There’s a tough balance to strike when your name is Nyle DiMarco. The Deaf activist, who first found fame as the winner of America’s Next Top Model in 2015 before winning Dancing with the Stars a year later, inherited the kind of spotlight which comes with appearing in shows aimed at a mainstream hearing audience. It’s a platform with which to educate, but which also lends itself to inspiration porn – and in his memoir Deaf Utopia, he must again toe that line.
For hearing audiences, he does that rather well, albeit with a heap of repetition, a dash of inspiration porn, and some questionable writing. He refers to the mischievousness which can come with being Deaf – an otherwise intriguing argument – as our “evil raccoon”. His immersion in the Deaf community and American Sign Language (ASL) is compared to cucumbers, weirdly.
When done well, DiMarco illustrates the devastating impact of language deprivation on his father, the flaws in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the way in which the US education system can almost feel like an assault course for Deaf and disabled children. The tenacity of his mother in supporting and fighting Nyle’s education and Deaf upbringing is particularly encouraging reading, while DiMarco’s decision to maintain ASL grammar in signed dialogue is a commendable rebuttal to the temptation to erase the language by converting it to English to suit the written medium.
The aforementioned topics are all welcome messages to be sharing with a hearing readership – and in that respect, Deaf Utopia is a relatively mediocre beginner’s guide to deafness – but they are hammered in to the point where it almost becomes patronising and basic. We’re told DiMarco’s mother didn’t want him and his brother to go down different paths in life when they were born on one page, only for the same analogy about paths to be deployed a few pages later.
Elsewhere, an anecdote about shrieking in a hearing girl’s ear serves no purpose than make DiMarco come across as rather unlikeable. The same goes for his using his Deafness to get out of being punished by the cops (he thankfully acknowledges his white privilege here, but it’s not my place to judge whether he does that effectively), and irrelevant commentary about an African American contestant on America’s Next Top Model despairing over having her haircut. The aforementioned mischievousness or ‘raccoon’ belonging to Nyle is only amusing at times.
Ultimately, DiMarco has us empathise with different instances of discrimination faced by Deaf people. It’s important – of course – but audism (the more formal term for this) is finally defined more than halfway through the book. Other ideas, meanwhile – such as the difference between sim-com and Signing Exact English (SEE), and concentration fatigue – are tragically underdeveloped.
It’s clear that this is a book for hearing people, and there’s not much for Deaf people at all across its 20 chapters – unless you find the relatable premise of ‘Deaf Culture 101’ endearing as a Deaf person who is not yet tired of repeating the same lines to hearing people instead of moving on towards acceptance and inclusion. Otherwise, enjoyment of Deaf Utopia is dependent on being drawn to DiMarco as an individual, but in the Deaf community, he remains a divisive figure.
The inspiration porn is only limited to a handful of anecdotes, but when it appears, it’s unnerving. DiMarco’s embracing of ASL which then leads him to score a home run in a game of baseball reads like it was fresh out of a college coming of age movie. Him and his Deaf friends throwing rocks at the ground near the hearing kids mocking their signs in the playground, meanwhile, feels like a modern David versus Goliath. This triumphalism is eventually critiqued when the producers of America’s Next Top Model push him to get emotional on camera, but it feels far too late in the narrative to correct what came before.
In Deaf Utopia’s conclusion, there is a feeling that another structure could – potentially – have been used to tell DiMarco’s story. A chronological approach, wrapping up with his time on Dancing with the Stars, sees him summarise the previous chapters and his experiences through his dance routines on the show.
Perhaps the dances could have served as the central narrative to which he could pin his childhood anecdotes, but as a way of tying up all of the stories shared, it’s a neat way to show DiMarco’s path towards self-acceptance.
At its heart, Deaf Utopia explains how community unlocks the confidence of those belonging to marginalised groups. An enlightening appeal for hearing people, but one Deaf people – rather ironically – have heard many times before.
Deaf Utopia is due to be published in the UK on 28 April.
This review was initially published on The Limping Chicken.