Raquel Fontanilla

Contest Winner - 3rd Place

Raquel Fontanilla is a freelance translator with a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Tokyo. A native of New Zealand, she lives, hikes, and writes in the American Southwest. Her work has appeared in Paradise Review, Passages, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Cecile’s Writers Magazine, Unbroken, and Jabberwock Review, where it was a finalist for the 2015 Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize for Fiction.

Souvenir From Where You’ve Been

Numbness, as if someone crept in and anaesthetized the left side of my head, wakes me in the dead of a sticky July night, just outside a U.S. Army base in South Korea. I knead my skin and pinch my earlobe: still nothing. I attribute this phantom sensation to sleeping too long in one position and nod off again. An hour later, my eyes fly open as the bed plummets to the ground, spinning me around like an off-balance load of laundry, only to throw me up toward the ceiling again. My eyes roll in their sockets; moving my head even a fraction makes me vomit. My husband of five months fumbles in his wallet to find the emergency contact card handed out during in-processing, the kind of card you think you’ll never need. There is only a small troop clinic on post, so the operator has to hunt down an interpreter, who in turn calls a Korean ambulance, and a three-way call ensues. We’re the first and only residents in a newly-built duplex community; the road leading to Eastern Village is unpaved, unnamed, and unlit. In the hour it takes for the ambulance to find our house, I throw up, collapse face first onto the bed exhausted, and repeat the process over again, all the while aware of the terror on my husband’s face as language fails him.

We moved to Korea from Japan two months ago, but it’s been twelve years since I left my native New Zealand to study at graduate school in Tokyo. I have an ear for languages: I wrote my PhD dissertation in Japanese and I’m already picking up Korean, but language is inaccessible to me in this moment, my body pinning me to the bed, vomit blooming on the pillow like yellow algae.

What I don’t know is that a catastrophic event is unfolding in my inner ear: a tsunami of infected fluid is washing over the tiny hair cells that stimulate nerves to change sound waves into impulses which the brain then interprets as understandable sound. It turns out that the inner ear also regulates balance, and the severity of my vertigo correlates directly to the degree of my hearing loss.

Dawn is breaking as I’m trundled into the optimistically named Good Morning Hospital. In snippets of lucidness, I learn from the ER doctor that something has happened inside my ear, but for a day I drift on morphine and don’t completely understand the situation until I awaken to see a moon-faced young doctor standing over me. This is a provincial hospital and his English is marginally better than my Korean. Dr. Moon leans toward me, holding a metal Y-shaped fork that I associate with divining water. Like a magician, he holds it to the bone behind my right ear and a few seconds later moves it around to the front of the same ear. I hear a ringing noise and smile at his trick. He goes through the same motions with my left ear, but this time I look up at him with a soft dumb expression. Cocking his head to one side, he sucks in wet air through the side of his mouth, and in that instant no translation is needed. I know this language from Japan. Not good.

In the dim sealed space of the audiology booth, the beeps and buzzes of the audiogram reveal profound hearing loss, which means that a jet plane would have to roar directly overhead for me to hear anything in my left ear. Three days later, I leave the hospital with a new vocabulary—Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss, Single-Sided Deafness, acoustic neuroma—but without an answer to what I most want to know: naze, wei, why? This turns out to be a question that baffles even the most experienced medical professionals, including Dr. Google, who reports that 90% of cases of sudden deafness are idiopathic, meaning a myriad of possible causes, including viral or bacterial infection, head trauma, autoimmune diseases, tumors, neurological disorders, blood flow abnormalities, and genetics. What I am left with is the fact that the nerves in my inner ear are shot, rendering traditional hearing aids useless. I totter out the doors of Good Morning Hospital like a listing ship, clutching a prescription for ten days of Prednisone, and a skipping rope, because in Korea, as in Japan, you always get a souvenir from where you’ve been.


At home, woozy and disorientated, I lurk on Internet support forums for sudden hearing loss, devouring stories of spontaneous recovery: up to two-thirds of those afflicted regain all or some of their hearing, usually within a week or two of initial onset. As the weeks go by, I accept that I am not in this category and that the damage is permanent. I marvel at how “f” and “d” are so close on the keyboard, how easy it is to slip from “deaf” to “dead,” like the tiny hairs inside my inner ear. I obsessively search the Internet for people deaf in one ear: Rob Lowe, Holly Hunter, Stephen Colbert! I take heart from the fact that their disability isn’t visible, but as I discover, this is not always a good thing: people think I’m aloof, not realizing that they’re talking to my deaf side.

Coincidences well up from deep in my memory: the constant string of ear infections I had as a child; the story of my grandmother’s brother, who had been born in an age when he was called “deaf and dumb” and died of a kick to the head during a rugby game as a boy. When I ask my mother about him, she reveals a hitherto unspoken-of slew of deaf cousins and second cousins, which makes me wonder if there is a familial gene and I toy with the idea of DNA testing. In the dead of the night, when I lie awake pondering if I am destined to lose all my hearing, I press my deaf ear into my husband’s chest, his steady heartbeat gone, and imagine what it would be like to inhabit total silence.

I recall the handful of times I saw deaf people on the train in Tokyo, how I stole glances at their animated facial expressions and deft finger work, unaware at the time that Japanese had its own sign language, separate from that of American or British Sign Language. Then there was my classmate in graduate school who was translating an English book into Japanese about hearing children born to deaf parents. I spent a few afternoons helping her with some of the more difficult English expressions; I asked why deaf was sometimes capitalized, to which she replied that deaf refers to the medical condition, while Deaf refers to the culture. But that was the extent of my interest. When I was packing up to leave Japan, I remember weighing the smooth cover of Mother Father Deaf in my hands, trying to decide whether to add it to my already overstuffed boxes of books. Reasoning that the topic had nothing to do with me, I tossed it onto the recycle pile.


The psychological impact of my single-sided deafness hits me hard a month later, when I’m at a restaurant having dinner with a dozen or so of my husband’s American and Korean colleagues. K-Pop is pounding in the background, the room is dim, and multiple conversations are flying back and forth. One of the men punches the air every few minutes with an outburst of laughter that ricochets off my empty left ear and explodes into my hearing ear with all the force of a grenade. I am trapped in a grotesque carnival of noise, and when someone suggests karaoke, I rush out of the restaurant in tears, gasping for air. The irony is that while I have lost sound, the world is noisier, since all the aural information—horns honking, stereos blaring, dogs barking, coffee machines grinding—now pours in unfiltered through one ear.

I apply the same research skills I used in the writing of my dissertation to try to understand why I am more irritable than before, why I want to be alone more often. I discover that you need two functioning ears to triangulate sound, to filter out and make sense of what is coming in and to tune into conversations in the face of background chatter. The loss of one of those input channels throws nature’s precise system off kilter, making sound one giant messy alphabet soup, a clamoring cacophony of foreign languages beyond my reach. I can no longer eavesdrop in cafes; I have to make a mad dash for the chair that will position me at just the right angle in relation to the speaker. In time, I learn to avoid crowded rooms, to choose quiet restaurants to meet friends, and good light by which to read their lips. I become an observer of mouths, noticing how lipstick bleeds into the vertical lines on a top lip, catching the flash of a silver filling in a molar.

I look to other people’s faces to clue me in on who is speaking, trying to avoid those moments of dumb wonder when it appears as if a woman’s voice is streaming out of the mouth of the man sitting beside me. I must constantly decide if it’s worth investing my attention in conversations between people on my “bad side”; I find myself more often than not tuning out if I don’t get the first few minutes. This reminds me of my first classes in Japan, when there was so much new vocabulary that my brain switched off and I sat there with a blank smile. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that kind of helplessness; this distance from my native tongue sends small aftershocks that displace what I thought I knew. People nod without understanding when I tell them I have single-sided deafness—at least you still have one good ear, they say, at least you can’t tell from looking at you—and so I am marginalized further, not allowed to mourn my loss, the fact that my old friend language has turned on me. I catch myself giving that vague awkward smile the hearing impaired use when they don’t want to rock the boat and stem the flow of conversation by asking the speaker to repeat themselves.

Noise is not only painful but terrifying. Binaural hearing lets you know where sound is coming from, so people with unilateral hearing loss are unable to localize sound. Walking across a parking lot with a supermarket cart clattering over the asphalt, my eyes dart from side to side as if I’m anticipating sniper fire while crossing no-man’s land. I hear cars idling, reverse signals beeping, but I can’t tell where these sounds come from, nor how near or far away they may be. At home in separate rooms, I call out to my husband, Where are you? Here, he says. But where? I sing back. In the bedroom, by the window, he replies, a ship’s captain giving me coordinates in the darkness. My ears have become traitorous translators: I struggle with higher frequency sounds, consonants and in particular voiceless consonants, which happen to contain much of the meaning of English speech. “National” becomes “Nashville,” “new leadership” becomes “nuclear ship,” and hilarity, or frustration, follows.

My body learns a new physicality too, beginning with the act of regaining my balance as my brain adjusts to having only one working channel of equilibrium. And then there is the elaborate dance I do when walking beside someone, in which I make what I hope is an imperceptible swing behind them and pop up on their left, so they are talking into my “good ear.” In Japanese, someone who is hard of hearing is mimi ga tooi—literally, their ears are far away. I imagine my ears galloping away from my body, further and further into the impenetrable distance.

And always in the background of my deaf/d, full, left ear, a symphony of taps, swooshes, a roaring that intensifies the more tired I am. There is an empty orchestra—the literal meaning of karaoke—playing pings, clangs, and ghost beeps in my head, the result of my brain scrambling to compensate for lost data. Other times it’s as if I’m holding a seashell to my ear, except that my ear is the sea.

As I try to find my footing on this shifting aural landscape, I lose my desire to learn Korean, and ditch plans to teach English, doubting my ability to cope with the demands of a packed classroom. The narrow scope of life on a small army post is suffocating, and yet I cling to it because it means I don’t have to go out and face the wider world. I am linguistically untethered not only from Japanese, but from my native tongue as well. I take my frustrations out on Korea, berating the noisiness, the dirtiness, the lack of refinement compared to Japan, and although my husband and I had planned to stay for a few years, he starts looking for jobs back in the States, somewhere I have never lived before.

And so less than two years after arriving in Korea, I find myself on a plane descending over the bleached Arizona desert, a raw sweep of landscape so foreign that I don’t even have words for it. The first week in our new house we’re infested with scorpions: they emerge from the pantry, the fireplace, the light fixtures, the bathroom sink. Shining a black light on the cinder block wall at night, they glow like green constellations and I wonder who really belongs in this land. But the change of continent is a passport that allows me to form a new identity, free from the taint of Korea, a place I will forever associate with loss. I make friends that don’t live and breathe army life, and I learn how to drive again: the last car I drove was a manual transmission nearly 15 years before in New Zealand. After riding the trains in Asia for so long, I thought I would never have to drive again, but I embrace this newfound freedom. We adopt a Golden Retriever, an impossible dream in my Tokyo apartment the size of six tatami mats, and in an event almost as unforeseen as my hearing loss, I convert to Catholicism, wondering how I had never before noticed all the Bible passages about Jesus healing the deaf.

I take an American Sign Language class and, since I am a translator by trade, Japanese to English, I imagine that I can do the same with ASL, carrying meaning across from one cultural and linguistic space to another. My eyes follow the instructor carving words out of the air: “pain” is two index fingers jabbing towards each other like dueling knives; “die” is both hands turning over like someone rolling in their grave. But I’m a perfectionist when it comes to language: I must inhabit it body, mind, and soul. After one semester, I realize that although I am (partially) deaf, I am not Deaf. My ASL teacher favors me because I’m the only one in class who is Hard of Hearing, but I feel like a fraud. I live in a liminal world, neither here nor there, neither completely deaf nor completely hearing. I must negotiate the space in between. The irony does not escape me that this “third space” was the very topic I explored in my dissertation. And so I have come full circle.

People always told me I had a good ear: I learned the violin when I was younger and could play by ear; I sang in school choirs and choral festivals; I could mimic the Japanese accent so authentically that people often asked me if I had been born in Japan. The Japanese word for darkness, yami 闇, is written using the character for sound 音 enclosed in a gate 門. Shutting out sound can leave you in darkness. But not always. I’m can still discern the flat vowels of my mother’s Kiwi accent; I can still be lulled by the soft monotones of my second language. I am charting a course through a new language, one of loss and adjustment, adaption and reinvention, one without textbooks and dictionaries.

Three weeks before I lost my hearing, Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band came on a USO tour to our garrison. In the darkened rec center, my husband and I rocked out with a packed wave of soldiers and civilians, singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” at the top of our lungs. I remember the gleaming dog tags swinging in the close air, the sweat pouring down Lieutenant Dan’s forehead, the music pulsing and vibrating through every cell in my body. Three weeks later, I left Good Morning Hospital with strict instructions to do everything possible to protect my remaining hearing, so I bought high-fidelity earplugs, let the battery on my iPod run down, and avoided karaoke. Since then I have learned to navigate a two-dimensional aural landscape, and I no longer glance back on what it was like to hear in surround sound. And sometimes, when I’m driving along a vast stretch of desert road, I lean forward to turn up the volume on the car stereo and revel in singing really loudly, the saguaro like guideposts as I continue on my way.

I have always been drawn to the liminal spaces created by the lived experience of geographic, cultural, and linguistic displacements. Sudden hearing loss, however, was a type of displacement that I had never considered, let alone imagined that I would one day experience myself. This piece is an attempt to make sense of both the betrayal and resilience of my body, and to map the distance between hearing and deafness, home and away, belonging and otherness—an act that is, in the end, a constant negotiating of the spaces in between.