Summer is in full swing and I have been beyond busy! Fortunately, I was able to find some time to finally get back into reading, and I started off with a book called The Words in My Hands by Asphyxia. Asphyxia is a Deaf Australian artist, writer, and activist. In her book, she tackles various issues, including Deaf culture, ableism, environmental issues, and sustainability.
I was drawn to this book because of the beautiful cover. I thought the watercolor and the soft design of the figure were so inviting, I was compelled to flip through it. To my surprise, the entire book is just as beautiful! Each page is its own work of art, and I quickly realized that the book itself was the main character Piper’s art journal! The book follows sixteen year old Piper, who is Deaf but grew up Oral, meaning she would lipread, speak, and did not know sign language. As she is faced with a food shortage and censorship from a government that has forbidden its people from growing crops, she learns Auslan (Australian Sign Language) from Robbie, a Deaf woman who teaches Piper how to grow her own food, and her son Marley, who is a CODA (Child of a Deaf Adult).
I bought this book because I thought it was an amazing mash-up of some of my interests – Art and Deaf culture/Sign Language. I know some ASL from high school, and learning about Auslan was really interesting! I also loved how Piper used art as her outlet. Often, she found her hearing aids to be overstimulating, and her escape was removing them and diving into her art journal. The format of this book also lent well to giving insight into Piper’s subconscious growth throughout the novel. For example, at the beginning of the book, she writes deaf, with a lowercase ‘d’, until she learns that Deaf with a capital ‘D’ is more proper and helps to show pride in the culture. Wherever she used a lowercase ‘d’, she had gone back with a red pen and written a capital ‘D’ over it. An art journal can be one of the rawest forms of expression and growth, both in skill and in personal life. Showing how Piper made physical changes to her own written words is a subtle but powerful way of indicating how much she has absorbed from the Deaf community.
I’m pretty particular about books, so I was a bit hesitant here. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the format when I was actually reading, but I ended up truly loving it. Throughout the novel, Piper begins to realize how her art can make an impact on others, and uses it to create posters and guides promoting agriculture. Getting to see these posters made the story feel that much more real. Asphyxia created a literal art journal based on her fictional character, and this created a very personal dynamic between the reader and Piper. I think that without that format, the impact of the story – the importance of Deaf culture and the effects of various environmental issues – would not have been as immense. I’m sure Asphyxia is not the first to produce a story in this way, but it has the feeling of being so unique that it could never be replicated. There is so much value in using art to narrate, especially a story surrounding someone who may be overlooked or forced to conform to the norm, like Piper who was expected to “be normal”.
Here are some pages from the novel that I absolutely loved:
If you’re interested in art, Deaf culture, or sustainability, I would highly recommend this book. Even if you’re only interested in one of those topics, this book has an amazing way of drawing you in and getting you to believe in Piper and want to learn along with her. To check out more of Asphyxia’s work, check out her website! Here, she has a blog, an art gallery (with amazing work), and access to her Auslan courses as well as a course about her approach to Art Journaling.