Writer. Spent two years in the Peace Corps working in Zambia, 1994-96; has worked variously as a forest ranger in the California Redwoods, a housepainter, a sheepskin slipper craftsman and salesman, a Zen monk, a raw food chef, a journalist, a teacher, and a hospice social worker in Brooklyn, NY.
The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa, Holt (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to periodicals and Web sites such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Huffington Post; maintains blogs at http://cochbla.blogspot.com and http://aslci.blogspot.com.
New York-based writer Josh Swiller was born with some hearing loss, and as he grew older his condition worsened until, at the age of five, he was considered to be severely deaf. However, Swiller refused to allow his inability to hear to slow him down. He attended Yale University, and while he considered the school a challenge, as lectures and classes were not designed to accommodate a non-hearing student, he succeeded in graduating. From there he continued his education at Gallaudet University, considered the premiere university for the deaf in the United States, where he received a very different education in a very different atmosphere. Over the course of his career, Swiller has worked at many diverse jobs, including as a forest ranger in the California Redwoods, a housepainter, a sheepskin slip- per craftsman and salesman, a Zen monk, a raw food chef, a journalist, a teacher, and a hospice social worker in Brooklyn, New York. His writing has appeared in a number of periodicals and on Web sites, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Huffington Post, and he maintains several blogs. When Swiller decided to join the Peace Corps, he was sent to work in Mununga, Zambia, for two years, where he was the first white man ever to set foot in the village.
Swiller's decision to volunteer in Africa was in part a reaction to his educational experiences. Having gone through Yale and Gallaudet, he felt the need to determine his own identity. A talented lip-reader, he had often questioned his true place in the world. As he told Prill Boyle for his Defying Gravity Web site: "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?" In Mununga, while the people had a passing knowledge of white civilization due to the proliferation of American culture and media, they had never interacted with a white person before, so Swiller became different for a new reason, with his deafness fading into the background. He chronicles his experiences in his book, The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa, which was published in 2007. In it, he reveals the dangers he faced in the rural town, where the people still believed in witchcraft and believed that, if there was an issue in communication, their own English language skills were causing the problem, not Swiller's hearing loss or lip-reading abilities. He learned a great deal during his stay, including how to assist in the running of the local health clinic and how to negotiate delicate tribal matters. He also realized the difficulties inherent in making inroads in such an isolated region, where even providing fresh water is a challenge. However, as his stay continued and the political atmosphere of the area became more dangerous, it soon became apparent that there were nuances of the local regime and situation that Swiller had been unable to interpret. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews was disappointed in the book overall, despite finding Swiller's journey compelling, stating that "mediocre prose effectively blunts the powerful blows that these often shocking experiences could have delivered." However, Nicole Dweck, reviewing for the New York Observer Online, concluded that "Swiller rewrites the familiar African narrative with a purity that makes the tragic beauty of that devastated continent a stunning novelty for readers. We experience the rich, tangible passions of love, honor and revenge in Africa, amplified a thousandfold in the quiet world of the deaf." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly opined that "Swiller may have his particular aural capabilities, he also has literary talents—an eye, a voice and a narrative talent."
Swiller told CA that he was interested in reading from a very young age, since he had been deaf from the age of four. "I read [Philip Roth's novel] Portnoy's Complaint when I was nine, which was a mistake," he remarked. "In my defense, it had a shiny yellow cover."
When asked what influences his work, he said: "Buddhist practice. Recognizing the individual self is just a mirage, and the true glory of life is boundless."
When asked what effect he hoped his books would have, Swiller responded: "A little more tenderness, a little more peacefulness, a little less fear. Everyone's ride ends in death, might as well enjoy the journey."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Swiller, Josh, The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa, Holt (New York, NY), 2007.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2007, review of The Unheard.
Publishers Weekly, July 16, 2007, review of The Unheard, p. 156.
School Library Journal, November 1, 2007, Joanne Ligamari, review of The Unheard, p. 163.
Defying Gravity,http://defyinggravitynow.blogspot.com/ (September 17, 2007), Prill Boyle, author interview.
Josh Swiller Home Page,http://www.joshswiller.com (June 26, 2008).
New York Observer Online,http://www.observer.com/ (October 30, 2007), Nicole Dweck, "The Heart of Darkness: Africa with a Hearing Aid."
Pajka,http://pajka.blogspot.com/ (December 5, 2007), "Deaf Characters in Adolescent Literature."
Peace Corps Writers Web site,http://www.peacecorpswriters.org/ (July 9, 2007), John Coyne, author interview.