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The Sign for Home
Table of Contents
About The Book
When a young DeafBlind man learns the girl he thought was lost forever might still be out there, he embarks on a life-changing journey to find her—and his freedom.
Arlo Dilly is young, handsome, and eager to meet the right girl. He also happens to be DeafBlind, a Jehovah’s Witness, and under the strict guardianship of his controlling uncle and unscrupulous Tactile ASL interpreter. His chances of finding someone to love seem slim to none.
And yet, it happened once before: many years ago, at a boarding school for the Deaf. Arlo met the love of his life—a mysterious girl with onyx eyes and beautifully expressive hands which told him the most amazing stories. But tragedy struck, and their love was lost forever. Or so Arlo thought.
After years spent nursing his broken heart, Arlo attends a writing class where a new unfiltered interpreter is assigned to him. Against the wishes of his guardians, the new interpreter provides Arlo with access to a world he had no idea existed. Memories from his past are unlocked. Soon he wonders if the hearing people he was supposed to trust have been lying to him all along, and if his lost love might be found again.
No longer willing to accept what others tell him, Arlo convinces his new best friends (his gay interpreter and a rebellious Belgian barista) to set off on a journey to learn the truth. Despite the many forces working against him, Arlo will stop at nothing to find the girl who got away and experience all of life’s joyful possibilities.
“Tender, hilarious and decidedly uplifting,” (BookPage), The Sign for Home is a “poignant…riveting” (Los Angeles Times), fresh and charming romance that you won’t soon forget.
The air of your room. The odor of sheets and blankets, hot summer dust, old technology equipment, an Old Spice deodorant stick worn to a nub. The stinging smell of detergent from the washing machine outside your door burns the lining of your nostrils.
You are sitting alone at your desk in your T-shirt and shorts. The undersides of your thighs are sweaty and stick to the fiberglass chair. The tips of your fingers rub themselves against the cool plastic keys on the keyboard. You tilt your head down close to it.
Plastic-and-dripped-coffee smell. Maybe the sticky crumbs of old peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches? You lift the back of your wrist to your nose.
Soap, hair, and skin.
You look toward the computer screen, your face just inches away. Making love to the screen, your trainer from the Abilities Institute called it. The white screen has been inverted to black because it’s easier on your eyes—or eye, rather, as there’s only one that has any usable vision left. The giant white cursor, magnified with your ZoomText software, winks at you over and over again, calling you to write, demanding you take control of your sinful mind. You begin to type three-inch-tall white letters that march across the screen one at a time… T… O… M… R… S…
To Mrs. Clara Shuster, MSW
I have getted your email. Please telling potential MALE interpreter (10 a.m.) and female interpreter (11 a.m.) with TOP TACTILE ASL SKILLS I will meet them and YOU tomorrow on ABILITIES INSTITUTE FOR THE DISABLED, 114 Skidmore Street, Poughkeepsie, NY, at SECOND floor conference room. After meeting BOTH MALE AND FEMALE ASL interpreters I will then DECIDING which will team with my OLD LONG TIME INTERPRETER MOLLY CLINCH.
You stop typing. Molly has been your interpreter and Support Service Provider, or SSP, since you were thirteen years old. Other than Brother Birch, Molly is the most important person in your life who is still alive. She was there when all the worst, unspeakable, sinful things happened.
Your fingers find their place back on the keyboard.
Tell INTERPRETERS bring jacket or sweater for interview, because Second floor of ABILITIES INSTITUTE on 114 Skidmore Street can getting COLD like refrigerator. (FROWNING) Cold, I guess, make Mrs. Clara Shuster SMARTER and WORK HARDER. HA HA. This is JOKE. (BIG SMILE)
Writing English is hard. Brother Birch says when hearing people read your writing they think you’re a small child. (You aren’t.) Or that you have developmental disabilities. (You don’t.) English is just not your first language. American Sign Language is. Writing in a language that you’ve literally never heard is like battling monsters with your hands tied behind your back. No matter how much you try to butt them with your head, they keep knocking you down. The worst are the confusing Preposition Monsters and the giant Verb-Tense Rodents, sharp-toothed beasts who time and again… have eat you? Have eat-ed you? Has ate you? Have will eaten you?
This is why Brother Birch is letting you take a class at the community college this summer to make you a better writer, which will help you to write sermons and preach the word of God. Hallelujah.
And maybe you will also be able to meet new people, including girls, and that will help you to stop having sinful thoughts about the person you are never supposed to think about ever again.
You return to typing the email to Mrs. Clara Shuster.
When male and female interpreters comes to Abilities Institute they will recognize ME since I will be ONLY 23-year-old MAN with a WHITE cane and DOG who does NOT look up when Interpreters CALLS OUT NAME. Again JOKE. (Big Smile) DARK HUMOR. I am not RUDE MAN. Of course I DEAFBLIND. HA HA HA. Please tell all interpreters I DO NOT LIKE SWEATY HANDS or bad breath or too much perfume which stings my nose.
Before, when you were small, everyone at the Kingdom Hall was taller than you, so your head would come up to their chest and shoulders. They always smelled like armpit. Now you smell the tops of their heads, which smell like hair cream, shampoo, or dust.
You like short people better than tall people.
Mama was short. Molly is short. Your old friends from the Rose Garden School, Big Head Lawrence and Martin, were short. Martin also had lots of fat on his body. (You also like fat people.) The person-who-you-are-not-allowed-to-remember was also short, but thin, with black eyes, thick black hair, and smelled like…
Quiet! Quiet, stupid brain! Quiet!
Down at the Kingdom Hall hearing members will do very basic Tactile Sign Language with you, so if they ever meet another DeafBlind man they will know how to talk to him about Jehovah God. Some of the girls take a very long time to spell their names and mix up the letters. Sometimes they let their hands linger longer in yours than is proper, and you’ll let your own hand wander up to their wrists. And that’s when things get different inside you. Sometimes, if they have nice hands—soft, smooth, expressive, not sweaty—you ask them to fingerspell their names a second time even though you understood the first time. You’ll pull their hands in a little closer, so you can feel the warmth of their bodies. You’ll inhale their perfume, powder, skin, breath. Then sometimes you daydream about asking the girls to put their fingers inside their soft place, the way you-know-who did, and let you smell them.
You pray again to Jehovah God: Please, Jehovah God, let me stop having sinful thoughts every five minutes. Please let me take Brother Birch’s kind and loving advice to “Not be like Lot’s Wife and look back at the past”—especially about you-know-who—and please let me be a spiritually strong man and servant to you and your son, Jesus Christ.
You take a deep breath and finish writing the letter to Mrs. Clara Shuster:
Let BOTH interpreters with HIGH SKILLS know my old GUIDE DOG is name “SNAP”… (SNAP FINGERS is name). She is old secondhand guide dog. She do not BITE a lot. But tell interpreters with HIGH SKILLS NOT to BANG BANG on table to show they am HERE. SNAP does not like it and BARK ANGRY. GASP. GULP. Embarrass! Better way, gently TAP on my shoulder, and hold, do not move so don’t LOSE YOU. After that I will interview potential INTERPRETERS and then pick one to work with me and Molly this summer. Okay?
Thank you for all helping me so much. I am very exciting going to WRITING CLASS at Dutchess Community College. I promise work very hard and get good grades so Brother Birch, Jehovah God, and you WILL HAVE be proud with me.
Blessings and Hugs,
Reading Group Guide
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When Arlo Dilly learns the girl he thought was lost forever might still be out there, he takes it as a sign and embarks on a life-changing journey to find his great love—and his freedom.
Arlo Dilly is young, handsome and eager to meet the right girl. He also happens to be DeafBlind, a Jehovah’s Witness, and under the strict guardianship of his controlling uncle. His chances of finding someone to love seem slim to none.
And yet, it happened once before: many years ago, at a boarding school for the Deaf, Arlo met the love of his life—a mysterious girl with onyx eyes and beautifully expressive hands that told him the most amazing stories. But tragedy struck, and their love was lost forever.
Or so Arlo thought.
After years trying to heal his broken heart, Arlo is assigned a college writing assignment that unlocks buried memories of his past. Soon he wonders if the hearing people he was supposed to trust have been lying to him all along, and if his lost love might be found again.
No longer willing to accept what others tell him, Arlo convinces a small band of misfit friends to set off on a journey to learn the truth. After all, who better to bring on this quest than his gay interpreter and wildly inappropriate Belgian best friend? Despite the many forces working against him, Arlo will stop at nothing to find the girl who got away and experience all of life’s joyful possibilities.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. When Arlo learns the concept of “the sublime,” it leads him to profound personal revelations, both happy and sad. Reread Arlo’s own definition of the concept in chapter 11. Have experienced the sublime? In what ways did that experience change your life?
2. If you began reading The Sign for Home without much familiarity with the DeafBlind community, what did you learn about DeafBlind culture that surprised or interested you?
3. A recurring theme in The Sign for Home is exploring how people lead ethical lives. Brother Birch and Molly follow the tenets of their faith, Arlo is influenced by a mix of religion and his gold star/red star system, and Cyril acts according to the professional code of conduct for ASL interpreters. Toward the end of the novel, Cyril says he “did the next right-wrong-ethical-unethical thing” when he drives off with Arlo, Shri, and Snap. How and why do other characters go against their personal code of ethics to do the “wrong” thing that is actually right?
4. Arlo narrates that the ASL sign for home was originally a combination of food and bed, but then it evolved to something that also resembles the ASL sign for someone kissing your face—“home went from being a place where you eat and sleep to the place where someone loves you.” If you were to make your own sign for home, what would it be? When you think of “home” what concepts or physical objects do you instantly envision?
5. While the novel tackles big questions and tragic moments in the characters’ lives, much of it is also very funny. What lines made you laugh, and how does Blair Fell use humor to help define his characters?
6. Cyril narrates that the “quintessential” interpreter face says we reside in a liminal world. At this point in the novel, why is Cyril more comfortable occupying a liminal space? In what ways does he demonstrate more personal agency in his life as a result of knowing Arlo?
7. What characteristics make Arlo and Shri a good match? How do their distinct personalities complement each other?
8. When Cyril takes the interpreter job with Tabitha, she tells him, “I can be independent and still need other people.” While Tabitha says this regarding the DeafBlind, it also holds true for Cyril. In what ways throughout the novel does he come to understand his own simultaneous need for independence and help from others?
9. When Molly admits to Cyril, Hanne, and Lavinia that she lied about Shri’s fate to Arlo, she tells them she now wants to put things right, otherwise she will never be able to forgive herself. Many characters in The Sign for Home struggle to forgive others and themselves. Who do you think is able to do so by the end of the novel?
10. Blair Fell depicts the secondary characters as vibrantly as he does the main characters. Which secondary characters did you connect with most, and why?
11. Arlo bravely and wisely tells Cyril that he and Shri don’t need him to be their hero: “Shri and I save ourselves . . . We don’t need hero. Understand? We hero ourselves.” How is Arlo his own hero? What qualities and actions lead him to saving himself by the end of the book?
12. The novel ends with all our main characters embarking upon a new chapter in their lives. What do you imagine the future holds for them? What do you think they’ll be doing in the next five years?
A Conversation with Blair Fell
While you have years of experience working as an ASL interpreter for the Deaf, did you do any specific research for this novel?
I did a lot of specific research for this novel, like speaking to ophthalmologists and attending a weeklong DeafBlind interpreting workshop at the Helen Keller National Center. I spoke to orientation and mobility trainers, as well as experienced one of the O/M trainings myself. I spoke to a couple of DeafBlind tech experts as well. These folks were extremely helpful. I also read a number of nonfiction books about the DeafBlind, including books by and about Helen Keller as well as Laura Bridgman who preceded her. I also researched a lot online, reading more contemporary personal accounts of DeafBlind folks, especially those who are working in the area of Protactile and disability rights. So many people were very helpful. But the bulk of my research was one-on-one interviews with DeafBlind individuals, either in person or via email; people like the poet and essayist John Lee Clark (a breathtakingly good writer who is DeafBlind!) as well as Divya Goel, a DeafBlind activist, and many others. A good DeafBlind friend of mine, Martin Greenburg, introduced me to many of the folks I interviewed, and he also helped me to understand some of the day-to-day challenges he faces. When the manuscript was finished, I also asked both a top interpreter for the DeafBlind and a DeafBlind woman out West to do a sensitivity read for me.
Was there a character you found easy to write? Who was most challenging to write?
Arlo was more of a slow discovery for me, and thus harder. I literally wrote hundreds of pages I cut trying to get to know him, including 150 pages before he was born learning who his parents were. I had really written enough for two books but had to cut it down. Cyril was a bit easier since he’s a middle-aged gay interpreter like me— although he has red hair and psoriasis, which I don’t have. (He also has more patience than me to be honest. I would have lost it in the lunchroom way earlier.) When I write, like many writers, I basically allow the characters to tell me who they are and what the story is. Molly was a challenge, as was Brother Birch—a challenge because I didn’t want them to be only evil. I had to find their motivations and their heart. Molly was especially a challenge because of the evolution she goes through. Hanne, one of my favorite characters, was a total surprise. She just had coffee with Cyril one day and she saw Arlo through the window and it was like bam!—I need her!
What does the sublime mean to you? Do you and Arlo share the same definition?
I think what I share with Arlo on my understanding of the sublime is that I cannot fully know how to solidify it easily in my mind, and when I try to sign it, I feel like I fall short. Words and signs are vessels that strive to express everything that we experience . . . and they can’t. Not fully. I like that Arlo refuses to settle on a sign or a series of signs for the sublime. Like him, I appreciate the search for that full meaning, but also respect its ineffability—its refusal to be captured.
What did you most hope to express about the DeafBlind experiences through your depiction of Arlo?
Arlo is an individual character. I don’t mean him to represent all DeafBlind people or experiences. His being an orphaned,Jehovah’s Witness who is kept isolated from the world is just as much part of his identity. But I did also want to give a window into both a DeafBlind world and that of an interpreter. So I talked to a lot of my DeafBlind friends about their desires, struggles, and frustrations with the world, and what they felt were their biggest challenges. Audism is a common theme—how the hearing world looks at everything through that lens, as if being hearing is the one and only way to find happiness or have value. This is why one should never say “hearing impaired”; it implies the Deaf need to be fixed and are somehow substandard. I guess I wanted to show how Arlo wants to live his life to its fullest and how the hearing-sighted world, among other things, can get in the way or worse. But also, how he, like many DeafBlind people I know, can and do find meaning, love, sex, fun, and fulfillment—and must also fight against oppression. I wanted to show that DeafBlind folks have the right to be wrong and can be flawed as well as heroic. But this, as I said, is a story about an individual—not a political idea or a way of presenting deaf-blindness as a monolith. It’s about Arlo Dilly, and his friendship with his interpreter and his best friends, and his love for Shri.
Do you have a favorite book written by a DeafBlind person? What DeafBlind writers do you recommend for people eager to read and learn more about this culture?
One of my favorite writers (period) is the poet and essayist John Lee Clark, who is DeafBlind and has Usher syndrome. For starters, he’s brilliant. His first book of essays is called Where I Stand: On the Signing Community and My DeafBlind Experience. I’m afraid that title might be off-putting. It doesn’t express how great these essays truly are or how broad their topics. His DeafBlind experience is only part of it. He has one chapter on how he might interpret the national anthem that is breathtaking and made me actually interested in the lyrics and backstory for the first time. He has a new book of essays coming out in spring 2023 called Touching the Future and another book of poems from Norton called How to Communicate: Poems in fall 2022. I can’t wait to read both!
Why did you decide to use Walt Whitman’s poem as the basis for Arlo’s assignment? Were there any other poems you considered using instead?
Good question. I did consider other poems, but I really love Whitman, and interpreting him is, as Cyril learns, hard but also doable because of the raw physicality of them. The more I can physically see something in my head the better I can interpret it. Whitman shows us the grass, the battlefield, the boys swimming. I can’t remember the other poems I considered. Been a long time.
Snap is such an important character, despite not being human. How did you approach writing her and her relationship with Arlo?
Snap was a little hard for me. I love dogs so much, but I’ve never had a service dog. To be honest, I would think of the expressions my late pit mix Sophie used to make, but more often I’d contact another DeafBlind friend named Jeremy Best about his yellow lab Ryley. I’d periodically get stuck and send him an email asking how Ryley behaves in certain circumstances. Things like, “When you go into a bathroom how does Ryley help you?” And he’d say how she can help him get to the toilet, but she wouldn’t be able to help him find the restroom. I’d also study guide dogs whenever I’d see them. Keeping my distance of course since they’d be working.
Did you ever consider having Arlo not forgive Molly? Why, ultimately, did you decide to have him do so?
That was one of the most difficult aspects of the novel. It wasn’t just hard to have him forgive her, but having Molly be worthy of his forgiveness. It was such a tricky thing. I struggled. I work with a lot of Jehovah’s Witness interpreters, and most, to be honest, are great interpreters and very kind. They also believe I’m headed for oblivion if I act out on my sexuality. (I’ve been told, like Arlo tells Cyril, that as long as I don’t have sex with another man then I can still get into Heaven even though I’m queer. No thanks.) I really wanted to make Molly a whole person and not just an evil trope of zealotry. I had to find a reason she would do such horrific things to Arlo while still loving him. I also love the topic of forgiving the unforgivable because, hell, that’s our task in this world where so many seemingly unforgivable things are happening. It’s hard for me to forgive, that’s for sure. But Arlo is better than me, Cyril is better than me. I write for what I aspire to be. But, yes, there was an early thought to have him not forgive her— but I prefer where it ended up even though it was way harder. I keep intending to write something easy, but it never works out that way. Damn it.
Do you think Cyril will take a chance on love again with Zach?
We shall see. J I think Cyril is going to try to get sober, and then who knows. He’s not capable of truly loving before he goes on this journey, but if he sobers up and gets honest with himself anything is possible. I suspect he will find love.
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I’m working on two new novels. One is a completed draft of a very different book Disco Witches of Fire Island (a working title), which is about the seasonal workers on Fire Island in 1989 during the AIDS crisis and a coven of (you got it) Disco Witches. I really wanted to capture the difficulty of being a young man, like I was, trying to cope with that hopeless period of the AIDS crisis and to find love, and also create a mythology around the dance floors of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Despite the magical realism in the book, it steps into a bit of fictionalized autobiography for me. I was a bartender on Fire Island in the 1990s and share other things with the protagonist. My agent has the most recent draft, and the early readers seem to be really jazzed about it. There are also two other novels in the works, neither of which I’m ready to talk about. One also features a DeafBlind character and several interpreters. I wrote a rough draft of it in the middle of writing The Sign for Home. I had given up on The Sign for Home halfway through the first draft because it was really hard and taking forever. So I thought, I’m going to write something faster and a little lighter. So this other novel popped out. There are murders. I’ll say that much. There’s also a third book I’m writing just because I really, really want to write it. I also have a memoir I’ve dabbled with over the years, focused on the films that inspired me as a kid, especially The Singing Nun and the 1937 Lost Horizon. And then there are dozens of other books that are swimming around on my TO BE WRITTEN list. I like to stay busy, and it’s never about what I’ve written but what I’m currently writing. I get depressed if I’m not writing something new. To be honest, I never knew I could write a novel before, it was quite a surprise, and I loved it. So I’m not going to waste any more time.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Research Helen Keller’s books and choose one that interests you to read as a group. Discuss how Helen’s descriptions of living as a DeafBlind person compare to Blair Fell’s descriptions in The Sign for Home.
2. In recent years, there have been many more movies, TV shows, and documentaries exploring Deaf and DeafBlind culture, such as Deaf U, Audible, The Sound of Metal, and Coda. Pick one to watch for a book club screening!
3. Watch the documentary Through Deaf Eyes produced in association with Gallaudet University (which Blair Fell attended) to learn more about Deaf culture in America.
4. Visit Blair Fell’s website at www.blairfell.com.
Why We Love It
“I LOVED The Sign for Home. I read it for Top Shelf consideration and campaigned hard for it to win. (I’m pretty sure it got second place because of my campaign!) In my mind, it is unquestionably the best book of the season, maybe even the year. Heartwarming, hilarious, eye-opening, with not an ounce of the pity or schmaltz one might expect. Arlo is one of my favorite characters in literature, I think (I wish) I could meet him! I could gush forever but the bottom line is I adore the novel.”
—Caroline A., Indie Telesales Account Manager, on The Sign for Home
- Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (April 27, 2023)
- Length: 432 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982175962
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Raves and Reviews
"As if complex characters, a compelling voice, smart stylistic choices, and the fierce defense of diversity, accessibility, and equality were not enough, THE SIGN FOR HOME also immersed me in an engrossing and important conversation I knew too little about. I closed this book more enlightened, more engaged, and more hopeful than I was when I opened it, and I enjoyed every page along the way."
– Laurie Frankel, New York Times bestselling author of ONE TWO THREE
*The 2022 Pride Reading List: 72 New Books to Read All Year*
"A hilarious, peculiar and very touching story about a deaf, blind Jehovah’s Witness boy and his gay interpreter."
– James Hannaham, author of the PEN/Faulkner Award winner, DELICIOUS FOODS
"Fell writes with a deep compassion and keen attention to the experiences of living with deafness and blindness. This heartfelt romance is hard to resist."
– Publishers Weekly
"A unique coming-of-age romance."
"Tender, hilarious and decidedly uplifting."
“Poignant . . . . Riveting”
– Los Angeles Times
*April's Most Anticipated*
– The Millions
"Reading THE SIGN FOR HOME will cause you to experience many emotions, from indignation to horror to heartbreak. Ultimately, though, this is a novel about the power of love --- not just romantic love but the love that evolves from friendship. It's a beautiful story that’s powerfully told."
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