Moving halfway across the country to Colorado right before senior year isn’t Maya’s idea of a good time. Leaving behind Pratt School for the Deaf where she’s been a student for years only to attend a hearing school is even worse. Maya has dreams of breaking into the medical field and is determined to get the grades and a college degree to match, and she’s never considered being Deaf a disability. But her teachers and classmates at Engelmann High don’t seem to share her optimism.
And then there’s Beau Watson, Engelmann’s student body president and overachiever. Maya suspects Beau’s got a hidden agenda when he starts learning ASL to converse with her, but she also can’t deny it’s nice to sign with someone amongst all the lip reading she has to do with her hearing teachers and classmates. Maya has always been told that Deaf/hearing relationships never work, and yet she can’t help but be drawn to Beau as they spend more and more time together.
But as much Maya and Beau genuinely start to feel for one another, there are unmistakable differences in their worlds. When Maya passes up a chance to receive a cochlear implant, Beau doesn’t understand why Maya wouldn’t want to hear again. Maya is hurt Beau would want her to be anything but who she is—she’s always been proud to be Deaf, something Beau won’t ever be able to understand. Maya has to figure out whether bridging that gap between the Deaf and hearing worlds will be worth it, or if staying true to herself matters more.
What was your inspiration behind Maya and her story?
This is a question that has a few different answers, honestly! Growing up Hard of Hearing, of course, I had my own experiences and feelings to draw on when I began creating a character in the Deaf community, but I also had a lot of background knowledge and guidance that came from being a Deaf Services Specialist at an Independent Living Center for two years. My job was to act as an advocate for those D/deaf/Hard of Hearing and provide support in different areas, such as arranging interpreters, procuring assistive technology, and educating the public about the Deaf community. I was also a part of a subset of the Colorado Coalition for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Deaf-Blind, called the Advocacy Coalition for Equality; I got to see firsthand just what type of obstacles people in this community face in all aspects of life, and particularly with young students.
This was a very unique experience, and I’m so thankful for the time I was able to spend in this position. So I would say all those pieces of my background, from my personal and professional life, ended up being poured out into The Silence Between Us.
What are some of the difficulties you faced in writing an Own Voices book? How did your own experience factor into this story, and how much did you still have to research?
Quite a few difficulties cropped up as I was writing this story. There was a certain amount of anxiety I felt trying to create a Deaf character and portray them in an authentic light, as I’m not actually Deaf, just Hard of Hearing. Of course, my own experiences did work their way into the story—something I think might be unavoidable for every author. My mom actually told me after she read the story that it was her favorite thing I’d written, as she saw so much of myself in it. With my job as a Deaf Services Specialist, though, I was able to get hands-on experience working with people of all sorts within the Deaf community as well as providing advocacy, arranging interpreters and acquiring assistive technical, to name a few.
You said you have a foot in both worlds, the hearing world and the Deaf community. How did this duality shape your writing in this book?
I believe having a foot in both worlds helped me develop the two main characters, Maya and Beau, in a way I’m very thankful for. Feeling as if I had ties to both communities allowed me to understand Maya more as a person as her voice grew. With Beau, it was easy to switch to the mindset I’ve seen that sometimes people have of, “Oh, this person can’t hear, it’s a problem we have to fix.” Beau means well in his intentions, but he sort of struggles ridding himself of that mindset.
Do you think of this book as a celebration of Deaf culture and community? Why is important for d/Deaf characters to have other d/Deaf friends, family, and role models in books?
I think the story is as much of a celebration as it can be with my only being Hard of Hearing and not Deaf! Like I talked about above, I sort of have a foot in both worlds, so there’s only so much I’ve experienced being involved in the Deaf community, learning about Deaf culture, while being Hard of Hearing.
With any community being portrayed in a novel, I think it’s important to have more representation outside just the singular main character. With everything else these characters go through throughout the course of the novel, they shouldn’t be isolated too!
I wanted to incorporate that same sense of comradery and peer support that oftentimes comes from being involved in the Deaf community into the story, which is one example why readers are introduced to Maya’s friend, Melissa, who is also Deaf.
How is writing signed dialogue different than writing spoken dialogue? Why was it important to you to include both?
This one was tricky for me, and it took a while to figure out a way to portray sign language in a way that was comfortable for me. You’ll see some authors depicting sign in italics, or in quotation marks, which is fantastic, but I had the thought that I didn’t want to readers to possibly forget that they were reading a conversation actually taking place in sign language. So I decided to have those conversations written out in all capital letters like you might see when you’re looking at an ASL textbook. It might come across as strange when you’re first diving into the story, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.
Using both English and ASL was a particularly important piece of the novel for me, not only as Maya struggles with finding her own identity, but because she has roots in both languages—they are equal parts of her character!
Were there any storylines that you wanted to explore in this book that you didn’t have the opportunity to?
If I took the time to sit down and comb through the novel, go over all my notes, I’m sure there’s something I might have wanted to include in the story, but off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything.
Tell us about a couple of published or upcoming Own Voices books that you’ve loved.
I honestly wish I was able to read more! There never seems to be enough time in the day to read alongside work and writing, but I’m particularly looking forward to reading In the Key of Nira Ghani by Natasha Deen, which tells the story of a Guyanese girl and her love of music, and also Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo. (Maybe my niece’s love of K-Pop has rubbed off on me just a little bit.)
Do you have any favorite writing rituals, both while you’re writing or before you sit down to write?
It’s a bit strange, but I love having background noise while I write. For whatever reason, it really helps me focus. I just pick something random on Netflix or Hulu and go with the flow of writing. Sometimes if I’m hit with a nasty case of writer’s block I set things aside and take a nap or go for a walk. Every author has their own rituals or techniques when it comes to writing, and I’m sure there are others out there who have far more interesting stories to share when it comes to that!
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Alison Gervais began writing at the age of five and gained recognition by posting her work on Wattpad in 2011. She graduated from Colorado State University – Pueblo with a degree in English and is still figuring out what else she’d like to do in life. As for now, she plans to keep writing, rereading Harry Potter, watching Supernatural and Law and Order: SVU, and enjoying life with her husband and their two cats, Jane and Smoke.