1) Review by Yasmine Sandholm (Master of Arts in Literature)
Writing a review for an autobiography is an interesting task. Are you writing about the text or the writer themselves? It feels harrowing, as if you’re passing judgement about someone’s own life. My job though is simple, compared to what Juhana has produced. Which is a deeply honest and touching autobiography. It cannot be an easy task to embark upon, and what strikes me about this the most is the openness of the book. I cannot help but admire the strength that it takes to be open and honest to oneself, and then on top being brave enough to also write about it for the rest of us to appreciate and learn from.
I Sign, Therefore I Am is about Juhana Salonen and the search for his identity. It starts with his childhood, and we follow his at times tumultuous, at times joyful journey into his present. As the book moves along there is an increasing feeling of empowerment. As the reader, you feel both the triumphs and the disappointments because of the emotive way in which Juhana describes his experiences. This rare book balances between educational matters and personal struggles with ease. When reading the book, I felt that the facts and figures enriched the chapters rather than took the reader away from Juhana’s story. As a reader who is within the deaf community, I never once found facts that I already knew, tedious. This was due to all the facts being tied to Juhana’s own experiences which was a wonderful effect. For me, it was also marvellous to learn new things about sign language and the deaf community.
The most unique aspect of this book is the level of engagement it provides with its reader. Juhana asks questions about himself in the book and questions about sign language and its future. This in part makes you the reader inquisitive and makes you feel included in the discussion. In his book, he is not providing answers, he is asking interesting questions that shows him to be humble and inclusive. To be explicitly told ‘correct’ answers in a book can make one feel patronised and it closes up further discussion. This book does no such thing. The other distinctive, engaging feature were the chapters written by Juhana’s mother. This increased the feeling of being a part of Juhana’s journey. They were intimate and insightful chapters which demand a pause after reading them. These parts made you feel like you were privy to something private. Like being a fly on the wall during an important discussion around a kitchen table.
This book is the perfect example of what is meant by ‘The personal is political.’ Juhana incorporates through the lens of his own life, what has happened and is happening in the deaf community in Finland. The book appeals to a large demographic and provides different things to different people. For some it will be about learning more about the deaf community and sign language, for hearing parents with deaf children it can be an enlightening and helpful book and for some it will be a book where they can identify themselves within Juhana’s story. The most important idea that stayed with me, was how important one’s access to their own mother tongue can be and how sign language has the power to be incredibly empowering. There are only things to be gained from sign language, nothing to be lost.
2) Review: I Sign Therefore I Am, by Juhana Salonen, reviewed by Michael W Morgan, PhD, sign language linguist / linguistic typologist / Deaf literacy specialist
A Finnish Deaf Life-Story: A Journey of Self-Discovery
Tolstoy, in his novel “Anna Karenina”, tells us that “All happy families are alike; unhappy families are
each unhappy in their own way.” If this is true (and I suspect it both is, and isn’t), then Deaf life-stories
are the inverse: unhappy Deaf lives are (mostly) unhappy in the same ways, and for the same reasons
(unsupportive, non-signing families, poor access to education and access to poor education,
discrimination in jobs and communities, and pervasive societal audism). Happy Deaf life-stories, on the
other hand, are alike only in the end, in the happiness. The path to each happy ending, however, is a
“I Sign Therefore I am” is one young Finnish Deaf man’s life-story, a journey of self discovery.
Throughout there are many elements of commonality with most other Deaf life-stories. Since this is a
Finnish Deaf life-story, one difference from most of the rest of the world is that baby Juhana, and his
family, were taught sign language. Lucky enough to have a school for the Deaf in their town, Juhana’s
parents chose to send him there for his early schooling. However, he attended a “normal”, hearing
school for upper secondary, and he learned to “get along” in the hearing, non-signing world there, as
well as in team sports. Nevertheless, Juhana, like many Deaf children and especially teenagers, suffered
stress and emotional issues. Juhana went through a period of frustration arising from difficulties in
communication; the fact that he could not hear meant that no matter how good his oral skills were, he
was still “less” than “normal” vis a vis communicating hearing peers. In the end, though, Juhana’s
journey is not a dead end, nor a one-way street; along the way he explores (and is allowed to explore)
many of the possible ways of being Deaf. Not to spoil the story – but since the title makes this part of
the ending clear – the happy ending is his self-discovery that he is Deaf, not a broken or defective
hearing person, and that sign language is a big part of who – and what – he is.
It is a good, and uplifting, story, and many in the general public will enjoy the book. Moreover, they
will no doubt benefit, as most hearing people have never met a Deaf person, and therefore will perhaps
have no clue as to how a Deaf life-story, nor how Deaf life choices, might differ significantly from
theirs. This book will also be of interest to Deaf from other countries who will, through this book, be
able to gain insight into how Deaf in a distant country and a different culture experience life, and how
that life is both similar to theirs… and also different. Likewise, it will be of interest to students, hearing
or Deaf, pursuing a course in Deaf Studies, as it will provide access to a “case study” of different “ways
of being Deaf”.
In addition to who might choose to read this book, as someone who has been involved in Deaf
communities in a number of countries, who has seen over and over again the effect of uninformed
decisions made for Deaf children, there are two groups I hope read it: parents of Deaf children (who are
usually clueless about deafness when they first discover their baby is deaf), and the professionals
(doctors, social workers, educators) who advise parents on what decisions to make regarding many
important matters. Both these groups usually have little or no clue as to what it is to be Deaf, no
exposure to Deaf lives at various stages, and therefore are limited to what they might imagine.
Unfortunately, their imaginations often could not be more out of touch with Deaf realities. Reading “I
Sign Therefore I Am” will allow them to see a successful Deaf life, rooted in sign language and in the
Deaf community… without being cut off from hearing family, friends, or society in general. One
particularly unique and helpful aspect of this autobiography, which will allow the parents to connect
with the story, is that, in addition to the author’s Deaf perspective in each longer chapter, a shorter
chapter follows written by his mother, giving her perspective as a parent.
“I Sign Therefore I am” is the English translation of the Finnish original. American readers beware:
while the translation is general in very standard, literary” English, the few instances where it turns to
the colloquial, and uses slang, the slang is very British. So have your British slang dictionaries handy!
(Although, to be honest, the exact meaning of the slang may be opaque to American readers, I seriously
doubt that the general gist will be unclear from the context, So even without your British slang
dictionary, you will be sure to be able to enjoy this book.