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Monday musings on Australian literature: Deafness and Australian writers and writing

November 18, 2019

Book coverToday’s post was inspired, of course, by my recently reading Jessica White’s memoir-biography, Hearing Maud (my review), which parallels White’s own experience of deafness with that of Maud Praed. This post will not be an exhaustive (or even comprehensive) discussion of the topic, but a broad-brush introduction to some of the ways deafness is reflected in modern Australian literary culture.

For a start, some of our best-known writers have been deaf, including Henry Lawson, who was deaf by the age of 14; Judith Wright, who started losing her hearing in her 20s; and Richard Flanagan. Flanagan was “virtually deaf” for the first six years of his life. Novelist Kirsten Krauth says “I can read this experience through all of Flanagan’s work, his ability to translate, to make us listen, his forceful prose, and his empathy for others struggling with language too.” Aljaz, the protagonist of his novel, Death of a river guide, was deaf in his early years due to pneumonia. Krauth shares this quote from the book:

He [Aljaz] now listened to the way in which words were used, the way one word could carry so many different meanings, how every word could be a tree full of fruit. But when he asked questions he was answered only with a quizzical shake of the head.

The issue of how disability (specifically, deafness) affects, positively and negatively, how a person experiences and/or responds to the world is a theme that runs through White’s book.

Quite serendipitously, I came across last week, Michael Bérubé’s essay “Autism aesthetics” in the Sydney Review of Books. The essay, obviously, is about autism, but he starts with this:

About 10 years ago, I began to get impatient with disability studies. The field was still relatively young, but it seemed devoted almost entirely to analyzing how disability was represented – in art, in culture, in politics, et cetera – especially in the case of physical disability. This, I thought, fell short of the field’s promise for literary studies. Where, I wondered, was the field’s equivalent of Epistemology of the Closet, the book in which Eve Sedgwick showed us how to ‘queer’ texts, such that we will never read a narrative silence or lacuna the same way again? Put another way: I wanted a book that showed how an understanding of disability changes the way we read.

He reviews three books which he believes do just this, which demonstrate how “autistic readers and writers can widen the range and deepen the complexity of human expression”.

This post is mostly going to do what made Bérubé impatient, but it will touch on what he’s looking for too. Regardless, though, I wanted raise the issue of how abled people “read” and “judge” literature through “abled” lenses, how we “pathologise” people with disabilities (either as creators or as characters.) As Bérubé says, “There must be no performance criteria for being human”.

However, before I get to that, another disability issue worth thinking about was raised by AWW Challenge guest poster Gail Sobott:

Disability as metaphor — blind, deaf, cripple, mad metaphors — create problems for understanding the specifics of our lived experience. The challenge is to encourage nuance and experimentation, politically-accountable uses of metaphor that make people think more deeply and enable them to imagine alternatives to what exists.

Selected recent books

The books I’m sharing here, fiction and non-fiction, by and about deaf people, have come from Jessica White’s Diversity round-ups for the Australian Women Writers challenge – so they are all by women.

Book coverSarah Gai’s Winter signs (young adult novel, 2017)

GoodReads reviewer Brenda, linking to the challenge, felt that Gai handled her deaf protagonist well. Brenda wrote that “deafness and everything that means for living a life is hard to comprehend for someone who has never been in that position. … I could feel Winter’s frustration when she was unable to understand non-signing people because they spoke too fast for her to lip-read.”

I know the jury is still out about the relationship between literature and empathy, but I’d argue that “feeling” a character’s emotions, and learning from this, is an important part of literature – and is particularly relevant in helping us understand lives that are very different to our own.

Sarah Kanake, Sing Fox to meSarah Kanake’s Sing fox to me (novel, 2016)

Kanake’s novel (my review) features a character with Down syndrome and a deaf character. Kanake’s brother has Down Syndrome, so she has some understanding of that disability. What she says in an interview about this character applies to the portrayal of all disabilities:

People with Down syndrome are often still seen as a homogenous mass, despite the fact that every person with Down syndrome is different and has their own lived experiences and understanding of the world based on those experiences.

She also said that “the best part of writing Samson was figuring out how to communicate sign language onto the page. I love the way Samson communicates and his relationship with the deaf girl, Mattie Kelly, is one of my favourite elements of the books”.

Book coverChrissie Keighery’s Whisper (young adult novel, 2011)

Whisper’s protagonist is fourteen-year-old Demi who becomes deaf through meningitis, as did Jessica White. GoodReads (but not AWW Challenge) reviewer, CG Drews, who said she was writing her own book with a deaf character, offered this:

I loved how it talked about audism (discrimination to non-hearing people) and Deaf communities. And I loooved how it contrasted the narrator, Demi, who lives in a hearing family but is now deaf, and Stella, who is SO FIERCELY proud of her deaf heritage that she’s actually very cruel to hearing people.

She, who has clearly read a few books on the topic, said that “this is the book” for people who want to know about “Deaf culture and what it’s like to be deaf”.

LomerTalkUnderWaterKathryn Lomer’s Talk Under Water (young adult novel, 2015)

Lomer’s protagonist is also a deaf teenager, Summer, who develops a friendship with Will. Jessica White wrote in her round-up, that “as Will discovers how confident Summer is about her disability, his world opens up. I would have liked to have read a novel like this when I was young … it would have been an antidote to my relentless sense of strangeness and alienation”.

Summer, like many characters in this section, uses sign language.

McDonaldArtBeingDeafDonna McDonald’s The art of being deaf (memoir by a deaf person, 2014)

Jessica White, introducing an AWW Challenge guest post by deaf author McDonald said that in her memoir, McDonald draws “an original map of the contours of her experiences of deafness, creating a land into which other people could travel and learn of its customs”. Reviewer Jemimah-Oddfeather, who read the memoir as an introduction to her AusLan class, would agree. She described the book as “a good place to start” for those wanting to learn about Deafhood and the Deaf community. McDonlad, like White in Hearing Maud, explores “her relationship with her deafness while ‘passing’ as a hearing woman in a hearing world.”

RomerThornwoodHouseAnne Romer’s Thornwood House (crime fiction, 2013)

Jessica White reviewed this for the challenge. She wrote in the round-up that she liked “its positive portrayal of a deaf man, Danny”, and that Romer “took some of Danny’s characteristics, such as his attentiveness to body language and lipreading, and used them to add tension to her work.” Another AWW Challenge reviewer Rochelle, commented that the love interest uses sign language, and called that “Plus one for diversity”.

ViskicResurrectionBayEmma Viskic’s Caleb Zelic series (crime fiction) 

Viskic now has three books in her crime series featuring deaf protagonist, Caleb Zelic – Resurrection Bay (2015), And the fire came down (2017), and Darkness for light (due in 2020). AWW Challenge reviewer Weezelle (Words and Leaves) was impressed because

it’s not ‘Caleb, the deaf investigator’, but ‘Caleb, the investigator who happens to be deaf and is also lots of other things as well’. In other words, Caleb’s deafness is one element of his character and he’s not defined by it.

Or, in other words, he is not performing his disability. Notably, he uses sign language, which immediately identifies his disability. Signing – which has been a controversial issue – was mentioned in most of the books listed here.

I’d love to hear of any books you’ve read that are by or feature deaf people … and whether you have any ideas about disability literature.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. November 19, 2019 12:01 am

    The first book about deafness that I ever read was SEEING VOICES by my hero, the wise and wonderful Dr Oliver Sacks (1989). It’s at once a fascinating history of deafness and a profound and moving insight into the world of the Deaf community. After thirty years it may be a little dated, but I would still recommend it highly to both deaf and hearing readers.

    • November 19, 2019 8:07 am

      Thanks Teresa. I’ve read Sacks but hadn’t even heard of that one. I like his writing too, so am sure I’d enjoy this,

  2. November 19, 2019 3:26 am

    This is a very interesting topic that I need to devote some thought to. Having a disability likely changes one’s perspective. Those of us who can see, hear, walk, etc. take so much for granted. Reading a book from the perspective of someone who cannot do these things would inevitably be eye opening and could possibly change one’s own perspective in a lot of ways.

  3. November 19, 2019 7:39 am

    I can’t think of any positive representations of disability in my reading. The closest might be the Rosie Project etc. which is written by an outsider and seems to rely on stereotypes.

    • November 19, 2019 8:17 am

      That’s interesting Bill and surely an indictment on Australian publishing that there is not much there. I think the first book I remember reading was Alan Marshall’s I can jump puddles about his experience of polio. Most books I’ve read have been memoirs, in fact, rather than fiction.

      Oh one novel was Mark Haddon’s of an ardently autistic boy, The curious incident of a dog in the night time, but as with Rosie, Haddon doesn’t name or define the boys condition. Wikipedia says this….

      ‘Haddon wrote on his blog that “Curious Incident is not a book about Asperger’s… if anything it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. The book is not specifically about any specific disorder,” and that he, Haddon, is not an expert on autism spectrum disorder or Asperger syndrome.’

      • November 19, 2019 6:59 pm

        I am on page 1 of Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish, and it begins with sign language (for “book 1”) then, “I begin with a sign, not words.” More anon

        • November 19, 2019 9:57 pm

          Oh thanks Bill … I didn’t know about this one but it’s clearly one for the list. I look forward to your review.

  4. November 19, 2019 7:49 am

    I don’t know whether literature teaches empathy either, but life sure does. Last week I had two experiences with disability, both of which shouldn’t have happened.
    At French, one of our class members, is deaf: L wears such tiny hearing aids and is so good at lip-reading that we didn’t realise until she told us. But last week, a potential new classmate sat in on our class, and she sat in the seat usually occupied by L. We all shuffled round and sat in different seats to our usual spots.
    The following week, L was early, and apologetically told me that she wanted to make sure she had her usual seat. What none of us had realised was that she had always positioned herself in the best seat to see everyone’s faces, and had become accustomed to lipreading from that angle. There were lessons I took from this: one was that positioning can be so vital to interaction, and lipreading from a person beside you rather than facing you is next to impossible. But also that L was too embarrassed to say anything at the time, that she struggled for the whole 90 minutes, and that none of us noticed when we should have. I know young disabled people are often quite vocal about not wanting offers of help, labelling it ableism, but personalities are all different, and it’s not always ok for us to expect the disabled person to be assertive enough to state their needs, especially in front of strangers.
    The other thing that happened was at the library. A young man deposited an old lady at the entrance and drove off. She yelled out after him, but of course he didn’t hear. He’d driven off without waiting for her to retrieve her walking stick, and she was marooned by being two or three steps away from the handrail. It was easy to offer my arm and see her safely inside, but what would have happened if I hadn’t been there? A fall could have put paid to all her independent activities that she was enjoying at the library and presumably elsewhere.
    I’d like to think that reading books can teach us these things so that we don’t have to wait for experience to do it, but I’m not optimistic…

    • November 19, 2019 8:29 am

      I agree Lisa.

      Re your deaf friend, Jessica makes the point, you probably remember, about deafness being an invisible disability. Of course some deaf people’s voices tell us, but those who became deaf after speaking or who have some hearing don’t always have that marker, and hearing aids are so small now you don’t see then unless you really look. Personalities are different, I agree, but I guess all people need to learn to be a bit assertive, because we can’t all know everyone’s needs. For example, I’m part of a couple of groups containing older women, and they tell us they want the firmer (often less comfortable-looking chairs) because of their backs and/or because those chairs are easier to get in and out of. They need to tell us this because we would naturally want to give them the comfy-to-us chairs!

    • November 19, 2019 8:33 am

      Oh, so I think my point is that books CAN teach us these things, but we still may not identify the need in order to act if people don’t tell us their situation. And, everyone is different so what a book might tell us, won’t be what every, say deaf, person feels, needs or wants. Books and experience though should tell us that too!

  5. Meg permalink
    November 20, 2019 8:20 am

    Hi Sue, I did think of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (I read it years ago, but I knew it was in the back of my mind, but it took a long time to the front of the brain!) – About a deaf man. Also, Toni Jordan’s novel Addition – about the main character who had AD. Like you I have older friends, and many wear hearing aids. A new series began last night on the ABC – Love on the Spectrum. One of the young woman is autistic as well as deaf and wears hearing aids.

    • November 20, 2019 9:39 am

      Oh thanks for all this Meg. I’d forgotten The heart is a lonely hunter. I was out last night. Must try to catch up with that show on iView, as they trailers looked interesting.

  6. Meg permalink
    November 20, 2019 8:38 am

    Hi Sue, just thought of another two – A Patch of Blue by Elizabeth Kata. My brother made me read it when he had to read it at school (1960s). Also, Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff.

    • November 20, 2019 9:43 am

      Good ones Meg. I read A patch of blue back in my teens I think and loved it, and I saw Children of the Lesser God, but didn’t read it. I think the character was played by a deaf woman, which made quite big news at the time. It’s still not a given that characters with disability are played be people with the disability. It was great seeing Stevie Payne play himself in Ride like a girl.

  7. November 21, 2019 2:46 pm

    Weighing in late, Sue, but a Deaf writer to watch is Fiona Murphy. Fi has won or been shortlisted for numerous prizes and is currently working on an essay collection (full disclosure: she’s received fellowships from Writers Victoria to support her writing). Her Monash prize winning essay on navigating the world as a Deaf person and re-imagining inclusive spaces is here: https://www.killyourdarlings.com.au/article/cornered/

    • November 21, 2019 10:19 pm

      Late maybe, Angela, but never too late. Thanks for this. I have clicked on the link and read the start of the article. I will read the rest later, but it looks interesting and seems to articulate beautifully some of the things I have gathered from deaf people I know or have met.

      • November 22, 2019 3:04 pm

        I think Fiona Murphy is a beautiful writers. She’s being mentored by Fiona Wright, too.

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