Andre Aciman Published in the New Yorker

March 10, 2014

Distinguished Professor Andre Aciman of the Ph.D. Programs in Comparative Literature and French published a memoir in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Aciman's poignant memoir, 'Are You Listening?,' recounts his relationship with his deaf mother and the unique way they communicated.

Read an excerpt from 'Are You Listening?' below or access the full story with a subscription.

I always knew my mother couldn't hear, but I can't remember when it dawned on me that she'd always be deaf. If I was told, I didn't believe it. It was no different when I learned about sex. Someone may have sat me down for the facts of life, and although I wasn't really shocked and probably already knew, I couldn't bring myself to trust any of it. In between knowing something and refusing to know it lies a murky chasm that even the most enlightened among us are perfectly happy to inhabit. If anyone gave me the official report on my mother, it would have been my grandmother, who did not like her daughter-in-law and who found my mother's deaf friends as repellent as ungainly fowls squawking in her son's living room. If it wasn't my grandmother, it would have been the way people made fun of my mother on the street.

Some men whistled when she walked by, because she was beautiful and sexy and had a way of looking you boldly in the face until you lowered your eyes. But, when she shopped and spoke with the monotone, guttural voice of the deaf, people laughed. In Alexandria, Egypt, where we lived until we were summarily exiled, like all of the country's Jews, that's what you did when someone was different. It wasn't full-throated laughter; it was derision, the stepchild of contempt, which is as mirthless as it is cruel. She couldn't hear their laughter, but she read it in their faces. This must be how she finally understood why people always smirked when she thought she was speaking like everyone else. Who knows how long it took her to realize that she was unlike other children, why some turned away, or others, meaning to be kind, had a diffident way when they allowed her to play with them?

Born in Alexandria in 1924 in the wake of British colonial rule, my mother belonged to a middle-class, French-speaking Jewish family. Her father had done well as a bicycle merchant and spared no expense to find a cure for her deafness. Her mother took her to see the most prominent audiologists in Europe, but returned more disheartened after each appointment. There was, the doctors said, no cure. Her child had lost her hearing to meningitis when she was a few months old, and from meningitis there was no coming back. Her ears were healthy, but meningitis had touched the part of her brain responsible for hearing....

Aciman also serves as executive officer of the Ph.D. Program in Comparative Literature and director of the Writers' Institute at the Graduate Center.