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Cassandra Complex

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I visualize my mystery series as on TV season.

Recently, I completed the third bookin my Cassandra Sato academic mystery series and gained a better understanding of how each book fits into the whole. While the main character will be very different at the end of the series than she was on page one, in each book Cassandra experiences microscopic moments of character growth. These slight changes may seem minor during each episode but play a key role in her overall transformation within the series.

As an example, in Dead of Winter Break, Cassandra Sato is learning American Sign Language (ASL). Growing up in Oahu, Hawai’i, among her Japanese American family, she already knows phrases from several languages and has been exposed to the multicultural cornucopia of island life. It’s common for people there to switch between several languages during one conversation, fitting the best phrases to the context.

Learning a second (or third) language is an enormous challenge for adults. Cassandra’s co-worker friend Meg, an ASL interpreter at Morton College, had already taught Cassandra a few ASL phrases in Death by Dissertation and Dead Week, the first two books in the series. But whenever she has a long conversation with a Deaf student or faculty member, Cassandra relies on Meg’s expertise to interpret the complete message. Cassandra often says she knows enough signs to match an average toddler’s vocabulary level. She has a long way to go!

This time, Cassandra is more motivated to learn. She’s working on a grant proposal with Dr. Bryant, a Deaf Studies professor, and community activist. Meg is at home on vacation and Cassandra plans to meet with him alone over winter break. Although Cassandra binge-studies YouTube videos and practices with another student, she feels frustrated by the difficulty of learning a new language.

As an ASL Interpreter for over thirty years, I spend my workdays switching between two languages and cultures simultaneously. I interpret in university classrooms where I convey the lectures and class discussions between the Deaf students and teachers in English and ASL. Including my experiences and feelings is one of my favorite parts of writing and brings authenticity to the college setting for the readers.

Becoming fluent in a second language took me years of study and practice. Before going on vacations abroad, I like to study enough foreign language phrases to use in basic everyday communication. Interpreting requires a much higher level of understanding of both languages than chatting with a taxi driver or ordering food in a restaurant. Luckily, on vacation, I can get away with very limited awareness.

In this story, Cassandra is highly motivated to learn ASL and she has found readily available practice partners. If you ever have tried learning a second language, immersing yourself in a place with native users of the language is much faster and easier than studying a book or video.

Years ago, while I was learning ASL and improving my proficiency, I worked at an agency that served Deaf senior citizens in Hawaii. One of my job duties was to chat or play games with the folks who attended the community center. They taught me some of their indigenous Hawaiian Sign Language (HSL) signs which were different than ASL, and I was an eager student.

One day particularly stands out. I had joined a table of elderly Deaf ladies playing Mahjong. They gossiped and chatted in a mix of ASL and HSL about their families and current events. Months earlier, I would have struggled to keep up with their friendly, rapid conversation.

But after months of daily immersion, it felt like a light switch magically flipped inside my brain, and I understood them! In that no-pressure environment, I was laughing along with their jokes. I was even able to answer a question posed to me without asking the woman to repeat it! At that moment, I finally felt comfortable and fluent in ASL.

In Cassandra and Dr. Bryant’s storyline, there’s a scene in Dead of Winter Break where Cassandra feels the thrill of understanding his signing without an interpreter or extra help. What might appear insignificant becomes a pivotal detail in her growing awareness of Deaf Culture and cementing a friendship with a colleague who initially intimidated her.

In each novel or episode in my series, many micro-growth moments combine to move Cassandra and the other characters down the overall path of the story. I think that pattern imitates real life where we all experience those aha reactions that lead to greater awareness.


Kelly is an American Sign Language Interpreter whose motivation for learning ASL began in high school when she wanted to converse with her deaf friends. She also writes a popular children’s picture book series featuring Duke the Deaf Dog.