From my book, I Believe You:
David thrust his backpack at him, handed him a $5 bill for lunch, and kissed Eddie on top of the head. He raised his hand, pinky finger and index finger pointed skyward, middle two fingers folded down, thumb out in the ILY gesture. I love you. Eddie flashed ILY back and headed out the back door. David stepped through the mudroom door to the back porch, watching as his youngest raced down the driveway, crooked tie flapping, jacket loose and unbuttoned.
One of the questions I’m asked a lot is, “Do you speak ASL?” ASL stands for American Sign Language. One of the main characters in my book, an eleven-year-old boy named Eddie, is deaf. Throughout the book, Eddie communicates solely through ASL; his deafness plays an important literal and symbolic part in the story.
Would it surprise you to learn that I don’t speak ASL? When I started writing the second draft of the book, I knew that Eddie was deaf, but I had no idea how to portray this. Should he lip read? That would be easier…but it didn’t feel right. ASL was the way to go, but what do you do when you don’t speak a language or have direct, personal insight into deaf culture, and you want to write about a deaf character?
I often say, sometimes jokingly and sometimes seriously, that God wanted this book to be written, and nothing reminds me of that more than how the ASL scenes in the book came together.
My original plan to write the dialogue was simply to do just that; write it out, and perhaps later, find someone fluent in ASL and hire them to edit the scenes. I wasn’t quite sure how to accomplish this, but I felt that at least I’d get a good first draft down on paper and would figure out the details later on.
I also used a site called LifePrint to learn some basic ASL symbols; I’d watch their videos and then try to describe what the ASL speakers were doing. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but at this early stage, it didn’t have to be perfect, just written.
Then came Donna. Donna was my editor at a company called LoveToKnow.com, and even after we both left the company in 2011, we remained close friends. I contacted Donna to ask her about how to find a first-line reader, someone to help me with the development of the story, and she generously offered her time and talents. I would send her one chapter a week, she would critique it, and help me flesh out some of the scenes.
One of the huge surprises, however, was when I received the very first chapter back from Donna. She had fleshed out the ASL dialogue and added a note – “I have a friend who is deaf and I learned ASL to communicate with her. I can help you with the descriptions.”
Problem solved. In one month, I’d moved from the inspiration of having a deaf character to having an editor, and one of the best writing teachers I know, who happened to speak ASL, editing my book.
In honor of all those who speak in ASL, and as a heartfelt thank you to Donna, here is how Eddie and his dad would have exchanged signs during that scene.