Sarah Marsh on writing ‘A Sign of Her Own’
Get ready for our ‘A Sign of Her Own’ event at Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2024 by reading the inspiration behind Sarah Marsh’s debut literary novel.

Reading A Sign of Her Own was unlike almost any other reading experience I’ve had before. The story is narrated in the first person by Ellen Lark, our vulnerable, big-hearted and defiant protagonist, who is Deaf and relies heavily on lip-reading; as a reader I am plunged into Ellen’s sensory perception and experience, living in a silent world where she can only be certain of others’ words when they are written down. The effect is striking, initially making me feel doubtful of Ellen and of my own understanding of events, a little vulnerable and certainly isolated. Yet through Ellen I gradually learn that it doesn’t have to be this way and it’s actually the people around her who are perpetuating this – a whole world of connection, ground and belonging exists if she is just able to use her own language to communicate.

Sarah Marsh uses this intimate way of writing and Ellen’s story to explore the little-known (until now) history of how the Deaf community was for so long discouraged from – even ostracised for – using sign language, when the hearing world wanted them instead to assimilate and hide their difference. It’s also about the part that Graham Alexander Bell, inventor of the telephone, played in this. These powerful themes of communication, identity, being allowed to have a voice, and to exist in you own unique and equal way fit so perfectly with the aims of the City of Literature weekend this year, where all our events seek to question and explore the importance of letting everyone speak, and making sure we listen well. I can’t wait to hear from Sarah about the creation of Ellen’s story and her words below give you a wonderful flavour of what’s to come in the event.

There’s a quote from A Sign of Her Own that really stuck with me, where Ellen describes being shut in a small cupboard as punishment for using sign language and her friend replies, ‘…you know what is smaller? The world with only English in it’. This perfectly sums up why the novel is so important – it gives a voice to the importance of multiple ways of communicating and living and helps make readers’ worlds a bit bigger as a result.

— Holly Ainley, NCW Head of Programmes & Creative Engagement

 

A letter from Sarah Marsh

A Sign of Her Own is inspired by my experiences growing up deaf. As a child I was taught always to conceal my deafness. When I was a teenager, I took it as a compliment if ever I was told: ‘But you would never know!’ What people didn’t see was how much I was doing to disguise my deaf-self, relying heavily on lipreading, hearing aids and guesswork. I wasn’t the only deaf person in my family, as I had deaf and hard of-hearing family members. But it wasn’t until I was at university, and met another deaf person my age, that I began to understand what this concealment was costing me.

In the years that followed, I started learning British Sign Language, and took a deep dive into Deaf history. I wanted to understand why my family’s deafness had been reduced to a medical history, where being deaf was an impairment that needed to be fixed. It didn’t have to be this way. Deaf people have a rich culture and heritage, rooted in sign languages. My research eventually took me to the story of the Alexander Graham Bell’s work with deaf people and the telephone.

The character of Ellen began to form in my mind when I read about a technique Bell used with his pupils called Visible Speech. This enabled deaf people to reproduce the sounds of speech, though at great effort. Bell believed in the superiority of speech over sign languages, and campaigned extensively for articulation teaching. Most of his pupils were young women and as I read more about them, I became interested in the ways in which they paved Bell’s path to the telephone. One even claimed that Bell’s idea for putting a voice in a wire came from their lessons. I wondered what it might be like to be one of these women, and how she might feel about the telephone, and Bell’s claim to it.

For me, this is a novel about connections. Not the connections that Bell hoped to forge with his telephone, but the connections that deaf people made before a widespread campaign to prevent them from using their own language. I went on a journey with Ellen as she made connections of her own; with her sweetheart Frank, whose first language is American Sign Language, and with the deaf community that opens up to her at Frank’s printing shop in Boston, and St Saviour’s church in London. I have loved spending time with my deaf characters, while exploring what it means to have a Deaf identity off the page. I hope they will take readers on a similar journey, and provide a window onto a history that has been hidden for too long.

— Sarah Marsh, author of A Sign of Her Own

 

Join Sarah Marsh in conversation with Naomi Wood at National Centre for Writing, Dragon Hall on Sat 25 May as they discuss deaf history and representation in fiction →

 


Sarah Marsh was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish prize in 2019 and selected for the London Library Emerging Writers programme in 2020. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. A Sign of Her Own is her first novel, inspired by her experiences of growing up deaf and her family’s history of deafness. She lives in London. Image © Rii Schoer

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