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Saturday, 11 March 2017

Audio Description in the Art Gallery 2

As part of some scoping work for my new research project on creative and collaborative audio description, I have been experiencing AD in various settings. Last week I went to a high-profile (and expensive) exhibition at an internationally renowned university museum whose AD provision was rather limited. Yesterday I went to a small exhibition at the Guildhall Museum in Rochester (Kent) who have adopted a much more inclusive, and impressive, approach.


This photograph shows a poster advertising 'The Value of Touch'

'The Value of Touch' is an exhibition of work by members of the Kent Association for the Blind Medway Art Group curated and facilitated by artist Wendy Daws, whose new touchable art works also feature in the exhibition. Yesterday's tour was particularly remarkable for the layers of interconnected and collaborative audio and tactile experience it revealed and encouraged. At the beginning of the project, in July 2016, the artists were given an audio and tactile tour of objects in the Guildhall Museum's collections by the collections manager Steve Nye. They then worked with Wendy to create tactile art works inspired by the museum's artifacts. Not only was art created in response to tactile and audio experience, it also had tactility embedded within it. This meant that yesterday's audio described tour, delivered by Lonny Evans from VocalEyes, could easily incorporate a tactile element because all the art works were designed to be touched as well as looked at. In addition, Wendy added her own touchable art works to the show.

This photograph shows Wendy's artistic responses to the artists' work. Lonny's audio description says: "'Low Relief Tactile Representations' captures in tactile form the key artworks from the exhibition. A significant motif from each of the artists' work has been selected and rendered in 11 separate crystacal plaster plaques moulded from carved clay. The raised plaques are creamy white and about the size of a large side plate. They are embedded in two rows into a purpose built grey table." What Lonny doesn't say is that beneath the artworks is a sign, in print and braille, which says 'Please touch gently'.
These artistic responses to the artists' responses to the museum's objects create a third layer of tactile experience which visitors can explore alongside the artworks. Lonny's description adds an audio layer. When experienced together these four elements represent both an artistic response and a tactile-audio translation; a brilliant example of how access can be literally built into art and how art can be inspired by access as well as being mediated through it.

After describing the general layout of the exhibition spaces, Lonny gave us an audio account of a selection of the artworks on display before letting us touch both the artworks themselves and some of the artifacts which inspired them. Lonny also included quotations from the artists and those artists who were present also spoke about their own works. The result was an immersive, collaborate and inclusive audio and tactile experience which enabled visitors to experience art in a multi-sensory way.

As well as writing and delivering the AD script, Lonny has agreed to make it available online so that anyone can use it as part of their gallery experience. This means that blind (and sighted!) people can get a sense of the exhibition before, during or after their visit. The museum has also produced large print and braille guides to accompany the exhibition.

When I asked the Ashmolean why they had not produced large print, braille or audio guides for their Degas to Picasso exhibition, they said that it is generally not worth producing such materials for a temporary exhibition. But yesterday's audio tour at the Guildhall Museum''s temporary exhibition gave 20 blind and partially blind people an unforgettable and immersive experience. It is also now available to anyone who wants it. This exhibition is a model of best practice which other museums and galleries should be encouraged to emulate. This is because access is celebrated here for its creative and collaborative potential. It is positioned at the centre of this exhibition, not added (or more often than not omitted) as a costly and cumbersome afterthought.



Thursday, 2 March 2017

Audio Description in the Art Gallery



This image is a screenshot from the Ashmolean website. It is made up of three panels. The left-hand panel gives the title of the exhibition, in the middle is a picture of a mother and child which looks like a Picasso (but in fact isn't), and on the right is a panel with further information. 

In the February issue of their Museums Journal, the Museums Association included an article with the somewhat 'no-brainer' title 'Museums need to do more to welcome disabled visitors'. According to the article, whilst museums are keen to point out that their galleries are accessible to wheelchair riders, and that guide dogs are welcome, they do not always make the actual collections accessible to partially blind visitors. This is particularly true of temporary exhibitions and the Ashmolean Museum's current blockbuster show, 'From Degas to Picasso' seemed to be no exception. The show's website reproduces the frustratingly familiar misunderstanding of access evoked in the article. To the Frequently Asked Question: 'Is the exhibition accessible?' they provide the chirpy but misleading response:
Yes. Access to the exhibition is via lift and the entire exhibition is wheelchair accessible with handheld labels available.
Undeterred, I phoned up to ask about availability of audio description headsets, large-print labels or a Braille catalogue, I was not surprised to be told that none of the above existed. But I was delighted to be offered a 1-to-1 audio described tour of the exhibition from a knowledgeable expert-guide.

When I got to the museum, my guide Lynne was waiting for me exactly where I was expecting her to be. She introduced herself, led me up to the exhibition and gave me an overview of the history of the collection and its contents before we went into the three-room show. She then provided me with descriptions of a selection of the pictures, coupled with the kind of information that brings art and its history to life. My friends and family have been describing pictures to me for years, but none of them (apart from my Dad) know enough about art history to combine the kind of objective description used by audio describers with an insight into artistic techniques, context and the painting's place in the collection more generally. As Lynne adapted her descriptions to my interest, sight levels and knowledge of nineteenth-century French art, the tour became a collaborative response to the pictures. Indeed, at one point another gallery-goer chipped in with her interpretation of a detail in one of the exhibits.

The tour had other unexpected consequences. Lynne encouraged me to break the unspoken rule of gallery going and get as close to the paintings as I could. With my nose pressed up against the glass, and her fingers guiding my eyes, I could see globs of paint, brush strokes and chalk marks that I would never have dared to discover otherwise. I also noticed that as we moved from the nineteenth-century realism of David, Ingres and Millais, to the cubist work of Picasso and Braque, Lynne's descriptions reflected the visual difficulty of the pictures. As we together deciphered Albert Gleize's cubist portrait of Stravinsky, for example, our inability to find the language to describe the disjointed shapes on the canvas reflected the picture's own challenge to normative ways of both painting and seeing. I like to think that the cubists' challenge to conventional representation was being echoed in our unconventional approach to the guided tour. Part tour, part audio description, our collaborative exploration of a selection of the exhibition's works felt like a wonderfully immersive way of sharing different ways of seeing and talking about art.

I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been able to benefit from Lynne's time and expertise. But I am sure there are lots of partially blind people who will never access this art. Some will be put off by the website's failure to mention audio described tours. Those who are persistent enough to find the right number to call (FYI at the Ashmolean, access is handled by the education department), may not be free on the same days and times as Lynne. (As is so often the case tours are not usually offered on weekends or in the evening). Or they might be put off by the 1-to-1 format. This is wonderful art that everyone should be able to experience. Surely it can't be that difficult or expensive to record or transcribe Lynne's words and make them available in audio, large-print and braille versions for anyone who wants them.






Sunday, 29 January 2017

Crowdfunding Appeal: Please Support Cull by Tanvir Bush

Making a crowdfunding pledge is always a bit of a gamble. You are agreeing to back something that you like the sound of, but unless others do the same, there is no guarantee that your support will make a difference. I made my first foray into crowdfunding four years ago when I backed indie documentary 'Best and Most Beautiful Things'. When I received my copy of the film earlier this year I was delighted that my gamble had paid off. You can read more about this wonderful film here.

I backed 'Best and Most Beautiful Things' because it promised to depict blindness in creative and unsentimental ways. Too many representations of blindness in film and fiction trot out tired stereotypes which do nothing to change the largely negative ways that society sees blind people. If we want these attitudes to change, it is essential that positive images of blindness become more prevalent. This is a crucial means of ending discrimination against disabled people. The new satirical novel Cull by partially-blind writer and film-maker Tanvir Bush has the potential to do just that. Not only does it feature a partially-blind heroine but it is billed as 'a fabulous, funny, sharp, outrageous satire about the deadly dark side of discrimination'. And it is endorsed by Fay Weldon. What's not to like?  In addition, the synopsis sounds very promising indeed:
Alex has a problem. Categorized as one of the disabled, dole-scrounging underclass, she is finding it hard to make ends meet. Now, in her part time placement at the local newspaper, she’s stumbled onto a troubling link between the disappearance of several homeless people, the new government Care and Protect Bill and the sinister extension of the Grassybanks residential home for the disabled, elderly and vulnerable. Can she afford the potential risk to herself and her wonderful guide dog Chris of further investigation?
 And the excerpt is definitely worth a read. Having enjoyed Bush's first novel Witch Girl, I know she can write and I'm convinced that this is a novel that needs to be published. I've made my pledge. Will you? Click here to support Cull.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Audio Books and Disability Gain

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful book. And it is a powerful example of the value added to a book by its audio version. It is the story of a family - a father, a mother and four daughters - who move from America to the Congo in the early 1960s. The father, a Baptist missionary, wants to bring the word of Jesus to the people of the village. The women just want to survive. The novel is full of rich descriptions of the plants, animals, food and inhabitants which the family encounter in their new home on the edge of the Congolese jungle. Especially when listened to, it is an immersive and sensual account of place.

The story is told by five alternating voices as the mother and her daughters take turns to speak directly to the reader. All the women have distinctive ways of speaking and they all relate to language in intriguingly different ways. These differences are brilliantly reflected in the audio as the narrator – listed as Robertson Dean (although I have my doubts about this: see * below) – uses different intonation and rhythm for each character. The distinctions made by the audio voice are so strong that when I skip between sections of the book, I can tell which of the five characters is speaking without referring back to the chapter heading introducing them.

But here we come to a problem, one which I blithely skipped over in my previous post about audio books. What should I call the person, in this case, (apparently) Robertson Dean, whose voice I hear in my headphones as I listen to the story? S/he is a reader, but not in the same sense as me, or in the sense of the notion of 'reader' used by literary critics when discussing a text's impact. S/he is also a narrator, but again not in the sense that literary critics use the term: unlike Kingsolver’s five narrative voices, the audio narrator is external to the story, yet also part of it through the voices s/he creates and his or her presence in my head. (We might call this collapsing of outside and inside the audio equivalent of free indirect style). The audio narrator is also a storyteller, in that s/he tells me the story, but as both Kingsolver and her five fictional narrators are also all story tellers, we need a way of distinguishing between them. So what word can I use to describe the work and function of the audio narrator? From now on, and to avoid the kinds of confusion alluded to above, I will use the French word conteur (male) or conteuse (female) – a word meaning variously teller of tales, oral storyteller, out-loud narrator - to refer to the person who has recorded the audio version of a book.

Back to The Poisonwood Bible: the text is particularly suited to being listened to because of its poetry. Adah in particular speaks in rhythmic prose poetry, frequently reversing lines of text or creating long poetic palindromes. Kingsolver plays too with the resonances of the three languages which the family encounter. Their native English becomes increasingly mixed with the French of the Belgian colonizers and the Kituba or Kikongo spoken by the village’s inhabitants. One of the most astonishing benefits of listening to a text rather than reading it is the way its patterns and sounds surround and bewitch you: for days during and after listening to The Poisonwood Bible I have had new words, like maniop, kakakaka, bangala and mongosi scattered through my thoughts and dreams.  I cannot write with the poetry of Kingsolver but I can urge my readers to aurally immerse themselves in this powerfully evocative world.

As well as being an epic story of the effects of colonization, the battles for race and gender equality, the dangers of military rule and the difficulties of democracy, The Poisonwood Bible is also a powerful celebration of disability through the story of Adah.

Despite her final, silent ‘h’, Adah is proud of her palindromic status (indeed I did not know about her ‘h’ until I read about the novel on Wikipedia). She calls herself Ada. Like me Ada is a palindrome, and like me, she is asymmetrical. She was born ‘crooked’ (she has hemiplegia), she walks with a limp and she does not speak until adulthood. Indeed, her palindromic status makes her a poet: she reads front-to-back and back-to-front and her world is full of a magic that she loses when she is later ‘cured’. Most people judge Ada by her physical appearance and treat her as a slow and backward child. She is often forgotten or left behind, most notably on the terrible night of the ant invasion. But her voice - which only the reader hears for much of the narrative - is full of wisdom and wit. As an adult, Ada is cured of her limp and begins to walk ‘normally’. Whilst her family and colleagues are delighted by her new able-bodiedness, Ada herself feels like she has become a different, and less interesting person. Her response to her ‘cure’ resonates strongly with my own feelings about disability gain, exemplified for me by the power of the audio book:

I am still Ada but you would hardly know me now without my slant. I walk without any noticeable limp. Oddly enough, it has taken me years to accept my new position. I find I no longer have Ada, the mystery of coming and going. Along with my split body drag I lost my ability to read in the old way. When I open a book the words sort themselves into narrow minded single file on the page. The mirror image poems erase themselves half-formed in my mind. I miss those poems. Sometimes at night in secret I still limp purposefully around my apartment like Mr Hyde, trying to recover my old ways of seeing and thinking. Like Jekyll I crave that particular darkness curled up within me. Sometimes it almost comes. The books on the shelf rise up in solid lines of singing colour. The world drops out and its hidden shapes snap forward to meet my eyes. But it never lasts. By morning light the books are all hunched together again with their spines turned out, fossilized, inanimate. No one else misses Ada. Not even Mother. She seems thoroughly pleased to see the crumpled bird she delivered finally straighten out and fly right. ‘But I liked how I was’, I tell her. ‘Oh, Adah, I loved you too, I never thought less of you, but I wanted better for you’. Don’t we have a cheerful, simple morality here in Western civilization. Expect perfection and revile the missed mark. Adah the poor thing. Hemiplegious, egregious, beseigious. Recently it has been decided, grudgingly, that dark skin or lameness may not be entirely one’s fault. But one still ought to show the good manners to act ashamed. When Jesus cured those crippled beggars, didn’t they always get up and dance offstage, jabbing their canes sideways and waggling their top hats? Hooray! All better now! Hooray! If you are whole, you will argue, why wouldn’t they rejoice? Don’t the poor miserable buggers all want to be like me? Not necessarily, no. The arrogance of the able-bodied is staggering. Yes, maybe we’d like to be able to get places quickly and carry things in both hands, but only because we have to keep up with the rest of you or get the Verse. We would rather be just like us, and have that be alright. How can I explain that my two unmatched halves used to add up to more than one whole? (The Poisonwood Bible chapter 13)

* Robertson Dean is credited with the narration of the audio book but I spent the whole novel convinced I was listening to a female conteuse. Having listened to samples of Dean’s other work on the audible website, I am struggling to believe that he is the conteur of Kingsolver’s work. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Best and Most Beautiful Things


This image is the cover of the DVD: it is a shot of Michelle's legs waiting at a pedestrian crossing in the dark. Her white cane is also shown. She is wearing bright pink ballet pumps and mismatched knee-high socks.

In 2013 I was contacted about a crowd sourcing project to fund a documentary about a legally blind student graduating from Perkins School for the Blind. I was pleased to make a donation and a few days ago I received my Kickstarter reward: a free download of Best and Most Beautiful Things. The film, which was released to much critical acclaim, aired on PBS yesterday and is now available to buy as an iTunes download or a DVD with Audio Description. 

Before I watched the film, I was worried that it would be yet another sentimental, 'triumph over tragedy' story about a blind girl overcoming adversity. But knowing that it won 'Best in Fest' at the 2016 International Disability Film Festival 'Superfest' reassured me that I was about to watch a creative and critical depiction of blindness.

'Best and Most Beautiful Things' is indeed a thought-provoking film about blindness. But rather than trying to teach its audience about life with blindness, the film simply shows Michelle going about her daily life. This is a hugely effective way of sharing Michelle's experience without depicting her as victim, object or other. We see her magnifying text on her computer, holding print close to her face and using her white cane. We also see her roller-skating, singing, shopping, getting dressed and skyping. Blindness is part of Michelle's normal. So as we watch the film it becomes part of ours. The film's cinematography helps us share Michelle's way of seeing. Extreme close-ups replicate Michelle's proximity with everything she sees whilst out-of-focus, decentred or jumpy shots echo the world beyond Michelle's field of vision. There are also moments which remind us of the disadvantages and advantages of blindness. I have often experienced Michelle's tearful frustration when fruitlessly searching for a lost object. But on the other hand, her karaoke singing is made more beautiful and more fluent because she is obliged to memorise the lyrics of every song she sings.

This still from the film shows Michelle colouring in a large home-made poster which says 'Unlearning Normal!' in rainbow letters.

In 'Best and Most Beautiful Things' Michelle urges us to 'unlearn normal'. The film shows Michelle's refusal to conform to any of the stereotypes her parents, teachers and acquaintances might have once associated with blindness. Her provocative re-appropriation of the myth of the infantile blind girl is particularly interesting. She challenges some people's tendency to overprotect or talk down to blind people, particularly blind women, by both her proud love of dolls and her discovery and celebration of submissive BDSM age-play. Michelle's sex-positive, non-binary stance is a crucial part of the film's challenge to normal. As the director Garrett Zevgetis puts it in a Q and A for PBS:

Our collective ideas about “normal” can be downright dangerous and thus must consistently be challenged. #HackNormal: The most dangerous and deep rooted normality might be hegemonic masculinity.


We all have a tendency to make assumptions about other people based on our own preconceptions. 'Best and Most Beautiful Things' urges us to rethink how we see others. It is a powerful, touching, yet resolutely unsentimental call for a more tolerant, imaginative and creative society where everyone is valued for who they are.

Watch it.

Friday, 11 November 2016

My Love Affair with Audio Books

2016 has been a dark year for me. I'm not (just) using 'dark' here for its metaphoric (and ocularcentric) meanings of ''sad' and 'gloomy'. I also mean that my two cataract operations, not to mention the broken leg, obliged me to spend a lot of time lying in the dark. It is no coincidence that 2016 is also the year that I rediscovered the wonder of audio books. When I was a child, commercially produced audio books were hard to find. I had two: The Railway Children and Black Beauty and I listened to them both so many times that I wore them out. But not before I had learnt them off by heart. When my reading glasses were perfected, I abandoned audio books in favour of much more readily available print books. Five years ago I discovered kindle which let me read large-print even as my eyes were failing.

My love affair with audio books began again at Blind Creations when writer and musician Romain Villet introduced me to his electronic reader Victor. The Victor Stream is a pocket-sized machine which reads texts in almost any electronic format (except PDF) out loud using a pretty convincing text-to-speech voice. I find it particularly useful for reading long documents quickly: not only can I accelerate the reading speed, I can also skip material, make notes and highlight important passages. Listening to text will never be as quick as reading it, but I am getting closer. I read Jean Giono's Le chant du monde this way in May and it is perhaps for this reason that I noticed the novel's extraordinary non-visual, multisensory, prose, which I discuss here.

Blind people have listened to stories for as long as blind people have existed. But audio books have only very recently become widely and easily available to the non-blind public.. Libraries now use services like overdrive to deliver audio content electronically, and companies like Audible encourage busy people to multi-task by reading as they run, drive or cook.

I was sceptical about Audible's offering at first. I thought their books were over-priced, especially as the RNIB's talking book service gives me free access to books read by volunteers. Crucially though, it takes the RNIB a while to provide access to recently published books and they do not always have the books I want when I want them;  they also have next to nothing in French. Audible, on the other hand, often has books available at the same time as the print versions are published. This means that I can read the same books as my family and friends; now more than ever I feel like I am part of contemporary literary culture.

But for me the main advantage of Audible is the way their books sound. Their narrators are professional performers who deliver their texts in compelling and creative ways. They sound like they have thought about how to read the story; they adopt different voices for different characters, they change the tone, speed and volume of their voice to match the prose and they pay attention to dialects, accents and regional contexts. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's wonderful Americanah is an excellent example of the difference a good narrator can make. The novel, which is about a Black woman's experiences in Nigeria and America, is read by Black actress Adjoa Andoh and produced by Whole Story Audiobooks. In what might be the audio equivalent of free indirect speech, I immediately felt a powerful connection with the narrative voice through the narrator's voice. In addition, when Adichie's narrator talks about the different accents she encounters in Nigeria, and how a person's voice does or does not reflect their personality or social situation, Andoh's voice cleverly mimics the different accents that her protagonist is describing. Because of its narrator,  I am convinced that listening to Americanah was a more immersive, enriching and fulfilling experience than reading it would have been.

To my great delight, Audible also offers audiobooks in French and I have been devouring Fred Vargas's Commisaire Adamsberg books this year. In the fifth book in the series, Sous les vents de Neptune (Wash this Blood Clean from my Hand), produced by Audiolib, Adamsberg and his colleagues travel to Quebec and spend time encountering, deciphering and discussing the impenetrable Quebecois accents and vocabulary of their Canadian colleagues. The narrator, Francois Berland has a lot of fun putting on Quebecois accents and there is no doubt that his different voices improved my experience of reading this novel.

Audiobooks are a great example of what disability studies would call 'blindness gain': they were first developed for blind people and have now become widely available to everyone. They used to be an assistive technology for a marginalised population; they are now widely and easily available. Non-blind people are now lucky enough to be able to access the wonderful world of audio, a world which was once the closely guarded secret of blind people.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Towards a Multisensory Aesthetic: Jean Giono's Non-Visual Sensorium

Next week I am delighted to be travelling to Montreal to speak at the International Visual Literacy Association Annual Conference. Along with my Blind Creations co-organiser Vanessa Warne, and Blind Creations speakers Georgina Kleege, Florian Grond and David Johnson, I am presenting some of the work from my forthcoming book Visions of Blindness in French Fiction in a panel organised by Piet Devos and wonderfully entitled: 'The Distorting Mirror of Blindness: Visual Literacy and Non-Sighted Aesthetics'. Whilst I am in Montreal I am also looking forward to exploring some of the places evoked by Jacques Semelin in his recent blind travel journal Je veux croire au soleil and I will be presenting some of the highlights of the Blind Creations conference at a talk (in French) at the Institut Nazareth et Louis Braille. (Click here for more details about this event and how to watch and listen via videoconference).

Below is a sneak preview of part of my work on Jean Giono which I will be presenting at the IVLA conference:

La nuit. Le fleuve roulait à coups d’épaules à travers la forêt, Antonio avança jusqu’la pointe de l’île. D’un côté l’eau profonde, souple comme du poil de chat, de l’autre côté les hennissements du gué. Antonio toucha le chêne. Il écouta dans sa main les tremblements de l’arbre. (Night. The river was shouldering its way through the forest, Antonio went as far as the tip of the island. On one side was deep water, as supple as a cat’s fur, on the other side the whinnying of the ford. Antonio touched the oak. He listened with his hand to the quivering tree.)
These opening lines from Jean Giono’s 1934 novel Le Chant du Monde, are a characteristic example of the kind of sensuous prose description Giono has become famous for using to describe his beloved Provençal landscapes. Giono’s descriptions have long been celebrated by critics for their power to capture the beauty of southern France. But if we look closely at this passage, we notice that it somewhat unexpectedly rejects the kind of visual description we expect from the realist novel in favour of a sensorium more overtly focused on a powerful combination of touch and sound. This challenge to the usual hierarchy of the senses is in fact announced in Giono’s decision to begin the novel in the dark. The novel’s opening words, ‘la nuit’, tell us that because the sighted protagonist Antonio - through whose consciousness most of the third-person narrative is filtered - does not need sight to navigate, the reader is also asked to imagine the setting without recourse to visual elements. Instead of telling us what the river looks like, Giono evokes it through Antonio’s perception of it, that is, by how it feels (as supple as a cat’s fur) and how it sounds (the whinnying of the ford). The surprising use of words associated with animals to describe a body of water adds to our sensory immersion in the scene by combining different sense impressions in vivid and evocative ways whilst reminding us that we are in a profoundly natural setting. The ford does not really sound like a whinnying horse: through the noise it makes, which is impossible to capture in language, it reminds Antonio of the unpredictable power of a skittish foal. The combination of touch and hearing is continued in Antonio’s relationship with the oak tree. The phrase ‘il écouta dans sa main’ (he listened with his hand) uses a synesthetic combination of the sense impressions of touch and hearing to capture the strength of Antonio’s feeling for the tree. 

Passages of this kind are found throughout Giono’s oeuvre. But their relevance only becomes clear when they are read alongside Giono’s depiction of the blind character Clara whom Antonio encounters later in the novel. Antonio and Clara are mutually fascinated by each other’s relationship with the senses. When they talk about blindness and sightedness the usually visually reliant reader is invited to rethink their preconceived notion that blindness is a kind of lack.

When Clara asks Antonio to describe night, day and light to her, Antonio struggles to evoke darkness without recourse to visual language. Like blindness, darkness is here unspeakable because it exists outside the limits of ocularcentric language, a language whose very existence depends on a celebration of sight and thus a negation of sightlessness. Antonio emphasises this link between darkness and blindness by evoking the one in relation to the other, and by paradoxically using a vocabulary of seeing to describe this non-sight. Clara, on the other hand, is not hampered by the constraints of ocularcentric language. Her insistent questioning of Antonio’s language encourages not only Antonio but also the reader to analyse what lies beneath the words non-blind people too often take for granted. She can thus combine sense impressions in creative and liberating ways. In an echo of the description of the river at the novel’s start, she merges two distinct sense impressions, (non)sight and smell, in her assertion that for her, ‘day is smell’.

Later, Clara offers us a more immersive and sustained experience of her impressions of the countryside. Rather than detecting spring through its visual clues, she can tell its arrival by its smells and sounds. As she explains: « Ça sent […] et puis ça parle » («It smells and also it speaks ».). Clara tries to explain how she experiences the world. She recognises flowers but does not give them the same names as everyone else. According to her it is not the names of the flowers which are important, but the multi-sensual way in which she experiences them: 

Toutes les choses du monde arrivent à des endroits de mon corps (elle toucha ses cuisses, ses seins, son cou, ses joues, son front, ses cheveux) c’est attaché à moi par des petites ficelles tremblantes. Je suis printemps, moi, maintenant. (Everything in the world comes to a place on my body (she touched her thighs, her breasts, her neck, her cheeks, her forehead, her hair) it is attached to me by tiny trembling threads. I am spring now.)

Clara’s relationship with the world is intense, multi-sensorial, corporeal and all-encompassing. She combines sense-impressions to create highly evocative and sensual descriptions of nature in a way which reminds us again of the novel’s opening lines:

Dans toute la colline il y a des pattes, des ongles, des museaux, des ventres. Entends-les. Des arbres dures, des tendres, des fleurs froides, des fleurs chaudes. Là-bas derrière, un arbre long. On entend son bruit tout droit. Il fait le bruit de l’eau quand elle court. Il a de longues fleurs comme des queues de chats et qui sentent le pain cru. (All over the hill there are feet, claws, muzzles, bellies. Listen to them. Hard trees, soft trees, cold flowers, warm flowers. Over there a long tree. We can hear its noise straight ahead. It sounds like running water. It has long flowers like cats’ tails which smell of uncooked bread.)

These descriptions are striking because they evoke the landscape with no need for visual references. But importantly these descriptions do not alienate the ocularcentric reader. Clara’s evocation of nature is so powerful that we are immediately immersed in it without even noticing her lack of reference to visual elements. It is only because Giono foregrounds her blindness that we notice her non-visual language. By describing her non-visual acquisition of knowledge as ‘seeing’, Clara rids the verb of its associations with eyesight and thus disentangles notions of perception and detection from their persistent association with physical looking. Giono is thus using Clara to destabilise the hierarchy of the senses,

The ease with which Clara discusses her multi-sensual way of not seeing, together with the way in which non-visual descriptions of nature are incorporated into the novel’s prose even when recounted via the consciousness of a sighted character, invite us to read both Clara and Antonio as authorial figures whose discussions function as reflexive comments on Giono’s own non-visual creative processes. In addition, Clara’s non-visual relationship to nature functions to overturn sight’s expected place at the top of the hierarchy of the senses whilst celebrating the creative potential of the non-visual senses. Giono’s prose thus redefines notions of ‘sight’ and ‘seeing’ by detaching them from the physical act of looking, in order to encourage his reader to rethink her own relationship with the visual.