"We lived happily during the war / And when they bombed other people's houses, we / protested, / but not enough, we opposed them but not / enough".
In a departure for Book of the Week, Radio 4 presents an adaptation of Ukrainian-American author Ilya Kaminsky's new book of poetry, read by Fiona Shaw, Christopher Eccleston, Noma Dumezweni and Arinzé Kene.
Kaminsky, like me, is deaf. We met once, in Jamaica in 2016, and struggled to speak to each other at first, neither knowing the other’s sign language. He cupped his ear towards my mouth while I turned up my hearing aids and leaned in. Coincidently, that first conversation we had was about sign language. “Do you believe in silence?” he asked. In Deaf Republic, Kaminsky offers an answer: “Silence is the invention of the hearing”. Elsewhere, he writes, “silence?/ it is a stick I beat you with… beat you/ until you speak, until you/ speak right”...Sign language is often portrayed as primitive and pantomime-esque, or ridiculed as a “non-language”, but in the pages of Deaf Republic signs become symbols of resilience and transformation. They are printed throughout the book: “Town”, for example, is illustrated as two palms facing each other, fingers touching as if to make a steeple. Speaking British Sign Language, I didn’t recognise every sign here (they are a mixture of Ukrainian, American, Russian and Belarusian sign languages), but their presence is as charged as any written word.