Writing Lessons for the Blind and Deaf (excerpt)

D by Ben Rodkin

from the future Spanish of Mario Bellatin
translated by David Shook

Josué’s mother was blind. Not always. She lost her eyes one at a time, starting at about age 49, in people years. That’s seven years old for a Chihuahua, which, though a little early, isn’t exceptionally unusual. The process began with a slight milkiness at the perimeter of her bulging left eye. Aw, she’s got cataracts, the show circuit groomers cooed. Know-nothings with no creativity, no curiosity. She had uveitis. Her ophthalmologist explained the disease by making a drawing on a whiteboard: tiny triangles, which she explained were the eye’s pumps, shedding off the eye’s regular waste emissions—mostly a solution of minerals and salts. The regular wastes were represented by tiny squares that looked like grains of rough-cut salt, maybe Himalayan. The ophthalmologist prescribed two medicines: a 5% sodium chloride hypertonicity ointment, to help with the shedding of the wastes, and Flurbiprofen, an eye drop administered every other day, to slow the progress of the tiny pump’s malfunction. Josué’s mother, two-time Inland Empire regional show champion Okie Doke, retired at an early age because of the C-section required for Josué’s birth—at 2.2 pounds, she was too small to deliver him. The operation had left two scars: the one along her lower abdomen, which somehow also resulted in the disappearance of one of her left-row nipples, leaving her just seven, her breeder’s favorite number—and God’s—but an unacceptable disproportion for a show dog, and the psychological scar, which faded more slowly, fleshy and keloided and suspicious. It was that scar, more than the eyes, that disqualified her from showing. Still, she remained her breeder’s favorite, his most needy beast, living most of her adult life atop some piece of furniture: his sofa, his favorite Milo Baughman recliner, his bed. She was too small to jump up onto them herself, so he would grip her body like a tiny American football, fingers laced between her uneven nipples.


The breeder’s favorite Chihuahua, Okie Doke, c. 7.5 years old, displays early signs of uveitis in her left eye.


Dik Dik Tracy, named after the miniature African gazelles the breeder had seen as a child in his pictographic encyclopedia, impregnated Okie Doke with Josué one afternoon while the breeder catnapped on the couch, some procedural police show droning on as soundtrack to the dog’s impulsive act. The breeder awoke as the beast’s lipstick penis pumped its penultimate squirt of semen into his innocent Okie Doke. Horrified, he began to scream, then swatted Dik Dik with a rolled newspaper until he cowered beneath the coffee table. The breeder spent the evening floundering in guilt and Malbec, first for having fallen asleep with the two sexually peaking animals unsupervised, then for having punished Dik Dik so severly.

Dik Dik was too large to be a proper show dog, weighing in at just under five pounds. Still, as a young dog he had participated in several shows, more for the experience than the possibility of winning. Plus, the breeder reasoned, perhaps he could get work as a stud, with his strong frame and good lineage. (His grandmother, Queen Isabel, and great-uncle, Columbus Casanova, had both been champions.) In some way, the breeder also considered it a sort of punishment for having impregnated Okie Doke: the meticulous grooming and fuss—gland cleaning, nail polishing, ear flushing—violated Dik Dik’s sense of dignity, as he had Okie Doke’s.

Whether in revenge or by nature, Dik Dik soon embarrassed the breeder publicly, first by humping a judge’s leg, a frowned-upon but not entirely uncommon occurrence for a young show dog, which though not technically disqualifying the animal was perhaps worse for their future on the show circuit, as such behavior was not quickly forgotten and the judge pool, especially in culturally deprived areas like the Inland Empire, was not large. The breeder kept Dik Dik in the competition, despite the humiliation, to practice his new handler, a psoriatic thirty-something vet tech who outweighed Dik Dik by at least 50 times. According to the handler, now one of the breeder’s few true enemies, a leash malfunction had led to Dik Dik’s escape from the grooming area after his humiliating performance. Returned to the floor during the Pomeranian showing, Dik Dik mounted R.S. Poofball, a four-time American Kennel Association champion and fixture on the European circuit—perhaps more unfortunate than his pedigree was his male sex, since, owing to the quick wit of one show commentator, the act was widely referred to thereafter as the Dick-Dick Incident.

It took the breeder several months to consider Dik Dik Tracy a dog again. He read several articles about homosexuality in non-human animals: a natural behavior in giraffes and some birds, apparently. He consulted several dog trainers about the possibility of training it out of him, which they generally advised against. Finally he decided to neuter Dik Dik, a difficult decision considering his previous plans to hire the beast as stud, but an easier and much faster solution, he thought, to curb the dog’s homosexuality—one he would come to regret in old age as an act of unwarranted cruelty, a return to the Middle Ages even, and a failure to accept the personality, however deviant, of one of his beloved dogs.


Clay figurine of R.S. Poofball, sculpted by a deafblind student as part of a history display at the Academy of Writing Arts for the Blind and Deaf.


Before I tell much more of this story, I must admit to the strange nature of its telling, which deserves some basic explanation. First, the unusual coindence of my brother’s deafblindness. As best I can understand it, I contracted congenital rubella syndrome in the womb, six weeks into my mother’s first pregnancy, when she came down with a particularly purplish case of rubella in Colton, California. The salt-and-pepper retinopathy of my condition allows me to make out vague figures in well-lighted environments; my sensorineural deafness is severe, but the surgical implantation of an experimental clucking device allows me to identify vocalic, nasal, bilabial, and velar phonemes, and years of practice at contextualization and a system of lexical elimination allow me to identify alveolar sounds with 75% accuracy. My brother, with whom I share a mother but whose father is unknown—at least to me, is far less lucky, having been born with Usher Syndrome I. Though his early doctors hoped he would retain foveal vision, he was completely blind at six, having already learned to read. As I am almost five years his elder, our mother had already endured two bankruptcies in financing my own healthcare costs, and financial limitations prohibited the possibility of discovering whether a clucking device like my own would have also worked for my brother. Perhaps his reading before the complete onset of blindness facilitated his adeptness as Braille, which he quickly mastered—even composing occasional poems in the language, and which we use to communicate to this day, using both his 1970s Brailler, his first—which he prefers for its nostalgia, and my computer, which allows me far greater speed in storytelling.

This document, and its account of the unusual founding of the Academy of Writing Arts for the Blind and Deaf, is primarily for him, typed originally into my computer Brailler over the course of several months, following years of investigation. I have traveled across the country seeking relevant sources, no matter their seeming inconsequentialness, and have interviewed persons from R.S. Poofball’s handler on the morning of the fateful Dick-Dick Incident, who still lives quite nearby in Downey, California, to the surviving heir of the breeder’s poetess companion, who now resides on the East Coast. I have chosen to output this document in its current form in the hopes that it might be of interest to the greater public, both as historical document and as inspiring case study on the fulfillment of improbable dreams by even more unlikely actors. The Braille version of this account is available free of charge from the Academy of Writing Arts for the Blind and Deaf, as well as from several mail-order Braille resource services.


One afternoon, sitting in the waiting room at the canine chiropractor while Okie Doke endured her weekly adjustment, the breeder read a magazine article about a blind chemist. He was fascinated. MRIs had shown that Okie Doke’s brain, though just larger than a walnut in its shell, placed her in the upper 20th percentile for her diminutive body weight, and the article made him wonder if, like the blind chemist, her worsening sight had sharpened her other senses. The blind chemist had learned to identify within three to five degrees the temperature of a Bunsen burner’s flame, by the sound of the combusting butane it emitted. The breeder excused himself to the office restroom, where he discretely ripped open the magazine’s seams to remove the three-page article, before disposing of the magazine in the wall-mounted trashcan and covering its remains in several crumpled paper towels. His mind was already whirring.


* *


Ten emails about the translation of the still-unwritten Writing Lessons for the Blind and Deaf, with all characters mentioned explained by the translator

Mario Bellatin and David Shook
translated by Heather Cleary

New Translation Project
10 messages

David Shook

Sat, Mar 2, 2013 at 7:24 PM

To: Mario Bellatin
Dear Mario,

I miss you terribly, almost as much as I miss Pérez and Golda[1], my faithful companion on your couch. I’ve been thinking about starting a new project: the translation of one of your novels—one you haven’t written yet. Does the idea offend you? I hope not. Syd[2] says I’m being presumptuous, so I wanted to ask. If you prefer, I can work on one of your shorter future novels, leaving the longer ones in the hands of a translator with the grace and intelligence they deserve.A hug from me, warmest greetings from Syd, and a great big bark from Okie Doke[3], who is presently asleep and very grouchy, due to her advanced years.


Typed with my thumbs.


Mario Bellatin

Sat, Mar 2, 2013 at 7:54 PM

To: David Shook
Great, yes, of course… tomorrow I’ll send you the title: Writing Lessons for the Blind and Deaf… Send my love to Syd… maybe she’ll take you on a sunrise car ride. I’m sure you know what fun it is by now…

Sent from my iPhone



David Shook

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 at 4:27 PM

To: Mario Bellatin
Okay. Here are the first 800 words, more or less, of my translation of Writing Lessons for the Blind and Deaf. When you write the piece, will the title mean that the students are blind and deaf, like Helen Keller, or that some are blind and others deaf?

I really appreciate the homage to Okie Doke, the way you’re going to give the name to the breeder’s favorite dog. I’ll tell her about your future kindness later today, so that she can look forward to it impatiently (my Okie Doke isn’t very patient).To be honest, I think all the dogs’ names are going to be really funny. And I’m sure the names of the students will be interesting, too—most of the blind and deaf people I’ve known up to now have had really normal names.

All best, DavidWriting Lessons.doc



Mario Bellatin

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 at 6:50 PM

To: David Shook
Some are deaf and others are blind, but the narrator is deaf and blind and uses a machine to be able to hear a few things, which he then transmits to his brother, who is truly blind and deaf, using a computer connected to an electronic brailler…

Sent from my iPhone


David Shook

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 at 6:53 PM

To: Mario Bellatin


David Shook

Tue, Mar 5, 2013 at 2:51 PM

To: Mario Bellatin
Is the machine you’ll be imagining kind of primitive, like Wolfgang von Kempelen’s[4]? Or is it electronic, like the one Stephen Hawking uses? A restored model of the 139th (and first French) Pope Silvester II’s “talking head”[5]?


Mario Bellatin

Tue, Mar 5, 2013 at 6:32 PM

To: David Shook
No, it’s real. It’s called a cochlear implant… they couldn’t give the brother one for lack of money… my machine is a portable underwood 1915…

Sent from my iPhone


David Shook

Tue, Mar 5, 2013 at 9:49 PM

To: Mario Bellatin
You know, it was the Haitian writer Frankétienne[6]—prophet of the 2010 earthquake—who gave me the courage to try this. He was the one who said to me, on the balcony of his amazing house on Delmas, in Port-au-Prince: Don’t be afraid of anyone, or anything. Then he showed me some of his secrets for telling the future, techniques that have never been written down, and which give him his incredible power as a storyteller. (It’s interesting, he does not practice Voodoo, and his prophetic techniques don’t come from Voodoo, either.)

How was the book fair? (You were at one, right?) Ben[7] says we can film in May. I should ask the Fat Lady if we can visit the dogs[8] that live alone in that palace of hers, which must be just like Alejandro’s[9].


Mario Bellatin

Wed, Mar 6, 2013 at 8:01 AM

To: David Shook
You, afraid of something? you’ve never been afraid… how nice that you spoke with my husband… hopefully the fat lady[10] hasn’t been strangled by her gay friends… any word from the hepburn model[11]? love to everyone…

Sent from my iPhone



David Shook

Wed, Mar 6, 2013 at 9:04 AM

To: Mario Bellatin
But which of them would have done it? I’m sure she’s fine. Anyway, how could someone kill the owner of fifty-something Iberian hounds? If they don’t serve as bodyguards against homosexual would-be assassins, what good are they? (I know, I know: to help with your fare card when you get on the subway.)

I’ve been afraid of three things in my life: the disapproval of my family, just like the great writer Nagaoka[12], who didn’t want to go into the family business, either (in my case, taking charge of Texan mega-churches); the prophetic translation of literary works, which I am doing; and the Hepburn Model. In light of what Frankétienne said to me, I think I’ll write her an email right now.




[1] Mario’s two dogs. Pérez is an Australian shepherd and Golda is a Spanish Galgo, or greyhound, known as Lady Galga.

[2] The writer Syd Shook, my wife and our collaborator on the film BARÚ.

[3] Okie Doke is my eleven-year-old Chihuahua. She weighs two pounds.

[4] Von Kempelen is best known for inventing the chess-playing Mechanical Turk. When the trick was finally revealed, it turned out that that there was a real Turk hiding inside.  

[5] Another interesting character: the first French Pope, who had supposedly learned about Muslim magic in Spain. Others speculated that he had won his post by making a deal with the Devil. Just before he died in 1003 at the Basilica of the Holy Cross, he asked his Cardinals to dismember his corpse and spread the pieces throughout the city. But the wishes of the dead are empty desires: they didn’t do it.

[6] Frankétienne is the author of the first Haitian novel written in Creole: Dezafi, published in 1975. He is 76 years old.

[7] Ben Rodkin is the director of our film, BARÚ. He is also Mario’s gringo husband, though not so much for love as for the discounts it gets them at the dog run. 

[8] There is a legend in Colton, California about two Iberian hounds who live alone in an enormous palace, supported by the inheritance left to them by their master, who was murdered in a manner so horrifying that, to this day, no one has been able to speak of it.

[9] Alejandro is a mysterious photographer who lives between Mexico City and Rome. On a table in his living room sits a human head from the 1950s, found in an abandoned asylum.

[10] The Fat Lady is the breeder of Iberian hounds in Colton who told us the story above. Her girth is the result of the guilt she feels at always judging her best friends: a gay couple who also breed Iberian hounds. They told us a few things that she, who claimed to be their friend, had said about them as a result of her intense homophobia.

[11] The Hepburn Model is a mysterious woman. She owns a number of Salukis—both Mohammed and Mario’s dog of preference—and has promised Mario a dog.

[12] The Japanese writer Shiki Nagaoka has been identified as one of Mario’s most important influences. I translated his biography, Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, into English.

* *

Image: Ben Rodkin, from the filming of BARÚ

foto marioMario Bellatin has published dozens of novellas with major and minor publishing houses in Latin America, Europe, and the United States. His English-language translations include Beauty Salon (2010) and Shiki Nagaoka: a Nose for Fiction (2013). Among his current projects is the series Los Cien Mil Libros de Bellatin, his own imprint dedicated to publishing 1,000 copies each of 100 of his books.
David_Shook foto crispin hughesDavid Shook David Shook grew up in Mexico City before studying endangered languages in Oklahoma and poetry at Oxford. His collection of poems Our Obsidian Tongues, longlisted for the 2013 Dylan Thomas Prize, is available from Eyewear Publishing. He served as Translator in Residence at the Poetry Parnassus in London, where he premiered his covertly filmed documentary Kilometer Zero, featuring Equatorial Guinean poet Marcelo Ensema Nsang. His translations include Mario Bellatin's Shiki Nagaoka, Oswald de Andrade's "Cannibal Manifesto," and Roberto Bolaño's manifesto "Leave Everything, Again." He lives in Los Angeles, where he edits molossus and Phoneme Media. Photo: Crispin Hughes.
Cleary photo MAR14Heather Cleary has published translations and literary criticism with Two Lines, Words Without Borders, and Music & Literature, among other publications. She was awarded a PEN Translation Fund grant in 2005 for her work with the poetry of Oliverio Girondo, and her translation of Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. More recently, her translations of Chejfec’s The Dark, nominated for ALTA’s National Translation Award, and Poems to Read on a Streetcar, a pamphlet of Girondo’s poetry (New Directions 2014) have made their way into bookstores. She holds a PhD in Latin American and Iberian Cultures from Columbia University.

Published on May 12th of 2015 in BAR Bellatin, Fiction.

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