Nina Raine - Why I wrote Tribes

22 September 2010

I first had the idea of writing Tribes when I watched a documentary about a deaf couple. The woman was pregnant. They wanted their baby to be deaf.

I was struck by the thought that this was actually what many people feel, deaf or otherwise.Parents take great pleasure in witnessing the qualities they have managed to pass on to their children. Not only a set of genes. A set of values, beliefs. Even a particular language.
The family is a tribe: an infighting tribe but intensely loyal.

Once I started looking around, tribes were everywhere. I went to New York and was fascinated by the orthodox Jews in Williamsburg, who all wear a sort of uniform. They were like an enormous extended family.

And just like some religions can seem completely mad to non-believers, so the rituals
and hierarchies of a family can seem nonsensical to an outsider.

I learnt some sign language. I found it immensely tiring. Sign demands that you heighten your facial expressions – ‘like’ – you stroke your neck downwards and smile beatifically, ‘don’t like’ you stroke your neck upwards and make a face almost as if you are throwing up. I felt like I was being made to assume a personality that didn’t fit me. I realised how much we express our personality through the way we speak. I didn’t like having to change my personality. And sign has a different grammar. I felt stupid, slow, uncomprehending. Was this what it might be like to be a deaf person trying to follow a rapid spoken conversation? But I was also envious. I loved the way sign looked when used by those fluent in it. It could be beautiful. Wouldn’t it be great to be a ‘virtuoso’ in sign? They must exist, like poets or politicians in the hearing world…

Finally, I thought about my own family. Full of its own eccentricities, rules, in-jokes and
punishments. What if someone in my (hearing, garrulous) family had been born deaf?

All these things went into the play, which took a very long time to write. All I knew was that at the beginning we would be plunged into a family dinner. The first scene was easy to write. I wrote it with no idea of the characters’ names, or of how many siblings there were. But oddly, it is one of the scenes that has hardly changed during the writing of the play. It sat there for a very long time. And then, slowly, I wrote the rest. The crazy family was born fully formed. I just had to work out what happened to them.