SASL Journal Vol. 1, No. 1 - Page 59

ASL Literature Byrne (2) many definitions for ASL literature in current use, and (3) the confusion associated with works that arise out of the deaf community as a collective as opposed to works that are authored by individual performers. A particular problem that this paper will address is how ASL literature is widely taught to hearing students while such instruction is either non-existent or marginal when it comes to deaf students in American and Canadian schools. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of ASL literature lies in the fact that it is not written. Some students taking ASL classes are perplexed by the idea that signed language has a literature when there are no books to read. Clearly, a reaffirming support for the concept of oral literature is needed. While many ASL instructors are culturally deaf and accustomed to the narration of stories and poems delivered in ASL ‘through the air,' they need to defend teaching ASL literature in its unique form. The Relationship between Oral Literature and ASL Literature In Ben Bahan’s paper entitled ASL Literature: Inside the Story, he asks, “Can there be a literature that is not written down?” (1992, p. 153). The significance of this question cannot be downplayed. Bahan is a Professor in the Department of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University, a premier institution of higher education for deaf students in Washington, D.C. He is deaf and an accomplished storyteller in his own language, ASL. He has a long resume of traveling throughout the United States and abroad to give storytelling performances on stage. His most recent work is entitled Bleeva (2014), which is best described as a monologue with insight and humor on why deaf people are here on earth. Audiences of Bahan’s performances over the years have been both deaf and hearing with the important understanding that they know ASL (S. Supalla & Bahan, 1994a, 1994b). Individuals who pay admission have been eager to be entertained by Bahan’s performances, thus, the audience experience has to be significant, including that of a literary nature. One reason Bahan raised the question of whether there can be a literature that is not written down has to do with the conventional attitude that literature is tied to the written form. As a matter of fact, there are opposing positions among scholars on this issue. While some scholars such as Walter Ong believe that there is no such thing as oral literature, others such as Isidore Okpewho think differently. Ong (1982) views oral literature as a “strictly preposterous term” because it has “nothing to do with writing at all” (p. 11). He then adds, “Thinking of oral tradition or a heritage of oral performance, genres and styles as ‘oral literature’ is rather like thinking of horses as automobiles without wheels” (p. 12). Okpewho (1992) believes that there can be a literature that is not written down. He defines oral literature as “literature delivered by word of mouth” or as “those utterances, whether spoken, recited or sung, whose composition and performance exhibit to an appreciable degree the artistic characteristics of accurate observation, vivid imagination and ingenious expression” (pp. 3-5). Even though the term ‘oral literature’ is perceived as oxymoronic, it is now becoming accepted as a term, mostly as a result of an increasing number of publications in recent years (see Burns, 2011; Halpern & Miller, 2014; Niles, 2010; Okpewho, 1992; Reichi, 2016; Turin, Wheeler, & Wilkinson, 2013). There is a website called World Oral Literature Project “to document and make accessible endangered oral literatures before they disappear without record” (University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2015, n.p.). As stated by the website entitled Ethnologue: Languages of the World, there are 6,909 living languages in the world (Lewis, 2009). No systematic way of gathering data on the specific number of unwritten languages is available today (Robinson & Gadelii, 2003). However, several sources refer to the overwhelming SASLJ, Vol. 1, No. 1 – Fall/Winter 2017 59