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The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa Paperback – September 4, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Although doctors diagnosed Swiller's deafness early enough to fit him with hearing aids, the young man from Mantattan's Upper West Side still felt different. As a young adult he drifted from college to college, job to job, relationship to relationship, never quite finding what he was looking for: a place beyond deafness. He found that place in the mid-1990s, when the Peace Corps posted him to a remote corner of Zambia. During his two-year stint working in a run-down health clinic in a rural village, he fought for irrigation projects and better AIDS facilities. He befriended a young local who played chess and provided constant counsel in the ways the young white American could—and did—run afoul of local tribesmen (and women) and their age-old ways. Deafness would have provided a unique sensory filter for anyone, yet while Swiller may have his particular aural capabilities, he also has literary talents—an eye, a voice and a narrative talent—in abundance. A story in any other Peace Corps volunteer's hands might have been humdrum, but in Swiller's becomes intensified, like the rigors of day-to-day Zambian life, through deprivation. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


I thought I knew about the Peace Corps until I read Josh Swiller's hilarious, troubling, and at times frightening recreation of his time in Zambia. His wit spares no one--least of all himself--and his generosity of spirit encompasses nearly everyone. His experiences in Africa transformed him, and this book will transform readers. (Laurence Bergreen, author of Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe)

I was riveted by this book from page one. Swiller shouldn't have lived to tell this tale, much less been sent to a village in deepest Africa that the locals called 'Gomorrah.' But he did, and he's returned with something priceless: a story suffused with humor and love about a place where corruption and death were regular visitors. Swiller hears the rhythms of language and life far better than most people with two normal ears. (Michael Chorost, author of Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human)

As my mother used to say, 'You got your listening ears on, bub?' This is not gimp chic, nor misery memoir, but a book as deserving, funny and brave as a deaf man digging wells in hardest Africa. Hoo boy. And I thought being blind at the bus depot was harrowing. Yeesh. (Ryan Knighton, author of Cockeyed: A Memoir)

Josh Swiller was 22 and profoundly deaf when he applied to the Peace Corps in search of adventure. And indeed, adventure he found. His experiences in Zambia are eloquently recounted in his hard-to-put-down memoir of deafness and Africa, 'The Unheard'. (The New York Times, Health section)

Several ingredients are crucial in a memoir like this: humor, the ability to see enough details to make the scene come alive and a dispassionate compassion. Swiller has them all. (Los Angeles Times)

[Swiller's] appealing, intelligent narrative serves both as a coming of age story and as a penetrating light into one corner of a tormented continent. (Washington Post)

Josh 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. (New York Observer)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 265 pages
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; 1ST edition (September 4, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805082107
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805082104
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #396,664 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Gregory R. Irish on September 16, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I was also a member of that first group of PCV's to serve in Zambia and Josh and I were two of the eight who completed our commitments, although a couple of those who didn't complete their stint left for health reasons. I loved his book, and was unable to put it down once I started on it. I'm only mentioned in the book once, a bit out of character. Page 42: I'm the "middle-aged alcoholic from Michigan" (I object to the "middle-aged" part, as I was but a young lad of 39 at the time).

The story of Josh's departure from Munungu was never fully revealed to me until reading the book. Like all government-related organizations, Peace Corps is great at keeping secrets and rumors always abound. Josh and I were not close but we did bond a bit after he returned to Kabwe and was once again teaching the deaf students. It was only upon reading the book that I gained an appreciation for his intellect and the really horrible experiences he had in Munungu. At Peace Corps meetings or functions, he always seemed distracted, not interested, withdrawn. After reading the book, my eyes are opened to what the guy endured up there in Munungu and what being deaf is really all about.

I pre-ordered the book, with low expectations. Basically, I was concerned about what he may have said about me. What I did not expect was the clarity and smooth-flow of the narrative, the exceptional descriptors of characters ("voice like firecrackers" comes to mind), the entirely accurate desriptions of life in a bush village. A lot of what he wrote brought tears to my eyes, as I had experienced similar things in my own village of Lukwesa. Plus, I knew or had met a lot of the people he talks about in the book.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Friederike Knabe VINE VOICE on September 4, 2007
Format: Paperback
Working as a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote African village is not an easy undertaking in any situation. For an inexperienced, idealistic and, in addition, deaf person, such an adventure makes for an extraordinary story. Josh Swiller spent close to two years in northern Zambia in the village of Mununga, one of the most deprived villages in a poor region. Referred to by locals as "Gomorrah", a place with no hope and rumoured to have the most "ndoshi", witchdoctors, many wondered why this young American had come amongst them. His experiences and encounters, his learning by trial and error, and, most of all, his falling in love with the village and Africa, is the content of this unusual and highly readable memoir.

Swiller was part of the first group of Volunteers to work in Zambia in 1994. Creating water and sanitation systems were the primary objective; educating and motivating the local people was the rationale. Getting villagers to dig wells turned out to be a bigger challenge than Swiller had anticipated. Local politics, tribal strife and natural distrust of outsiders undermined any initiative from the start. It did not help that the Peace Corps rules insisted on no money being brought into such a project. The local people who had never seen a white person, assumed "Ba Josh" to be wealthy but too mean spirited to share his money with them.

Life for the villagers was hard. Periods of hunger during the dry season alternated with an onslaught of flooding and disease during the rainy season. The small clinic was understaffed and completely inadequate in dealing even with the most basic services. Swiller's description of village life is vivid and his sensitive portrayal of the people he shares his time with is personal and realistic.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Deana Ingraham Gurney on September 11, 2007
Format: Paperback
So what makes this better than your average 'let-me-tell-you-about-my-time-in-a-third-world-country' book?
1. A real story. Powerful material. No flowery travelogue here, no do-gooder cliches.
2. This guy can write. Pithy and unsentimental style; characters and scenes spring vividly to life.
3. And I can't emphasize this enough: Swiller is genuinely funny, with an spot-on sense of comic timing.
Highly recommended, an engaging and satisfying read.
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Format: Paperback
Review originally published in the Hipster Book Club, April 2008.

Josh Swiller's memoir, The Unheard, tells the story of his two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mununga, a dusty Zambian village home to tribal factions and a host of refugees from neighboring Zaire. Deaf since childhood, Josh was raised by devoted parents who trained him to speak and lip-read with the assistance of hearing aids. Raised to fit into the hearing world, he attended Yale but encountered feelings of isolation and frustration toward heavily-accented professors who spoke into chalkboards. In graduate school at Gallaudet University, he attempted to immerse himself in a new Deaf community but discovered that he was just as isolated in a world that spoke exclusively American Sign Language. So Josh went to Africa to find "a place past deafness."

After a ten-week training course, Josh was off to inspire a sense of community ownership in Mununga, with a charter to organize the villagers to build their first community infrastructure: wells to provide fresh water to the disease-ridden community. The villagers, led by politicians whose primary concern was getting their rake of the banana wine production, were perplexed that the white man didn't have the money and power to give them a well. Politicians had deep-seated tribal affairs to sort out and were suspicious of Josh's motives in offering "help" to the community without bringing along cash and resources. Josh writes of the plight of the Africans with a voice of introspection and humor. His teaching experience required navigating "an educational system based, apparently, on the principles of unlimited recess." By keeping the tone light, Josh conveys profound insights with nary a trace of pity for himself or the economically ravaged country.
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