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“We understand each other” — An Echo Park book club for those struggling with language

Larry Arrick (far right) reads aloud a short poem by Etheridge Knight. | Barry Lank

By BARRY LANK

ECHO PARK — As the the Aphasia Book Club settled into its regular Thursday afternoon meeting, it faced some language that could be offensive – in Etheridge Knight’s poem, Feeling Fucked Up. But for Jeff Krol, the f-word has been a sign of recovery.

It’s the first word he was able to speak after his accident.

Krol is a regular member of a book club that welcomes people with aphasia — a condition that limits or deprives people of the ability to speak or write. It can result from anything from disease to stroke to an accident — in Krol’s case, a water skiing accident.

The Aphasia Book Group has been meeting since 2013, according to its founders – Michael Biel, a speech pathologist who teaches at Cal State Northridge, and his wife Francie Schwarz, a public service librarian at the Echo Park Branch Library.

A weekly book club presents an obvious challenge for such a group, which meets at the Echo Park branch library on Temple Street. Some have to count on their fingers when recalling what year they were injured. Others communicate best by holding up pieces of paper with the words they’re trying to say. One member, Laura Romero, who had suffered a stroke in her 30s, said she was in this group to learn to read again.

But aside from the linguistic restrictions, aphasia usually leaves people cognitively intact, Biel said. Many are merely better at comprehending language than speaking it.  The club is a place where the members can express themselves.

“That’s what the book club is for us,” said Susan Swan. “You don’t have to speak volumes. We understand each other.”

It leaves the moderators to do a lot of prompting, though, such as when one of the graduate students who works with Biel asked an opinion from Larry Arrick – a retired theater director and professor. “Everything is a poem in itself,” Larry responded slowly.

“That one word, ‘fuck,’ is a poem in itself?” Biel asked.

“Yes.”

The theme for this particular meeting was poems by African-American authors, in honor of Black History month. They listened to readings by Knight and, since the discussion lead to it, performances by the rap group NWA.

“Early on in the club, my wife and I were more active in suggesting books,” Biel said, “and we would try to stay away from books where the writing was complicated or antiquated. That being said, if a member wanted to read a book that we thought would be unusually difficult to read, we’d probably share our opinion and see what the group wanted to do.”

Thought running the group requires a lot of labor compiling chapter highlights each week, Schwarz said this project is some of the most satisfying work she’s ever done.

“People with aphasia tend to speak and read slowly,” she said. “Sometimes they need things repeated for better comprehension. Often they struggle for words. It’s comparable to a conversation class in which everyone is doing their best to communicate in a second language.”

The group’s favorite books so far include The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, and The Souvenir by Louise Steinman, Schwarz said. Least favorite? Schwarz and Biel agree the group didn’t seem to care for Kirk Douglas’ book My Stroke of Luck.

“Not because members disagreed about what life after a stroke is like,” Biel said, “but because they thought he came across as vain.”

For the future, the group may also develop a writing workshop. Brendan Constantine, a widely published L.A. poet, sat in with the group and talked to them about starting a poetry-writing workshop  – a project that might fit a group like this.

“Poets are not interested in the word that’s expected,” Constantine said.

The Aphasia Book Club meets most Thursdays at the Echo Park branch library. Space is limited. For more information or to register call the Echo Park Branch at (213) 250-7808 or send an email to [email protected]

Speech pathologist Michael Biel listening to club member Laura Romero. | Barry Lank

Screenshot 2015-12-10 at 3.10.51 PM

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One comment

  1. What a wonderful service The Eastsider has done for those who could benefit from this club but knew nothing of it. As a voracious reader since childhood one of my worst fears is not being able to read.

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