I don’t believe that I would be a writer if I wasn’t Deaf. I think that being born deaf kind of derailed me from the kind of path that, that the men in my family tend to take. My dad worked for CN Rail, and my brother worked for CN Rail, and my dad’s dad worked for CN Rail. So being Deaf kind of took me away and steered me away from, from that path and down a more artistic and imaginative path.
You’re listening to Parallel Careers, where writers who also teach share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
My name is Adam Pottle. I’m a writer who is currently based in Saskatoon and my writing focuses chiefly on Deaf and disabled characters. And I’ve published four books, including two books of fiction, a book of poetry and a memoir, and I’ve also had two plays produced. And I am currently the writer in residence at Sheridan College.
A couple of different things appealed to me about this position. First of all, because Sheridan is based in Ontario and Ontario has a strong Deaf community. I thought it would be an opportunity for me to kind of give back to the Deaf community and be able to encourage more Deaf and disabled writers to tell their stories through this position. And also, of course, having this opportunity would allow me to focus on my own work for a while and, uh, kind of take a break from—not take a break from teaching—but approach teaching in a different way. Because the writer in residence position is more a mentorship position than just strictly teaching. And so I saw it as an opportunity to become a little bit more involved in that capacity.
I first approached Ultrasound as a poem because that was kind of where my head was at the time. And then I, I soon realized that the voices on the page were kind of extending beyond line breaks and beyond enjambment and beyond verse.
And so it felt more like a play to me, um, than a poem. I had very limited experience in writing a play. So I felt I needed a playwright in order to guide me in the right direction. And Yvette (Nolan) was the writer in residence at the time. And so, uh, on a whim, I submitted it to her, hoping that she would give me some advice. And of course she did. Yvette was enormously encouraging and supportive of my work. Even, even though she had never met me before. And she could just see and intuit where I was trying to take that piece and I found her suggestions to be enormously helpful.
One of the things that she kept saying to me, not just from that initial encounter in her writer in residence capacity, but we also worked together on a workshop of Ultrasound, a short time later.
And one of the things that she kept saying was to me was “Raise the stakes, raise the stakes, raise the stakes.” In other words, make it more dramatic and draw more out of the characters. So that’s something that I’ve continued to do, not just with Ultrasound, but also with my other work. And I also to try to carry those lessons that she taught me, forward into my capacity as a writer in residence and just as a writer period. And try to engage with compassion and with encouragement and to provide, to provide useful, solid advice.
Excerpt from The Bus
I feel the seizure just put before it arrives, like the ground vibrations of an arriving train. My jaw and neck pump together. My dry tongue’s trapped. I desperately wish for water. A charge hooks up my spine—my spine hooks. My head jams against the seat. My shoulders bunch. My hands flail. I hit Peter on the knee. He’s knocked out. My little teeth dig past the scar tissue. Blood rises to my mouth’s ceiling. I left my lip at the corner. I try to aim for a small untouched portion of my tongue, lest I bite all the way through it. The bright scar tissue gives way. I hum and curl towards the wall. The smell is overwhelming. My back is hot. Everyone’s voices drip down the walls onto my back. The bus is a can of sloppy voices.
My novella, The Bus is a story that takes place on a single day on April 21st, 1941. And The Bus is told by eight different people. Six of them are mental patients who are put into a psychiatric facility. One of the narrators is the doctor who operates the euthanasia program at a euthanasia clinic in Germany. And the last narrator is the man who runs the crematorium.
The Bus went through a number of different stages of creation. I started in 2008, and at that time it had just one narrator, and that was the doctor. Prior to that, I had gone to, I had gone to Germany to research the novel and I visited the actual euthanasia clinic that’s depicted in The Bus. And the people who worked there, they were so wonderful and so welcoming. And while I was there, I saw school groups, groups of school kids touring the euthanasia clinic. And they, they went through, the shower room that was down in the basement. They went through the dissection room, they went through the hallways where they used to have the ovens and the crematorium. And they saw on display on the main level of the clinic, which is now a museum. On the main level of the clinic, they saw these displays that talked about how disabled people were thought to be burdens. They saw the different kinds of propaganda that was distributed throughout Germany, to convince people that disabled lives are not worth living.
I spent about 10 days at that clinic and, uh, in the city where it’s located. And then I came back to Canada and then I started working on a novel right away. And the first draft was much longer than what The Bus is now. And I eventually landed a publishing contract for that version, but it was later judged to be too violent. And so it was never published. And so I decided to approach the story from a different way and made sure that I included, uh, the people who were victimized by the Nazi’s euthanasia mechanism.
If a student encounters a disappointment, like the one that I did, then the advice that I have to give is this. If you believe in the story enough it’s going to come back. If you believe in the story, then you’ll carry it with you. And eventually it will make its way into another poem. And you just need to trust that process. Because if the story is worth telling, it will come out somehow. The process of writing The Bus from that first draft in 2008 to the time that it was published in 2016, it was a process of eight years. And one of the things that kept me going, was the belief that the story needs to be told, and I felt that it needed to be told because of the way that we consistently undervalue disabled people. It’s something that has been consistent throughout human history. You can go all the way back to ancient Greece. You can look at philosophers, such as Aristotle, who thought that deaf people were basically animals who were incapable of reason.
So these kinds of attitudes just continue to persist. And they persist today. I mean, you can see it in the latest genetic research. That comes from this belief that disability diminishes the quality of our lives, but it doesn’t. What diminishes the quality of our lives is ableism. There are so many people, so many disabled people who experience such extreme ableism everyday. That have people telling them, you know, if I was in your position, I would just kill myself. Or where they would say, if they see a disabled person coming down the street, they would say, “Oh, you’re so brave for being out today.” And it’s like, what other choice do we have? Right? So that kind of attitude really needs to change.
And what The Bus does is basically show what happens when that attitude is taken to a certain extreme.
Excerpt from The Bus
I stand at the bottom of the stairs, watching for shadows at the top. I quickly open my flask and drink. Like the doctor, most of the staff members have abandoned God’s grace. An unofficial clause of the Party’s oath is to renounce the teachings of Christ and replace them with the new German logic. The Hitlerjugend are especially devout in this regard; they openly chastise and harass people attending church. My wife once wrote that a good friend of hers had gone home with a broken nose.
They embraced the murder of so-called idiots. Yet they are all idiots and their own ways. If God is gone, not only is there no hope, no empathy, and no mercy, but there is no longer a mechanism for proper judgment. We are left alone with our pettiness. We drift apart.
One of the things about being Deaf is that it stimulates the imagination in unexpected ways. Because sometimes when I don’t understand what somebody is saying, I’ll make it up. And, usually, what I make up in my head is often, far more interesting than what they’re actually saying. But, um, that’s something that’s stimulated my imagination. And that just kind of carried forward into me becoming a writer. And my deafness kind of creates a distance, at least from spoken language. Basically every language is foreign to me, and it’s also created distance for me from sign language as well, because I didn’t grow up with sign language.
I grew up in a hearing family, so I didn’t have access to sign language when I was a kid. And I didn’t really start to seriously learn American Sign Language until I was 30. I didn’t grow up around Deaf kids. So I didn’t have access to visual language the way that other Deaf kids might have. So I was, I was put through speech therapy and I was put through speech therapy because English doesn’t feel familiar to me. So I have to kind of adjust my tongue and adjust the way that I think and experience language in order to speak it properly and in order to engage with it.
So the way that I’m speaking to you now is the product of years of speech therapy. Which is basically kind of like taking your tongue and stringing it out on a rack, and treating your tongue like taffy. It’s given me this different perspective of language and this kind of hyper-awareness of language. And I’m, I’m very careful with how I choose because I have to be. Not just as a result of my deafness, but, um, because some words are just difficult for me to say as a result of my speech impediment. And also we should be careful with how we speak anyway. That’s just common sense. That aspect is, thankfully, just built into me naturally as a result of my being Deaf.
Excerpt from Voice
Silence does not necessarily mean nothingness. Silence carries many meanings. It signifies peace and safety, the quiet of armistice. It is the lack of a voice and the trace of a voice. It unsettles and discomforts us. It suggests death. It suggests contemplation. It is often interpreted as indicating complicity or agreement, especially in dictatorial regimes. It is a method of rebellion, of refusing to testify against or speak in favour of those in power. It can function as a shield and as a weapon. It can imply guilt and innocence. It enfolds us when we pray and worship. It surrounds us when we create. For me as a writer, silence is both an ally and an enemy. On the page, it is both the space between words and a way of speaking. Silence can speak more profoundly than any word. Sometimes the things we want to say the most can’t (and shouldn’t) be shaped into words.
My memoir Voice is basically a memoir about my experiences growing up deaf but in a hearing family and how my deafness has shaped me as a writer. When I first started writing Voice, I had an entirely other plan for the memoir, but what I was planning to do, was I wanted to write, I wanted to write it symbolically speaking. I didn’t want to write about my, like, specific experiences in childhood or anything like that. I just wanted to write a symbolic memoir. For example, I wanted to, I wanted to start with that scene, in the booth at the hearing test clinic. But then I wanted the ceiling to come off. I wanted to have me like battling against monsters. Like there would be a giant mouth over here that would represent, uh, audism.
And, uh, there would be kind of like, almost like a forest of hands, of signing hands. It would be kind of very beautiful. But it didn’t quite work out like that. But I knew that I had to kind of introduce, kind of introduce something else into the memoir, rather than just me talking about my experience. I wanted to have colour commentary, so to speak. And I thought, well, who’s more colourful than Lemmy from Motorhead? I’d seen numerous interviews, uh, with Lemmy and I couldn’t really hear his voice, but people told me that he wasn’t, he’s not exactly, uh, easy to understand. And so that, that aspect of it kind of appealed to me because sometimes I myself am not easy to understand. And also because Lemmy passed away before I could get a chance to see Motorhead and I wanted to meet him, if only in my imagination.
One exercise that I think is particularly beneficial, especially right now, is I ask the students to write a paragraph to a page describing themselves, but from the perspective of a loved one or their best friend. And what this does is this does a few things. One, it allows them to see themselves from somebody else’s perspective and it also allows them to see themselves from a perspective of somebody who loves them. It’s an enormously empowering and uplifting thing.
For me, if a student feels, feels encouraged, especially during the pandemic right now, if a student feels, feels motivated and feels encouraged and wants to keep creating as a result of speaking to me, then I consider that a victory. Especially right now, because it’s so difficult to create right now. It’s so difficult to stir up the momentum. And if it’s something that I myself have experienced. So if I can get, uh, if a student feels encouraged and feels motivated as a result of talking to me, I consider that a victory.
The Black Drum is a Deaf musical, which means that all the music comes from, it comes out of the body. It’s not, uh, something that’s, uh, based on sound. The Black Drum, suggests this idea that music is not just something that you hear. It’s something that you feel and can see. And when I was asked to write the play, I was struck by this idea of a Deaf musical, because to many people that sound like it’s a, it sounds like a paradox. It sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. Deaf people can experience music. I mean, I, I myself listen to music, but I just experience it differently than other people might. We can feel the beats. Some people have certain levels of hearing that allows them to hear–they may only hear the guitars or they may only hear the drums. But we need to kind of dispel this idea that Deaf people don’t experience music, because we do.
And what happened was I wrote the script and I, I went through many, many, many drafts of that script. The script ended up being a, kind of a blueprint for the director and the actors and the choreographers because written English, written English does not translate into sign language directly. So my script is more of a blueprint that kind of dictated the characters’ motives and where the story was going to go. Each actor created these magnificent compositions, that drew the music out of their own natural rhythm, and it was, uh, it was a wonderful thing to experience.
It can be very difficult for disabled artists and for Deaf artists to find opportunities to share with their work. And so I’m hoping—and that all ties back to that question of accessibility—I’m hoping that we support, more disabled artists, whether it’s through funding, whether it’s through opportunities, whether it is through, uh, through publishing and providing profiles on disabled artists here in Canada. Because the work that disabled artists are creating is incredibly innovative.
The reason for that is because creativity is a necessity for a disabled life because we often have to get creative when the world around us is not built for us. So we have to find different ways of moving through the world.
I’ve said this time and time again, and the reason I say it is because it’s true: the first major publisher and the first major film studio, or the first major art gallery that really, and truly recognizes the potential of disabled artists is going to experience a tremendous financial and cultural windfall. Because disabled people make up a quarter of the population. And that’s a quarter of the population that is not reached, artistically speaking, on a regular basis. You know, the TV shows that we watch, the books that we read, they very seldom engage with disability. But if we can start to do that on a more regular basis, it’s going to completely blow things open. And a lot of publishers, a lot of reviewers, a lot of editors are going to say, “where’s this person been? I can’t believe this. Like where has this person been all my life?” And disabled people that are just going to say, “Well, no shit! We’ve always been here. You just, haven’t been paying attention.”
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon, in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Adam’s work, including his memoir Voice. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Adam Pottle shares the importance of believing in the story you want to tell and how creativity is a necessity for a disabled life. He discusses:
0:40 | His work as Writer in Residence at Sheridan College and how he hopes it will be an opportunity to encourage more Deaf and disabled writers to tell their stories.
1:58 | The development of his first play Ultrasound, and dramaturg Yvette Nolan’s advice to “raise the stakes, raise the stakes, raise the stakes.”
5:11 | His research into the Nazi’s T4 Euthanasia program and its victim and his experience touring the clinic described in his book, The Bus.
8:15 | The ongoing relevance of The Bus, in an ableist world where eugenicist attitudes still persist.
14:58 | His memoir Voice about growing up deaf in a hearing family, and using the persona of Lemmy from Motorhead to bring “color commentary” to the book.
17:00 | Asking students to write a paragraph about themselves from the perspective of someone who loves them and the benefits of using this exercise during the pandemic.
18: 24 | Developing The Black Drum, a Deaf musical, and how he provided a blueprint for the actors to interpret, creating music out of their own rhythms.
20:15 | The windfall awaiting the first major publisher, film studio and art gallery that truly recognizes the potential of disabled artists.
Deaf: Theatre Toolkit
Little Fish by Casey Plett
A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott
Infidel by Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell
Fictional Father by Joe Ollman
Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark