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The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa
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The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa

4.0 5
by Josh Swiller
 

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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

Overview

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 attention—everyone 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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“I thought I knew about the Peace Corps until I read Josh Swiller's hilarious, troubling, and at times frightening recreation of his time in Zambia. His wit spares no one--least of all himself--and his generosity of spirit encompasses nearly everyone. His experiences in Africa transformed him, and this book will transform readers.” —Laurence Bergreen, author of Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe

“I was riveted by this book from page one. Swiller shouldn't have lived to tell this tale, much less been sent to a village in deepest Africa that the locals called 'Gomorrah.' But he did, and he's returned with something priceless: a story suffused with humor and love about a place where corruption and death were regular visitors. Swiller hears the rhythms of language and life far better than most people with two normal ears.” —Michael Chorost, author of Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human

“As my mother used to say, ‘You got your listening ears on, bub?' This is not gimp chic, nor misery memoir, but a book as deserving, funny and brave as a deaf man digging wells in hardest Africa. Hoo boy. And I thought being blind at the bus depot was harrowing. Yeesh.” —Ryan Knighton, author of Cockeyed: A Memoir

“Josh Swiller was 22 and profoundly deaf when he applied to the Peace Corps in search of adventure. And indeed, adventure he found. His experiences in Zambia are eloquently recounted in his hard-to-put-down memoir of deafness and Africa, 'The Unheard'.” —The New York Times, Health section

“Several ingredients are crucial in a memoir like this: humor, the ability to see enough details to make the scene come alive and a dispassionate compassion. Swiller has them all.” —Los Angeles Times

“[Swiller's] appealing, intelligent narrative serves both as a coming of age story and as a penetrating light into one corner of a tormented continent.” —Washington Post

“Josh Swiller rewrites the familiar African narrative with a purity that makes the tragic beauty of that devastated continent a stunning novelty for readers. We experience the rich, tangible passions of love, honor and revenge in Africa, amplified a thousandfold in the quiet world of the deaf.” —New York Observer

author of Over the Edge of the World: Magellan Laurence Bergreen

I thought I knew about the Peace Corps until I read Josh Swiller's hilarious, troubling, and at times frightening recreation of his time in Zambia. His wit spares no one--least of all himself--and his generosity of spirit encompasses nearly everyone. His experiences in Africa transformed him, and this book will transform readers.
author of Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Michael Chorost

I was riveted by this book from page one. Swiller shouldn't have lived to tell this tale, much less been sent to a village in deepest Africa that the locals called 'Gomorrah.' But he did, and he's returned with something priceless: a story suffused with humor and love about a place where corruption and death were regular visitors. Swiller hears the rhythms of language and life far better than most people with two normal ears.
Juliet Wittman
Swiller doesn't deceive either himself or us about the utility of his work…His appealing, intelligent narrative serves both as a coming of age story and as a penetrating light into one corner of a tormented continent.
—The Washington Post
School Library Journal

Adult/High School

Unheard takes readers into several different worlds: a young deaf man's individualized perceptions, as well as the violence and poverty of a remote African village. It questions the usefulness of outsiders lending a hand to Third World cultures and is a heartfelt description of friendship and personal growth. The prologue describes Swiller and a friend cowering on the living room floor in the dark, armed with nail-encrusted two-by-fours and fighting for their lives. Chapter one, "First Day," flashes back to the beginning of the author's journey, when he joined the Peace Corps to become "an ambassador" to people who may never have seen or met a person from outside their community. His mission was to encourage the locals of Mununga, a village on the shores of Lake Mweru, Zambia, to dig wells and help improve their sanitation and health. Swiller attempted to follow the guidelines provided in his training, but soon discovered that reality and idealism were at odds. As his story progresses, corruption, dishonest village leaders, and a culture he didn't entirely understand all play a part in his coming to terms with his deafness and his understanding of who he was and just what he intended to do with his life. Swiller's experiences come to life in a way that teens can and will hear, however metaphorically.-Joanne Ligamari, Rio Linda School District, Sacramento, CA

Kirkus Reviews
A former Peace Corps volunteer recalls his battles with deafness, bureaucracy, sex, violence and hopelessness during his mid-1990s tour in Zambia. Swiller's debut recounts adventures most extraordinary in language most ordinary. Even at moments of high emotion, danger or revulsion, he cannot seem to venture outside the tent of convention to say something novel. When, for example, an angry man chops off the leg of a boy who has stolen a single fish, Swiller can manage only, "I couldn't get my mind around it." These and other inanities decorate just about every significant moment-and there are many, for his tale is harrowing and ominous. He begins near the end, holed up in the dark at the home of his best friend Jere, both of them feebly armed, while on the other side of the door a mob of angry villagers led by a baddie named Boniface threatened to kill them. The fairly innocuous resolution comes 200 pages later, but first Swiller cuts away to fill in background about his lifelong struggles with deafness, his desultory pathway through high school, Yale and Gallaudet and his decision to join the Peace Corps. He went to Zambia to help the villagers in Mununga dig wells, but the local mores and politics were almost too much to cope with, particularly for someone who had to read lips to supplement his powerful hearing aids. He accomplished little-perhaps all that was possible. He was (falsely) accused of deflowering a local lovely, got involved with a nurse (it didn't work out), drank a lot, learned the local language, met Jere, who worked in the clinic, fended off fathers who wanted him to marry their daughters, was mugged, threatened, hit with a rock and eventually went back to America.Mediocre prose effectively blunts the powerful blows that these often shocking experiences could have delivered. Agent: Heather Schroder/ICM

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780805082104
Publisher:
Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
09/04/2007
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
288
Sales rank:
632,409
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.63(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Unheard

A Memoir of Deafness and Africa
By Swiller, Josh

Holt Paperbacks

Copyright © 2007 Swiller, Josh
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780805082104

Excerpt
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.
 It hurt.
 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?”
 “No.”
 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.
 “Really?”
 We drew back, watched the door, and waited.  Copyright © 2007 by Josh Swiller. All rights reserved.


Continues...

Excerpted from The Unheard by Swiller, Josh Copyright © 2007 by Swiller, Josh. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet 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.

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The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
A_Sloan More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
pjpick More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago