Sunday, August 17, 2008

Nuppu Stenros: Signmark

From: The author at the release party
When: 14 Aug
Verdict: Highly interesting, inspirational, gripping & educational.
Fate: To keep, obviously

This book is in Finnish.

I should say at the start that Nuppu Stenros is a friend of mine, and I'd be unlikely to write publicly about this book if I didn't think it was good. Luckily I found it unputdownable. Nuppu and I we live in different countries and only meet once or twice a year, but even so I had managed to hear some time ago about a fascinating interview with a deaf rapper called Signmark she had done for her television programme. What I hadn't realised was how this encounter had eventually pulled her into the "Signmark machine" – the network of musicians, producers, media people and volunteer surrounding the charismatic and brilliant Marko Vuoriheimo.

The story is as inspirational as it is unlikely. Deaf kids, it turns out, watched a fair bit of MTV in the 80s because it was very visual. Michael Jackson, apparently, was a special favourite. Watching MTV with friends one day, the young Marko decided that he, too, would be on MTV before long. His friends, reasonably, called him insane: deaf people can't become musicians. Fast forward 20 years. When Signmark releases his first album (on DVD too, obviously) MTV News is there to record it.

You're bound to wonder, so this is how it works: Signmark raps with his hands, in Finnish signlanguage or in ASL, while another member of the band simultaneously does the voice part, rapping in Finnish or American. (Since becoming a global phenomenon, Signmark is increasingly turning to ASL). He has a good band. The beats are awesome, and – this is very important for the deaf audience – the music videos exceptionally visual and filmatically narrated.

There are all kinds of challenges involved, fascinatingly explained in the book. What is rhyme in a signed language? How do you translate rap lyrics so that a rhyme can be retained in both performance languages? How do you design the beats so that the deaf experience of the music is optimal (base vibrations are a key, apparently). This is on top of the normal hip-hop challenges of how to, you know, represent.

Signmark is a deaf activist and quite a bit of his music deals with the oppression of deafs and Deaf culture. I have to admit that I didn't know Finland has such an abysmal track record in this field, and we're not alone. The chapters on the development of sign language education in the world are, to my great surprise, fascinating. So are the parts about living deaf: about practical challenges, common misconceptions, Deaf culture and the international Deaf community. The technical revolution of video phones has enabled a deaf renaissance and an unprecedented degree of liberty for deaf and partially hearing children, but technical advances in the field of medicine are also threatening the survival of the whole culture.

There is an increasing trend today to attempt operations of deaf kids (basically planting a kind of hearing aid to grow into their ear) to enable them at least some kind of experience of sound. Signmark, who has a master in education with sign languages as his speciality, is a strong opponent of this development on what comes across as very sound grounds. What the operations produce is not hearing, he cautions, and the attempts to integrate kids who cannot hear into the mainstream community severely threatens their language development and self-esteem. If they spend their early years struggling to learn a language they cannot hear or fully master, they will grow up without a language entirely (which affects learning and the brain in all kinds of negative ways). But giving children a sign language from the start – and sign laguages are natural languages more than rich enough to construct a life on – can give him the necessary linguistic base to then also master the mainstream language of his family or culture.

Signmark is, I should add, not an isolationist. He is a bridge-builder from a bilingual family who has engages actively with non-Deaf environments and has many hearing friends. And a hearing wife whom, as he points out in one of his hits, it had not too many decades ago been illegal for him to marry. He is also an incredibly charming, relaxed dude, and possibly something of a genius. He knows a big pile of languages (for a Deaf person you have to separate the languages he can sign, speak, and read, but even so the number here is impressive) and he is a world-level deaf athlete and also played high-level sports in hearing teams. There is, in other words, plenty for Nuppu to cover even in the parts that are straightforward biography, but the real achievement of this book is how it manages to inform and change mindsets while entertaining. Just like Signmark's music.

The beautiful photos and exceptionally visual layout deserve a special mention.

Buy Signmark on AdLibris.

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