A young man's quest to reconcile his deafness in an unforgiving world leads to a remarkable sojourn in a remote African village that pulsates with beauty and violence
These are hearing aids. They take the sounds of the world and amplify them." Josh Swiller recited this speech to himself on the day he arrived in Mununga, a dusty village on the shores of Lake Mweru. Deaf since a young age, Swiller spent his formative years in frustrated limbo on the sidelines of the hearing world, encouraged by his family to use lipreading and the strident approximations of hearing aids to blend in. It didn't work. So he decided to ditch the well-trodden path after college, setting out to find a place so far removed that his deafness would become irrelevant.
That place turned out to be Zambia, where Swiller worked as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years. There he would encounter a world where violence, disease, and poverty were the mundane facts of life. But despite the culture shock, Swiller finally commanded attentioneveryone always listened carefully to the white man, even if they didn't always follow his instruction. Spending his days working in the health clinic with Augustine Jere, a chubby, world-weary chess aficionado and a steadfast friend, Swiller had finally found, he believed, a place where his deafness didn't interfere, a place he could call home. Until, that is, a nightmarish incident blasted away his newfound convictions.
At once a poignant account of friendship through adversity, a hilarious comedy of errors, and a gripping narrative of escalating violence, The Unheard is an unforgettable story from a noteworthy new talent.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)|
About the Author
A graduate of Yale University, Josh Swiller has had a wide variety of careers: forest ranger, carpenter, slipper salesman, raw food chef, Zen monk, journalist, and teacher, among other things. In August 2005, he had successful surgery for a cochlear implant and partially recovered his hearing. Swiller now speaks often on issues facing mainstreamed deaf individuals, and works at a hospice in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives.
Read an Excerpt
The UnheardA Memoir of Deafness and Africa
By Swiller, Josh
Holt PaperbacksCopyright © 2007 Swiller, Josh
All right reserved.
We were sitting on Jere’s living room floor in the dark, clutching our handmade weapons—two-by-fours with five-inch nails driven all the way through them, so that the business end of the nails emerged like fangs from the mouth of a poisonous snake. Whenever I shifted my grip, splinters from the rough, unfinished surface of the wood jabbed into my palm. It was almost ten o’clock, late for Mununga—late for any village deep in the Zambian bush. By this time on any other night, the village would have been asleep for hours. But not tonight.
Jere and I sat beneath the window, our legs touching. A half-gallon plastic jug of banana wine rested between his knees when we weren’t drinking from it. The floor was smooth cool cement, covered in the middle by a single bamboo mat. Ordinarily, a couch made of varnished lumber and cheap scratchy foam surrounded the mat, but we’d stacked that up against the door, behind a tall dresser made from mpanga boards stained the color of dried blood.
“This way,” said Jere, my friend, the best friend I’d ever had, “if they try to come in through the door, the furniture will stall them, and if they try to come in through the window, we’llhit them with these.”
He rubbed his weapon against the floor as he spoke, trying to show confidence. But I could feel his fear. It had a smell to it, sour and rich. As for myself, I wondered what it would be like to hit someone with a club studded with nails. Would I hear his screams? Would the club get stuck if I swung too hard? I imagined wrestling the nails out of ragged, bloody flesh. I wondered how it would feel to be beaten to death, to grasp that things broken wouldn’t be fixed. It seemed like it would hurt.
I was terrified; I was exhausted; but I had also reached a state where terror and exhaustion were subsumed by survival and life became the immediate moment and nothing else. Weapon. Wine. Door. The bruise on my face. My heartbeat—this was all my mind could focus on.
I had become way too familiar with this state.
Thing is: beyond the furniture, on the other side of that door, was a mob. The mob wanted to kill Jere and me. We knew this because they had said, “We’re going to kill you.”
This is what almost two years of Peace Corps service had come to.
Jere picked up his makeshift weapon, a rake for his maize fields in a previous incarnation, and swung it a few times.
“You were brave stepping in the middle of the argument,” he said. “Boniface and his men were quite drunk. I’ve never seen him like that.”
“I had my hearing aids off,” I admitted. “Didn’t hear him. Didn’t hear anything.”
“Ai, I always forget about those things.”
Someone smashed loudly into the door, knocking the dresser back an inch. We jumped up.
“They’re on now,” I said. “I heard that.”
Jere nervously eyed the door, then spoke. “I hate this place.”
An hour earlier Jere had been in a shouting match, the culmination of six months of escalating enmity, with a village elder named Boniface. Shouting matches were rare in Mununga, where keeping face and allowing others to do the same was integral to the culture. A crowd flocked to the health clinic where we worked to observe the argument, the two men, one tall and well built, one short and pear-shaped, screaming and waving their hands at each other. When I tried to break it up, Boniface, the tall man, stormed out. He returned ten minutes later with a group of drunk men, threw open the door to Jere’s office, pointed at Jere, and yelled—and I couldn’t understand him because of the background noise and the language barrier, so I’m paraphrasing here—“I’m going to reach down your throat and rip out your fucking soul.” Jere, the Mununga Rural Health Catchment Area’s senior clinic officer and the bravest, wisest man I knew, cowered behind his desk. We had seen what drunken mobs could do in this town; it wasn’t pretty. The last mob had left a half-mile-long bloodstain in the road.
I turned my hearing aids off, and stepped forward, smack between the two adversaries and tried to calm Boniface down. That’s when I was hit in the face with a rock.
“Does your jaw hurt?” Jere asked.
“No,” I said.
We pushed the door closed, jammed a half section of the couch underneath the doorknob, shoved the dresser behind that. Then we picked up our weapons again. I took a swallow from the jug of wine. There were more loud noises from outside.
“Is that them?” I asked Jere.
“That’s the river.”
“Are you sure? That sounded like shouts.”
“It’s the river,” he repeated.
I wasn’t convinced. I grabbed his forearm. “I’m not good with sounds from far away, Jere. I’ve explained this to you.”
“Yes, I know.”
I looked him in the eye. The loud noise outside continued. “Is that really the river?”
I’m deaf—that’s why I couldn’t make out the source of the noise. The hearing aids in my ears amplified sounds several thousand times but from behind a closed door it was still impossible to tell the difference between the rustle of a river and the shouts of a mob. If the fat lady was out there on the dirt lawn sharpening a machete and singing for the two of us, I couldn’t tell. Deafness made our precarious situation more precarious. But deafness was the reason I was here in Mununga in the first place, and it was the reason I’d come to love this place and call it home.
Jere and I stood tensed by the door. I bent to look through the keyhole, then jerked back with the thought that someone could jam a stick through the hole into my eye. Ten minutes passed.
“It’s late,” said Jere. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead, which was plastered with sweat. “It’s very late. We’ve been here hours. I think they must have gone.”
“I don’t think so,” I replied.
“No, I think it was just a drunken boast. I don’t think Boniface would really kill us.”
“Well, this is Mununga. It is Boniface. You saw what they did on Christmas.”
“That’s true,” Jere agreed. “But I really think they’ve gone.”
“You sure? Listen closely.”
“Yes, I’m sure,” he said, and as he spoke a rock shattered through the window, showering us with glass. It clattered across the room, disappeared in a dark corner. The smells of wood smoke, perspiration, and alcohol poured through the broken window in a sudden rush that made it hard to breathe. The noise from outside, unobstructed, grew louder—at least now I could be sure it wasn’t the river.
Pressing my back flat against the wall, I curled my hand tightly around my weapon. Another rock came through the window, flying neatly through the hole the first one had made, cracking against the far wall.
“They’re throwing rocks!” Jere hissed.
We drew back, watched the door, and waited. Copyright © 2007 by Josh Swiller. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from The Unheard by Swiller, Josh Copyright © 2007 by Swiller, Josh. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What an excellent memoir. I went to Zambia to research my novel, Heart of Diamonds, but saw it anew through Josh Swiller's wonderfully observant eyes. He also has a great sense of humor, not to mention a fine appreciation of the absurd, which is a must for travels in Africa.
I found this book very interesting. Swiller's subtitle is: "A Memoir of Deafness and Africa". I think, though, it should have been the other way around ("A Memoir of Africa and Deafness"). Yes, he is deaf, but he doesn't overly emphasize that part of himself in this book; which is fine. He relates in (sometimes hair-raising) detail his experiences in Africa--he was truly in danger sometimes and not being able to hear, to boot. If you are interested in different cultures, you will like this book. If you are solely interested in the deaf experience, you will still get that from this book but perhaps not as much as other deafness-related books.
In the 1990s, Josh Swiller joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Africa to build a well. Born with significant hearing loss, Josh was mainstreamed (that is, sent to public school with hearing kids rather than to a Deaf school where he would have learned ASL). He can speak and read lips, but has always felt on the margins in a hearing world; he learned ASL at Gallaudet, but was not a part of the Deaf culture there, either. In Mununga, a practically forgotten village in Zaire, Josh finds that his hearing loss doesn't matter as much. There is less background noise to contend with, people face him to speak, and don't mind when he asks them to repeat themselves. But this small village is fearful and violent, and Josh soon finds out that building a well is the least of his worries.I had a love/hate relationship with this memoir. The stories Josh tells are absolutely heartbreaking and maddening. I generally felt depressed about the state of Africa while reading - in the face of childhood diseases, AIDS, and fear as he describes, what hope is there? Also, I didn't particularly like Josh. His bullheaded way of trying to move projects forward grated on me, and I was annoyed rather than amused by his anecdote of "cultural exchange" via showing some of the locals the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. But he does know how to craft an exciting narrative, keeping me reading despite my misgivings and pacing his stories in such a way that I was hard put to find a good stopping point.
Like "White Man's Grave", this is the story of a Peace Corps worker's experience with Africa. There are many parallels between the two books. Swiller's story is of unrealized expectations as his projects disintegrate into chaos and ruin. He was assigned to a rural, unruly, remote section of Zambia. After gradually acquiring the feeling that he belonged in this place more than any other in his past experience, he ran afoul of petty local politics and came face-to-face with the reality of modern Africa. The outcome was harrowing, to the extent that he he high-tailed it out of the village in fear for his life. Despite that, his overall takeaway was personal fulfillment and a love for the country and its people (with some notable exceptions). Swiller's off-beat sense of humor and flair for the dramatic make this book an enjoyable read.
First, let me say, this is a good book. Josh is a fine writer and a good, even excellent, storyteller. I read it quickly and eagerly, finishing it up on a flight back from Nambia. If there were any other dissenting reviews, I probably would have rated it more stars, but I did want to post a review that let potential readers know of some of the book's shortcomings. So what's the issues. Mainly, Josh comes off as a bit immature in this (in fairness to him, he was young when he writes it). I really appreciated his willingness to expose his flaws and admit to blunders or bull-headness, but the truth his, his lack of tact almost led to a couple people (himself being one of them) being killed. It's great that he was/is willing to stand up for his beliefs and comes off as a solid very good guy, but ineffective. He doesn't offer any reflections on that failure, only seemingly able to blame Africans for their caving to the village strong men. Nor does he offer any analysis or reflection on why he didn't ultimately get killed (I'm not ruining any plot elements here as the book opens with his life being threatened, and given he ultimately wrote the book, you kind of figure he wasn't killed from the get go): "Why the crowd didn't press forward and finish us off when they had the chance has never been clear to me, but I suppose for that moment they were just as afraid as we were." Seems to me he could have done more reflection that that. It's hard not to image that his race played a role; if he'd been a black African, odds are he would have been killed. That could have been a jumping off point. The story stands on its own and is powerful, but Josh tends to avoid reflection, particularly if they don't directly involve him. Again with this criticism, I'm not dissing the book's overall value--especially if you are traveling to the region--but focusing on what keeps it from soaring. I can't help compare it to some of my favorite travel memoirs (from different parts of the world) that do satisfy on several levels, such as Arctic Adventure: My Life in the Frozen North which is written by an early 20th century explorer/trader who lived among Eskimos for 15 years (and took an Eskimo wife) and really gets to understand the people and their fascinating way of life and Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo which was written by a master traveler, who really knows how to get involved in the cultural life of the people he visited.
A very interesting look at the Peace Corps, Africa, and deafness from a deaf volunteer. It was funny, scary, touching, and horrific all in one story. If you want to check out the follow-up the author has a website listed at the end of the book that discusses how he found his best friend again. It took a little while to get into but after about the first half of the book I couldn't put it down.