PCV project, to be honest. I went to Zambia as a regular PCV, getting by with lip-reading and what little I got from my hearing aids. I did end up working a lot with a deaf children in the city of Kabwe — but for much of my time as a Volunteer I was far from any deaf community.
         In fact, much of the first half of this book is about learning about deafness through the experience of being in a place, a wild bush town, where deafness was as irrelevant as it could possibly be. I had always wondered while growing up on the margins of the hearing world, unable to follow all but the most basic conversations, what it would be like to find such a place. I imagined it would be something like happiness. But the bush had other ideas.

    What do you mean but the bush had other ideas?
    Well, first, I absolutely did find what I’d been seeking — that place past deafness. In the village, by nature and out of respect, people spoke slowly and clearly and repeated themselves without complaint or embarrassment. Nor did anyone automatically assume that I understood them — because of the language gap they took their time to make sure I got everything they said. And my hearing aids, the weird things hanging from my ears, were insignificant to the villagers next to the color of my skin.
         So the village was this place past I’d sought my whole life. And then almost immediately I learned how irrelevant that was, how irrelevant my self-absorbed searching was.
         First, the rainy season rolled in, bringing malaria, meningitis and cholera, and children started dropping like flies. Then, moments of explosive and brutal violence blasted away all thoughts of personal striving and quests. And on any ordinary day, a simple daily event like weighing babies on the porch of the clinic could make God seem, in the words of Denis Johnson, like “a senseless maniac.”
         What was important in the face of all that? To me, aside from trying to bring some attention to worlds that most people don’t ordinarily get to see — deafness and Africa — The Unheard is largely about answering that question.

    Where do you live now and what do you do for a living?
    I live in Cold Spring, NY, about 90 minutes north of New York City. I’ve been a social worker for a couple years. I started in 2004, a year after I completely lost the rest of my hearing – I gave up speech and communicated in sign language and worked at a school for the deaf in Queens, counseling students and coaching the basketball team. After having surgery for a cochlear implant in 2005 and then acclimating to it, for the last year I’ve worked as a hospice social worker in Brooklyn. It is immensely rewarding, wonderful work.

    Do you see yourself as a writer or was this just the one story that you had to tell?
    Well, I plan for this book to be a springboard to other ones. I’ve been living an off-the-margins life for years, bouncing around the globe, living at a Zen center, spending a year as a forest ranger, working as a carpenter in rural Georgia and in Manhattan, plastering the apartments of David Bowie, Edie Falco and the like. I spent three years making and selling sheepskin slippers up and down the East Coast. I spent two years living completely in the deaf community, unable to hear at all. Through it all I never stopped writing. And now that I have my foot in the door, I plan on getting more of it out.
         First up is a non-fiction book about hospice. I’m really excited about it. I’m deeply interested, as a writer and a human being, in exploring spiritual insight and wisdom and our attitudes towards life and death. I hope I can do the subject justice.

    The descriptions of your childhood intertwine moments of hilarity when you’re interacting with your siblings with sober reflections on how you felt increasingly isolated from the world. Do you think your family will be surprised by what they read here? Do you think your struggles reflect a common experience for young children who are deaf?
    Well, my family won’t be surprised at my descriptions of sibling humor. To this day, my three brothers are the funniest people I know. And, if anything, they’d say I pulled my punches in my descriptions of childhood. Our house growing up was full of knock-down drag-out brawls and while I was prone to disappearing for long periods in quiet introspection and long books, I learned to really enjoy the scrums as well. They were a release and also, oddly enough, a connection, and they taught me to be fearless — but not, unfortunately, how to pick my battles.
         I wouldn’t say this full-contact coping style is common in deaf children, but I think that the emotional injury behind it is. Being a mainstreamed deaf child is a particular animal — you are constantly fighting your disability to navigate situations that are so effortless to everyone else, and so you begin to hate the disability and by extension, you begin to hate yourself. I’ve seen this internal struggle a lot with the deaf children I’ve counseled over the years, and it often takes them years to get past it. The gifts that disability bears are subtle and take time to mature.

    After Yale, you went into the Peace Corps. Why?
    Immediately after finishing college I wanted to learn about the deaf community so I spent four months learning sign language at Gallaudet, the National University for the Deaf. Then I went to work in the redwoods of Northern California as a forest ranger for a year. That was a tough, intense job — we often set up camp in the middle of the woods and worked from dawn to dusk rehabilitating streams and trails, planting trees, and fighting fires. Amazing forests, amazing people, and you had the satisfaction of working until you had nothing left, but still I felt lost. I still struggled so much with daily communication. My impulse was to find something even more intense than rangering and I don’t think my family was surprised when I told them I had applied to Peace Corps. It pretty much fit the path I was on.

    Were questions raised by the Peace Corps about your deafness in the application process?
    A few. But I could usually understand speech quite well in one-on-one situations like interviews, so I imagine it didn't seem like a big deal.

    Once in Zambia, what were some of the signs that this might be the place past deafness that you had been searching for? Were any of the other Volunteers on similar quests?
    To be honest, from the very first day of training I felt I was on to something. We were in a fairly large, well-developed city, but not a single home had a phone in it. That made me happy — phones are obviously very difficult for the deaf. And more than that, as I said, the way Zambians spoke was so easy to understand — slowly, clearly, without talking over each other and they looked you directly in the eye. That’s a lot less common here in the States than it should be. When we finished training and got out to our placements, I was able to quickly form satisfying connections with the people from my village.
         One thing I find interesting is that of the eight Volunteers in Zambia One who made it through two years, each one seemed to have an experience that seemed like a direct reflection of their personality. The mellow guy found Zambia very mellow. The go-getter found it a happening place. The ladies’ man found it full of beautiful and willing ladies. I wonder what that says about me . . .

    Tell us about being deaf in Mununga. How did you relate to this world?
    As I said, I found it easy to acclimate to the village and I think deafness was the main reason for this. People distinguish themselves and others as black, white, African, Jewish, American, Chinese etc, but deafness is a much more powerful distinction than any of these ethnicities and races, and makes them seem much less important than they might otherwise. It makes them seem artificial really, and once they’re eliminated, what’s left is people trying to get along. However, as I found out the hard way, feeling like you have a good connection and understanding village customs are two completely different things.

    Did you ever think of Early Terminating as others did in your project?
    Not really. I was stubborn and I wasn’t going to give up easily. And actually, for most of my stay, the hardest part actually wasn’t violence, but it was being so ineffectual. There was so much disease and suffering in Mununga and next to nothing that I could do about it. I felt like I’d been sent to fight a forest fire with a spray bottle.
         Not until the very end of my stay did I feel personally threatened, and when that happened, I got the hell out of town — but not before some genuinely terrifying moments.

    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.