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Living and writing in two languages

Scholar Rachel Mazique hopes that the dissertation she is writing while at the Anderson Center will help show the value of recognizing deaf literature as another form of ethnic literature. (Photos by Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor)1 / 2
Deaf artist, poet and performer Jeremy Quiroga puts finishing touches on a sculpture that blends the hand sign for whale with an image of the creature it represents. It will be cast in bronze at a Macalester College studio. 2 / 2

By Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor

Her work as a scholar of deaf literature is serious business, but Rachel Mazique has discovered a pleasure in writing — even writing a scholarly paper — when it’s under the right circumstances.

Working at the Anderson Center this month as part of the first ever Deaf Residency Program, Mazique is enjoying the rare opportunity to talk about deaf literature with others who understand the subject.

“Being with the other deaf artists is extremely beneficial,” she said. “What’s been especially pleasant is being able to mention texts of deaf literature with (fellow resident) Jeremy Quiroga and have him and the others nod their heads in acknowledgement and share their viewpoints on the text or film.

“It’s such a foreign experience for me — to be among and live with fellow deaf artists who know what I’m talking about, and to not have to explain or to encounter puzzlement and questions as to whether deaf literature exists or what it is.”

Most people, including deaf people, can’t think of anything they’ve read that has deaf characters in it, she said. And yet “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and a number of other classics of literature do have deaf characters in them.

Texts with deaf characters represent one form of deaf literature. The category also includes literature written by deaf or hard-of-hearing authors.

“This literature is not always about being deaf, nor does it need to include deaf characters,” Mazique explained.

In addition, there is American Sign Language or ASL literature, which has a counterpart in other countries such as British Sign Language or BSL literature. This can be in the form of stories, poems, plays and songs.

And, she added, since the sign language peoples are usually bilingual, “we produce art in two languages, sometimes merging the two by writing texts in English with ASL gloss,” a form of translation.

She has had many conversations with other writers in the group, including Quiroga. The Seattle writer and artist is focusing more on sculpture while at the Anderson Center this month, but is also a respected poet and performer of ASL literature.

“It is almost impossible to equal ASL for its visual potential,” he noted. He presents poetry in ASL, his first language, and uses video to record it.

“I usually have interpreters not voice my poetry because it ruins it,” Quiroga said. ASL literature “has such a rich grammar structure that uses hands, but many do not realize that body and facial expression play a large role in the grammar structure of ASL.”

A teacher in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin, Mazique offers courses there including Literature, Visual Culture and Deaf Studies. Her students tell her they benefit most from the deaf studies portion of the class, she said — including “reading and discussing the Harry Potter book through a Deaf lens.”

Her goal is to make deaf literature more mainstream, “to show the value and the need for this kind of literature,” and to recognize it as another form of ethnic literature.

One of the problems, Mazique said, is that there is a general oversight that a body of deaf literature exists. As an educator, she supports increased analysis and discussion of deaf literature in the multicultural literature classes and also in American and British literature courses.

“There’s a wealth of knowledge to be gained as well as critical thinking that could be developed by paying attention to the role of deafness in literature,” she said.

Both Mazique and Quiroga said they have made great strides in their projects while at Tower View.

“Working on ‘The Whale’” — a piece that integrates the hand sign for ‘whale’ into the body of the sculpture — “has given me a new direction in my art career,” he said.

Mazique has reached the third chapter of her dissertation. “This space encourages productivity,” she said.

It also has prompted her to explore the connection between literature and the visual arts — particularly the work of the Anderson Center’s Cynthia Weitzel, an artist who organized the Deaf Residency Program.

“She has reminded me of the political power and potential of the visual arts, so she’s got me thinking about ways to incorporate more visuals and talk about diverse forms of deaf art in my dissertation,” Mazique said.

Both are looking forward to the community open house planned from 7 to 9 p.m. June 26 at Tower View.

“I hope that non-signing visitors will take the opportunity to talk not only with us signing deaf artists but also with deaf people from the wider Minnesota community who make the drive down here,” she said. “It would be great to see deaf and hearing people mix and talk about what they think of our art/our work. …

“We want our work to be a bridge between signers and non-signers and to inspire conversations between deaf and hearing people. To see that happen at the open house would mean the world to us.”

Come meet visiting deaf artists

The five deaf artists, writers and scholar who are in residence this month at the Anderson Center will share their work with the public at an open house from 7 to 9 p.m. June 26 at Tower View.

Presenting their accomplishments and perspectives will be:

•Jeremy Quiroga of Seattle, an artist and a poet. A bronze cast is being made of a new sculpture; he hopes to show the finished product on Thursday.

•Lilah Katcher of Washington, D.C., an emerging poet. She will display some of her new work for people to read.

•Raymond Luczak, Minneapolis, a writer. He plans to post segments of his new series of short stories to give people a sample of his writing.

•Bex Freund of Berkeley, California, an artist. She has finished writing a graphic novel and is now working on the illustrations; some of them will be displayed.

•Rachel Mazique, Austin, Texas, a scholar. She will post a synopsis of her work explaining the focus of her dissertation.

The first half-hour of the event will be an opportunity to view the displays, according to Cynthia Weitzel, an Anderson Center resident artist who organized the Deaf Artists Residency Program.

At 7:30 p.m. the visiting artists will participate in a discussion about their experiences at Tower View and how it has affected their work going forward, Weitzel said.

This is the first residency of its kind, she pointed out. Most deaf artists have not had the opportunity to work in this type of setting.

“Everyone sees the value in this,” she said. “Our community” — the national deaf community — “is not going to let this just be a one-time thing.” The National Endowment for the Arts awarded a grant for this residency; she is confident that resources can be found to continue the experience.

The residency has been everything she hoped it would be — and more, Weitzel said. “I knew this was going to provide an opportunity like none other, but I didn’t know for sure how the artists would take that opportunity and run with it.”

The benefit to the individuals and to the deaf community “far exceeds what I had imagined,” she said.

Weitzel will lead the discussion with the artists, and the public also will have a chance to ask questions. Interpreters will be on hand to facilitate discussion. Other members of the deaf community are expected to attend as well, she noted.

The event is free and open to everyone. Light refreshments will be served. For more information, call 651-388-2009.