Blair Fell's 'The Sign for Home' - Gay ASL interpreter and straight DeafBlind young man's lives intersect

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday March 29, 2022
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author Blair Fell
author Blair Fell

In his debut novel The Sign for Home, author Blair Fell explores the friendship between Arlo, a young, straight DeafBlind Jehovah's Witness and Cyril, his gay older ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter. How the two interact and how they each help each other makes for a heartwarming and often funny story. In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Fell talked to us from his home in Queens, New York, about his career as an interpreter and how it inspired his debut novel.

"I really enjoy writing novels because I don't have to work with other people," he joked, despite his decades as an ASL interpreter, TV writer and playwright.

Born and raised outside Philadelphia, Fell moved to New York to be an actor, but then after working briefly for New York City Council while also a member of ACT-UP, Fell decided he wanted to write and ended up creating a string of award-winning off-off Broadway plays, including Naked Will, The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun, and the downtown cult miniseries Burning Habits.

At the same time, Fell, who had studied at Gallaudet University during some of his undergraduate years, began his career as an ASL interpreter. In 2001 he left New York City, making the shift into writing for television (Public TV's California Connected and an award-winning episode of Queer As Folk). After writing in Los Angeles for three years, he returned to New York City.

"I've been interpreting along with the writing for many years," said Fell. "Then around 2005 I finally realized that wasn't the sort of writing I wanted to keep doing."

It was in a writing group and the MFA program at The City College of New York where Fell began writing his first novel, which won the prestigious Doris Lippman Prize in Creative Writing.

"While at City College I finished The Sign For Home and also a second novel. I really loved doing that sort of writing. When COVID hit, I focused on polishing the first book and knew I would soon need to send it out in the world," said Fell, "I didn't know if it was ready, so I asked an author friend, who sent it to his agent for feedback. The agent, Doug Stewart, liked it a lot, and fairly quickly sold it at auction to Emily Bestler at Simon and Shuster. So it was kind of beginner's luck out of the gate."

Spoken, signed

Fell credits his years of writing for television and theater as a booster to his skills, which are evident in his novel, where dialogue —spoken, signed and written— propels the story. But it was also his years of interpreting that allowed him to play with language, where the DeafBlind and Deaf characters speak with ASL syntax.

In fact, all the characters have their specific way of speaking and/or writing in various modes of communication, spoken dialogue, signed dialogue, emails, text messages, Screen Braille Communicators —even a little Flemish. Even Arlo's adorable guide dog Snap has her own unique way of communicating.

"I do take a kind of a Stanislavski acting approach to writing," said Fell. "Here's a character. What does he want, what are the obstacles and how does he get it? I think actors can make good writers, because we know what would sound good or terrible coming out of a character's mouth."

Fell started writing his novel in first-person present and then hit a wall and gave up. "It was just too hard to write and do the DeafBlind character justice. So I put it aside and speed-wrote another novel in six months, hoping some eureka moment would happen, helping me to solve the first novel."

One real-life experience that inspired part of The Sign for Home was helping a DeafBlind friend create an online dating profile, then sending the messages to his devices where he could read them with assistive technology.

"The interface for dating apps is not good for people with low vision or who are blind," said Fell. "So I wrote an essay about helping my friend for my MFA program. I wrote it in the second person present, and then realized that was the secret to the other narrator Arlo Dilly (the DeafBlind main character)."

Using the 'you' form of second person can be touchy, but Fell manages to employ it deftly in his novel.

"It helps the reader into Arlo's DeafBlind perspective as well as his dissociation due to trauma from his hyper-religious upbringing and loss," he explained. "Arlo's interior narrator voice is his thoughts eloquently expressed, while the syntax of his ASL dialogue is completely different, and then the way he writes English in text and emails is even more unique and quirky."

Fell discussed why he used the different syntaxes of spoken word, ASL and typed syntax, along with the hearing and Deaf and DeafBlind character's dialogue.

"There are so many variations of language occurring simultaneously in the book," he said. "I've been working in the Deaf community for decades. I remember getting a note from a Deaf girl at Gallaudet who had a crush on me and I couldn't understand what she had written. Then someone explained that she was writing with ASL syntax. Many Deaf struggle with writing English if their parents didn't sign to them from birth. They don't really get a language until they go to school. It's called language deprivation. If you look at any Deaf social media group, seeing atypical syntax is very common. There are also brilliant writers among the Deaf and DeafBlind, but they usually come from families that gave them language access (ASL) from birth.

"I wanted to show the variation between English (for the hearing characters) and ASL dialogue (for the DeafBlind and Deaf) in the book. There are some basic rules of ASL that I employed for the Deaf dialogue, like no verb conjugations. ASL structure is similar to Mandarin, where there's a 'Time' word at the beginning of the sentence to display past tense. There's also no verb 'to be' for the most part, and I sprinkle in some words that are spoken glosses of ASL, like 'Pah,' which means "Success or mission accomplished." I'm not writing a true ASL transliteration. To do that I'd have to draw diagrams and it would be completely indecipherable. I just wanted to give the flavor of ASL, to show that there are multiple characters speaking multiple languages from multiple cultures."

While Fell shows Arlo's limitation with written English in his emails, he also captures the limits of several hearing characters whose skills with ASL are abysmal, even when they are supposed to be fluent. He does this in several places, demonstrating the frustration Arlo feels when someone incompetent is interpreting for him. Or when two Jehovah's Witnesses only speak to him in their terrible sign language in order to practice with no real interest in him as a person.

"One thing I hope people get from this book is that hearing parents who have deaf children need to learn sign language and start signing to their children as soon as possible — at birth."

Fell discussed the bias that starts even with pediatricians who advise hearing parents to not learn sign language as a way to force their children to try to learn to read lips or find some other way to try to make their children as close to hearing as possible.

"It's called 'audism.' Fell explained. "Even the term 'hearing-impaired' is so problematic. It implies that hearing is what's right, and anything other than that is what's 'broken.' For people in the Deaf community, it's not broken; this is their world, their culture."

Posters for Blair Fell's plays  

Getting personal
Asked about other examples of positive Deaf or DeafBlind representation in literature or theater, Fell said, "There is kind of an explosion at the moment, actually." The Sign for Home is being released on the same day as Sara Novic's deaf boarding school novel, True Biz, and Nyle Demarco's Deaf Utopia.

Fell also mentioned the Oscar-nominated short film Seeing Through, which had a DeafBlind person in the lead. Of course, the 2021 film CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) has won numerous awards, including three 2022 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor. And The Sign for Home may one day see an adaptation, despite Fell's distaste for Hollywood schmoozy etiquette. "My agent now knows not to send me to meetings."

The unique quality of his novel is clearly worth noting for its fresh perspective.

"I hadn't seen a book like this before, which is why I wanted to write it," said Fell. "There aren't many (or any that I know of) novels that focus on a fictional DeafBlind character — especially a love story. Nor have we seen any about an ASL interpreter, a person who works in that space between the two worlds. We're supposed to be just the voices in a room, even when you see stuff that is so wrong, that just goes outside the ethics of what you're supposed to pay attention to; which can be so disturbing. But the job itself is constantly fascinating."

Ethical dilemmas create a big dramatic point in the book where Cyril oversteps his boundaries of being an interpreter and attempts to help Arlo change his life and escape the limitations his Jehovah's Witness uncle and primary interpreter have imposed on him. This includes helping Arlo solve the mystery about what really happened to his beloved girlfriend from high school. Cyril soon finds that despite Arlo being hyper-religious and conservative (at first), they become very good friends, and he has his own awakenings aided by Arlo's counsel.

"This happens all the time," Fell said. "I have one client who is a fundamentalist Christian and he knows I'm gay, but I'm his favorite interpreter. Of course it took some time, and you're supposed to be objective, but they ask questions. They want to know about you. Being gay is not a declaration, but it's more curiosity in conversation. I'm always asked if I'm from a Deaf family, if I'm married or have kids. And then eventually, as they keep wanting to know what's my story and what girl I'm dating, I just have to say, 'Dude; I'm gay.' Soon, since the job puts you in very intense life situations, you often end up sharing about your lives with each other and become friends."

The Fries Test
Fell knew as well that there would be tests about his representation of disabled people. "One bookseller asked if my novel would pass what's called The Fries Test, which asks if it includes the usual clichés: do they die, do they need to be fixed."

Writer Kenny Fries developed his disability variation on The Bechtel Test about the representation of women in film and literature, formulated by lesbian graphic novelist Alison Bechtel.

"I didn't want it to be a book that's just about the able-bodied person," said Fell. "I wanted to have the disabled person be the hero who finds his own salvation, not a hearing person who saves them."

Fell admits that he was nervous about passing a litmus test of representation.

"I felt terror through the whole thing; I mean, literally waking up in the middle of the night. But I have been in the Deaf community for 30 years. This is the life I swim in. I wanted to write about an interpreter, but I didn't want to make it just about the hearing character. I'm definitely of the mind that if we do the work and the research we can write about whatever inspires us, but also suffer the consequences if we write about it badly. You need to be willing to face criticism."

If the advance reviews are any indication, Fell needn't worry.

Asked if there were differences among LGBTQ Deaf or DeafBlind people in terms of syntax or signing styles, Fell said, "Not really. There is BASL (Black American ASL), but not Queer ASL. There are lots of regional variations and people have different styles. ASL's not a monolith. Even the mobility of their hands or the shape of them can make a difference in the production of signs. I tend to sign large because I have a large personality, I guess."

The Sign for Home by Blair Fell, Atria/Emily Bestler Books/Simon & Schuster, hardcover $27

For some of his upcoming in-person and online book events, the author will be signing as well as reading. For info, visit

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