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The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africaby Josh Swiller
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Josh Swiller went to a remote village in Zambia in the early 1990s as a Peace Corps volunteer. His task was to get the local people to dig wells, but he could never get the project going. Nonetheless, Swiller, who had been deaf since birth, felt at home in the village. He learned some Bemba. People spoke to him slowly and directly; there was little background noise to distort the sounds he received... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) through his hearing aid. He made friends with Augustine Jere, a health worker, and a thoughtful, introspective local woman who came daily to cook for him. But Mununga was not only bitterly impoverished, but dangerous and violent. Swiller managed to obtain funding for a much-needed extension to the clinic, and he and Jere raised the building, only to have it ruined by a corrupt local leader. Swiller made the mistake of confronting this man, and, within hours, he and Jere were facing a drunken mob intent on murder. Swiller doesn't deceive either himself or us about the utility of his work. By the book's end, he has seen sights of unspeakable anguish; the deaf children whom he taught briefly, and who saw him as their model and savior, still languish in their silent world; his housekeeper has been forced into marriage; even his dog has been kicked to death. Perhaps worst of all, Jere's beloved little daughter has died of malaria. 'There was a saying in the Peace Corps around the time of my service,' Swiller writes. 'Volunteers who go to South America come back to the States politically active, volunteers who go to Southeast Asia return spiritually aware and curious, and volunteers who go to Africa? — they come back drunk and laughing.' And yet he continues to love this place in which he felt for the first time fully himself. His appealing, intelligent narrative serves both as a coming of age story and as a penetrating light into one corner of a tormented continent. Juliet Wittman is the author of 'Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals.'" Reviewed by Juliet Wittman, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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A young mans quest to reconcile his deafness in an unforgiving world leads to a remarkable sojourn in a remote African village, in this poignant account that is, at times, a hilarious comedy of errors as well as a gripping narrative of escalating violence.
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.
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