The play by Anna Deavere Smith opens with this line from an interview with Ntozake Shange, a playwright, poet, and novelist. She says: “Identity is…it’s a way of knowing that no matter where I put myself, that I am not necessarily what’s around me. I am a part of my surroundings and I become separate from them, and it’s being able to make those differentiations clearly that gives us identity.” Fires in the Mirror is a compilation of monologues that are extracted from various interviews done by Smith. Smith’s project began as a reaction to the riots in Crown Heights in August 1991. These riots were in response to a motor vehicle accident, in which a car in the procession carrying the Lubavitcher Hasidic rebbe ran red light and swerved onto the sidewalk. The car struck and killed Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old Black boy from Guyana, and injured his cousin, Angela. Rumors about the police and medical responders only assisting the driver and passengers lead to tensions between the two groups. Later that evening, a group of young Black men fatally stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum. For three days, the violence and tensions continued between these groups in Crown Heights.
Smith’s project began with interviewing various people of the Black community and of the Jewish community. Some of the interviews are directly related to the events in Crown Heights in August 1991, while others centered on broader topics of race and religion. Then, Smith took each of the interviews verbatim and crafted them into several monologues. These monologues are told as individual stories, but together they produce a complete narrative of these distinct groups.
In her introduction, Smith discusses her experience of beginning this project. As a classical trained actor, she and her peers were taught “the spirit of acting is the travel from the self to the other.” But Smith wanted to flip this idea. Her technique would begin with other coming to the self, thus empowering the “other” to find the actor. She hoped that each interviewee would have their own experience of authorship by telling their stories and answering her questions. This idea of giving the voice to the characters directly is an important part of memoir and storytelling. Although Smith’s name appears as the playwright, the authorship and voice truly belongs to the interviewees.
When the play opened in New York in May 1992, Anna Deavere Smith performed every role. As the interviewer, she assumed the voice, the posture, the gait, and the personality of each of her interviewees. The audience had a mixed reaction. Some were pleased to see these diverse yet connected characters on stage. Others were uncomfortable and thought her portrayal stereotyped and stigmatized the cultures. Smith comments on this in her introduction to the text saying that this is the “uneasiness we have about seeing difference displayed.” Once again this expression of the “otherness of others” becomes prominent in my research. Society, generally, regards difference as bad and unwanted, but works like Fires in the Mirror open up audiences to view their neighbors and learn about the experience of the “other.”
Here’s a video of Anna Deavere Smith’s performance in Fires in the Mirror.
As I worked on my project proposal, the importance of self-identification made its way to the forefront. This concept of knowing oneself and your relationship to others is essential. Being able to relate and empathize with other people in a community is an important goal. So when I stumbled upon this article, I got incredibly excited.
Now, I’m not a huge fan of Marvel or comics. But a superhero with cochlear implants—that I can love.
Marvel teamed up with the Children’s Hearing Institute and the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary to create the newest hero, “Sapheara.” This character with bilateral cochlear implants will appear alongside Blue Ear, another superhero that sports hearing aids. Not only will the comics tell an entertaining story, but they will also serve as an educational tool about devices used by the hearing impaired.
Every time I read a novel or watch a movie or marathon a show on Netflix, I look for characters that I can see myself in. How is this experience different for someone with a hearing impairment or other disability? Do they struggle to find relatable material?
Often kids with hearing impairments and issues are embarrassed or anxious about their diagnosis. Too many times, these children hide their hearing aids or unplug their FM devices. They struggle through classes without their assistive devices because they fear ridicule and scorn. But a new superhero may change that. Sapheara is a character that they can relate to. Suddenly, someone that looks like them, acts like them, struggles like them is coming to life on the page of their favorite comic book. Seeing these heroes as strong and successful while utilizing their differences can be so encouraging to the young readers.
As a soon-to-be clinician, this news is thrilling. I think Marvel’s new superhero will bring empowerment and motivation to this population. Because these comics aren’t just targeted to hearing impaired children, other readers will also benefit from a new understanding of cochlear implants and other assistive devices.
This weekend I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival and came home with a bag full of new reading material. My favorite item from this haul is a children’s book called “I Get It! I Get It! How John Figures It Out: One Boy’s Journey and Triumph with Auditory Processing Disorder.” (Yes, I’m 21 years old and bought a children’s book, apparently it happens when your future career choice involves kids). The author of this book, Yvonne Capitelli, writes for children with the intention of building self-esteem and encouraging kids to make good choices.
Now, I could mull over pages of textbooks and scholarly journals to learn about Auditory Processing Disorder (APD). And I have done that in the past. From that experience I’ve learned that APD causes a disruption in the processing of auditory information because the brain does not properly interpret sounds, phonemes, words, and sentences. I could list symptoms, diagnostic tests, and treatment plans for APD but that doesn’t provide a full picture of the disorder. However, reading a story about this disorder from the lens of a child created a more complete understanding. The narrative chronicles John’s story from his academic struggles to his diagnostic evaluation and through his treatment and success. Rather than pages of speech jargon, there is a description of the disorder, as it would present itself in the real world. Communication disorders have side effects. A child with APD is not just his symptoms. He has experiences and emotions related to this disorder and that’s what this story really portrays.
There aren’t many books written for kids about children with disabilities, so I’m more than excited to have this new copy resting in my clinic one day.