Monday, September 17, 2007

Josh Swiller

Among other things, Josh Swiller has been a forest ranger, raw food chef, slipper salesman, Zen practitioner, and Peace Corps volunteer.

But perhaps what most draws me to Josh's story is that he is profoundly deaf (as is my mother) and the first white man to live in Mununga, Zambia. He might still be relatively young, but he's a true gravity defier.

Josh writes about both experiences in his new book The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa, which has just been published by Holt.

Two weeks ago, Josh contacted me about posting on my blog. If after reading his story (originally published last February on Josh's own blog), you would like to learn more about this extraordinary man, go to to listen to his interview on NPR's Weekend Edition (9/15/07) and read an excerpt from his memoir. You can also visit Josh's website at

Here's what Josh sent me:

I was born with a severe hearing loss and became profoundly deaf by the time I was five. With the help of hearing aids, dedicated (if thoroughly unusual) parents, three wild brothers, and an audiologist who did not believe in limits, I learned to speak and lip-read quite well. Too well, almost, because I was able to pass through the world of hearing people to such a degree that many people didn't know I was deaf and I consequently could never quite figure out what I was. Deaf? Hearing? None of the above?

I had many questions from a young age. Why was I deaf? But more than that: why was the world created with such things as deafness, blindness, lameness? I was six, eight, and these questions would weigh on me.

As a deaf child among hearing people, you learn to read the subtle cues that people don't know they are giving. It's a trick that helps you figure out conversations when the words are coming too fast to follow. The way a man cleans his glasses, the way a woman puts down her water glass – people are open books. With my hearing aids off I would watch people and see in their body language, in their briefest glances and gestures, whole oceans of emotions that went unsaid. Why? Why unsaid?

I went to Yale and I found it a very challenging place. Lectures and social events were not designed with hearing impaired people in mind. Everywhere were extraordinary ambitious young men and women, but no one seemed to be asking the questions that mattered, at least to me, namely: what was the point? If you achieved everything you sought, well, then what?

Then I went to Gallaudet, the national university for the deaf, and discovered an altogether different world with its own unique answers to the questions I asked about life. The deaf community is close and warm and rich, caring and understanding, and if I were a luckier man maybe I'd still be there, but I'd been in the hearing world too long to feel entirely comfortable there. I needed to be back in the world of speech and sound. In the hearing world I was deaf, yes, but in the deaf world, I was hearing.

So I did the logical thing: I went to live in a rural village in Zambia, Africa for two years.

Mununga, Zambia was a fantastical place. Sixty kilometers past the last paved road, phone line and electric cable, it was part timeless village, part refugee camp. There were friendly faces to greet, fish and fried earthworms to eat, banana wine to drink, a beautiful river to swim in, a gang of teenage boys who worshipped Rambo and studied and debated my Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue like Rabbis debate the Talmud. The energy of 50,000 people packed in a small area -- children, mothers, fathers, goats, and chickens, thatch roof huts going on for miles and miles -- was dangerous and exhilarating.

Dangerous because witchcraft and superstition were prevalent, especially in the person of a shady village strongman named Kingston; exhilarating because, as the first white man to ever live in Mununga, I found a place past deafness. The villagers spoke clearly and slowly, looked me in the eye as they spoke so I could read their lips, and there was little or no background noise. They really cared if I could understand them and if I couldn't, they blamed their English skills instead of my hearing. I was hearing, or about as close as I could get.

I began a friendship with the most remarkable man I've ever met, a Health Clinic Officer named Mr. Jere. (See photo above.) He was gregarious, kind, funny, wise, and brewer of the best banana wine in the village. We spent many nights sipping wine, playing chess and discussing life. He trained me to help him out at the clinic as I had been instructed by Peace Corps to dig wells but that didn't go anywhere, and he helped me navigate sticky situations such as a trial for defiling the virgin daughter of a blackmailing preacher. Good times.

But then everything went mad: mobs, violence, bus crashes. Deaths foreseen and unforeseen. And really, who was I to search for a place to call my own in the middle of Africa?

That's all in the book, but what I want to add is that after I came home from Africa, and after another few years of traveling, I ended up at a Zen Center in upstate New York. I learned meditation there and through meditation I finally took this search for understanding to its logical extreme: to a thorough examination of the searcher. My teacher would ask me: what is it that would search so hard? What is it that makes one feel less than whole? I learned so much in my four years there.

And so while the book is about Africa and deafness it is also about one of the first and deepest instructions my meditation teacher gave me: "Zen practice," he said, "is about learning to have a sense of humor."

It took me a long time to understand the depth of that teaching. But I feel that it informs the book, and rightfully so, because the African villagers I met, while poor in many regards, were extraordinarily rich in humor. Even as mobs ran wild, as disease and poverty were widespread, they found reasons to laugh. Do you want a glass of banana wine? Did you see that goat running wild at market?

In telling the story of getting past deafness in an African village, I tried to show this humor, to enable readers to see and experience its power for themselves. With humor comes gratefulness, and that is invaluable. These days I work with the deaf and the terminally ill in Brooklyn, NY, and the experiences I've had in this position only confirm my belief in the power and importance of a smile.

As Jere would say: Did you hear the one about the goat that wears pants?

I feel extraordinarily blessed for the life I've gotten to live, for the people I've met, and for all that they've taught me and I offer this book as a gift to them.

Note: All the photos accompanying this posting come from Josh's website.

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