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Ilya Kaminsky

Ilya Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet Union and is now an American citizen. He is the author of a previous poetry collection, Dancing in Odessa, and coeditor of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry. He has received a Whiting Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was named a finalist for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages.


“Evident throughout [Deaf Republic] is a profound imagination, matched only by the poet’s ability to create a republic of conscience that is ultimately ours, too, and utterly his own—a map of what it means to live ‘in a peaceful country.’”

– Kevin Young, The New Yorker

“Re-envisioning disability as power and silence as singing, Kaminsky has created a searing allegory precisely tuned to our times, a stark appeal to our collective conscience.”

– NPR.org

“Kaminsky speaks of our darkest days, of tyranny and death. Yet he sings of the world—of poetry and dance and sex and love—with the highest praise.”

– Commonweal Magazine

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Deaf Republic

The Gain of a Deaf Republic


Much of the recent responses to Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic have rightly focused on its metaphors of silence and their tense relationship to political resistance. While such metaphors are crucial to the way Kaminsky imagines political resistance, the reduction of deafness to metaphor undercuts what I contend is a much larger project of “deaf-gain” that he explores in his volume. Deaf activists have long worked to undo reductive stereotypes of deafness as lack or loss by insisting upon it “as a means to understand the plenitude of human being.”[1] As opposed to a medical model of disability in which an individual is entirely reduced to their deafness, Deaf identity embraces deafness as a valuable part of biocultural diversity. Members of the Deaf community share rich cultures, histories, and languages grounded in deafness as a particular embodied orientation to the world. Such orientation enables a unique form of knowledge-making unique to Deaf people. But within the traumatic conditions of wartime, what does deafness afford? What is at stake in claiming “to be of deaf people” in the face of violence?

Deaf Republic reads like a two-act political drama in which lyric poems trace the experiences of citizens living under martial law. Armed militants come to occupy the fictional Eastern European town of Vasenka and ultimately murder a deaf boy, Petya, who spits at a sergeant during a local puppet show. As public gatherings become banned all together, Petya’s childish yet brazen act of resistance becomes one of martyrdom. One of the puppeteers, Galya Armolinskaya, rallies the townspeople around his death as the bloody symbol of the soldiers’ cruelty visited upon one of Vasenka’s most vulnerable. Here, Kaminsky considers how resistance can take unexpected, subtle forms. Some of the townspeople choose to be deaf as a strategy of silent protest. Deafness becomes a means of refusal: to speak, to hear, to comply, to resign, to forget. “In the name of Petya, we refuse,” the chorus of townspeople proclaim. Such an act feels deeply fraught, for able-bodied citizens seem to be performing deafness as “their only barricade” against tyrannical authority. Yet assuming deafness here is not tokenism nor the petty exploitation of disability for political gain. Rather, it is a communal act of mourning for and solidarity with the fallen Petya that animates their rebellion, that makes his deafness insurgency. Kaminsky frames deafness in explicitly crip terms: a politicized, community identity—mobile and adaptive— whose practices resist dehumanization and subvert authority.

Out of such meaningless violence is born a deaf community whose experiences shape not only their identities but their language. “The townspeople invented their own sign language. Some of the signs derived from various traditions (Russian, Ukranian, Belarusian, American Sign language, etc.). Other signs might have been made up by citizens, as they tried to create a language not known to authorities,” notes Kaminsky at the end of his book. Vasenkan deafness is thus characterized not by quietism but by prolixity—a ingenious talking back in the face of oppression that enables the townspeople to “testify” to the atrocities happening daily, poem after poem while the rest of the world “lived happily during the war.” In the form of printed representations of these signs, Kaminsky invites his reader to navigate a deaf poetics that deftly eludes the censorship of the soldiers. Scholars of Deaf Studies have argued that sign language’s rhetorical power lies precisely in its unique capacity to express complex ideas through visual-spatial metaphors.[2] We see this linguistic ingenuity both in the hybrid origins of the Vasenkan sign language, produced collectively by the townspeople living in precarity, and the hybrid forms of the poems in both verse and sign. Seemingly singular, localized signs come together in an embodied essay that expresses what might otherwise be silently witnessed during the occupation. When the traumas of war become nearly unspeakable, the hands unbound in turn speak volumes. The same hands that manipulated the puppets when Petya died. The same hands that, in retaliation, dragged the bodies of the dead soldiers to the back of the theater.

The first act of Deaf Republic traces the intimacies between Alfonso Barabinski and his wife, Sonya, who is pregnant when the military occupation occurs. After giving birth, Sonya is shot and Anushka, the baby girl, is immediately taken as Alfonso is hanged. The traumatic violence of civil war, this tragic family story suggests, is often intergenerational. Yet, as Kaminsky reminds us, cultural memory and forms of resistance also passes from one generation to another: “And yet, on some nights, townspeople dim the lights and teach their children to sign.” The Barabinskis are survived by Vasenka’s children, by the very language they helped to invent and share. Deafness remains a means of survival, the means of radically imagining “a peaceful country.” A deaf republic.


[1] H-Dirksen L. Bauman and Joseph J. Murray. “Deaf Studies in the 21st Century: ‘Deaf-gain’ and the Future of Human Diversity.” The Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education. Eds. Marc Marschark and Patricia Elizabeth Spencer. 2 (2010): 11.

[2] Bauman and Murray, 14.

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