After a case of meningitis, Demi is pronounced profoundly deaf. Whisper follows her adaptation to a new way of communicating, a new school, new friends, and a whole new culture.
What we like about it
Absolutely fantastic in terms of deafness, learning sign language, and the isolation that can be felt by deaf people in a hearing world.
An authentic portrayal of deafness and Demi's emotional 'journey'.
It deals brilliantly with Deaf culture and politics, with a good balance between the political and cultural views.
Refreshingly honest politics around disability.
Questions and learning points
At times, the characters are very derogatory to other Deaf and disabled people. Does this help to illustrate the negative attitudes and the way Demi's perspective changes when she becomes deaf herself?
The word 'retard' is used on a number of occasions. Does the use emphasise the inappropriateness of the term, or reinforce that it's acceptable in a joking context? Does Demi's choice to call Nadia 'retarded' imply acceptable casual use? (She can use the word as long as it's only a joke, not to be mean).
Some very outdated language, such as 'handicapped', is used. Again, does this highlight outdated opinions or reinforce them?
Could Demi's angry, and sometimes inappropriate, choice of language be interpreted as actually being quite powerful and authentic, given her age and situation?
Beth: I'm willing to concede that, in the main part, the use of the word 'retard' does a great job in illustrating Demi and her friends' negative attitudes towards Deaf and disabled people (and thereby reflecting the views of many people). However, I feel that the power of Nadia's apology to Demi for calling her friends retarded, which truly illustrates what an offensive word it is, is detracted from by Demi calling her 'my most retarded friend'. This gives the message that it's OK to use the R word, as long as you don't really mean it and it's in a jokey way. It also implies that it would be OK to use the words to refer to people who are disabled in other ways, it's just that Nadia has learnt that Deaf people aren't retarded.
Fen: I can't echo strongly enough the positives you've already listed about this book, Beth. As one of our own reviewers at Letterbox said, "this is a rare opportunity to introduce the live controversies in deaf culture to a hearing world". And, there needs to be many more such opportunities. I agree that the use of the 'R' word is deeply problematic and complex. It provokes so many questions – can certain words ever be reclaimed or even radicalised? Does it just depend on who is using them? Or, are the prejudices which gave rise to those words so painful and endemic that nothing will ever neutralise them? There are no easy answers. I love what you have to say on this point, Beth, although my own, personal experience is that I came away from the book clear in my own mind that there was no collusion with the 'R' word. Over and above this, I felt like I now had a far richer and satisfyingly complex understanding of the 'politics' of deaf culture – and, for once, I felt like a disabled character had had the first, the final and all the words in between.
Alex: I was quite astonished by how much this book manages to tell the reader about deafness, yet without it being the least bit worthy. It is eminently readable and very enjoyable. I would recommend it to anyone. I agree with Beth that it is generally wholly unhelpful to include the 'R' word in any context, yet somehow I managed to forgive its appearance with this book, as I feel the reason behind it was well intentioned and (in the main) works in terms of illustrating the girls' changing attitudes. However, I do wonder if there might be other ways that their evolving view of deafness could be depicted without using this particular word. Overall, however, it is a book I would encourage – indeed urge – anyone and everyone to read.
Chrissie Keighery (Author): I'm so glad that Whisper has resonated with those at Inclusive Minds. A note of the 'R' word: taking on this topic, I was concerned about coming across as didactic and alienated the reader. Therefore, I wanted the reader to be censor rather than my characters. Happy to discuss further.
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