Marie Younan with Jill Sanguinetti, A different kind of seeing: My journey (#BookReview)

In many ways, Marie Younan’s A different kind of seeing: My journey is a standard memoir about a person overcoming the limitations of her disability which, in this case, is blindness. It’s told first person, chronologically, from her grandparents’ lives through her birth in Syria to the present when she is in her late 60s and living in Melbourne. However, there are aspects of her story which add particular interest, and separate it, in a way, from the crowd.

One of these aspects is that Younan’s story is not only a story about blindness, but about migration and cultural difference. Younan is Assyrian, and was born, the seventh of 12 children, in the small village of Tel Wardiyat in northeast Syria. Her maternal and paternal grandparents moved, variously, through Turkey, Iran, Russia, Greece and Kurdistan escaping genocide and persecution before they all ended up in Tel Wardiyat. In her own life, Younan’s family moved to Beirut, but with some of the family having already migrated to Melbourne and with civil unrest increasing in Lebanon, more of the family applied to migrate to Australia. Younan herself was initially rejected because of her blindness, so, while her parents left for Melbourne in 1975, she returned to Syria, before moving to Athens to an older sister. Finally, in 1978, and now in her mid-20s, she was granted a visa for Australia joined her parents and family. (What a kind nation we are!)

If this wasn’t enough challenge, Younan’s life was also affected by her conservative upbringing. The book starts with a little prologue chapter describing how, at the age of 7, she came to properly understand her difference, that she is blind:

it dawned on me that there was a ‘thing’ called seeing that everyone else could do except me […]

It was the day my life as a blind person began.

We gradually come to realise that Younan was, as a child, doubly disadvantaged, because while she was brought up lovingly, nurtured by parents and siblings, she was excluded from so much that could have helped her develop as a person. She was not allowed to go to school; she was not allowed to go to big family events like weddings; and when a doctor suggested a corneal transplant for her when she was 10, her grandmother and father refused, because they didn’t believe such a thing was possible. Further, when she was 12, a relative offered to take her to a boarding school for blind girls – so she could “learn something and grow up with knowledge” – but her grandmother and father again opposed it. Her father said,

‘I’ve got 12 children, and I’m not sending one to boarding school, especially if she’s disabled.’

She was heartbroken, asking her mother why not. She didn’t “know anything about the world, or about life”, and badly wanted to. Yet, she expresses no bitterness in the book towards her family. Indeed, she dearly loves and respects them.

Anyhow, she arrives in Australia, highly dependent on her family and functionally illiterate.

I have spend a lot of time on this first part of the book because not only is her early life so interesting in its difference from my own life, but because it lays the groundwork for the astonishing changes she made in her life, with the help and inspiration of others, after her arrival here. I’m not going to detail all that. I’ll simply say that, largely through the mentorship of a man called Ben Hewitt (to whom the book is dedicated), she was introduced to various services, organisations and people that resulted in her learning to read; learning Braille; studying psychology and later interpreting; travelling around Victoria speaking on behalf of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind; and working as an interpreter, including for refugees through Foundation House. It’s an amazing trajectory – and one told quietly, and with humility and respect for her family and for all who helped her on the way.

It’s not surprising that she’s been described as “Ben’s biggest challenge and his best success story”. His role in encouraging her, in turning around her thinking from “I can’t” to “I can” cannot be underestimated, because, by the time she met him, Younan had a desire to learn but very little confidence in her ability to do so.

For all its straightforwardness, though, her story does have a little mystery. Younan was not born blind, but became blind when she was a few months old. Just what caused her blindness is a little question that runs through the book, and I’ll leave it to you to discover, but well-intended actions by a much-loved grandmother were involved. It’s a heartbreaking story of mistakes, accidents and missed opportunities, but Younan, if she resents any of it, has the grace to focus on what she has, not what she hasn’t or what might have been.

Now, you may have noticed that this book was written “with” Jill Sanguinetti, who has appeared here before with her own memoir. Younan met Sanguinetti around 1988 at the Migrant Women’s Learning Centre, when she joined sighted migrant women in a Return to Learning class. Sanguinetti was the teacher, and explains in the her Introduction to the book how she and Younan had stayed in touch after the class finished. Some years later, they “decided to work together to write the story of Younan’s life and educational journey”. Younan is, she writers, a “mesmeric storyteller”, but with one thing and another, it took 8 years to finalise the book. There were “many cycles of telling and writing, re-telling and re-writing”, and it shows in the end product, which is tight and keeps focused on the main theme of Younan’s journey from a dependent, innocent young girl to the independent achiever she is today.

A good – and relevant – read.

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Marie Younan with Jill Sanguinetti
A different kind of seeing: My journey
Melbourne: Scribe, 2020
214pp.
ISBN: 9781922310256

(Review copy courtesy Scribe.)

25 thoughts on “Marie Younan with Jill Sanguinetti, A different kind of seeing: My journey (#BookReview)

  1. This sounds like it’s worth a read Sue! My mother used to transcribe braille for the nearby blind school in Sydney long ago (somewhat ironically for me now!) and it had to be done very slowly by hand then. The students were desperate to get hold of textbooks. Already behind due to their disability, lack of people translating books into braille made these students even more disadvantaged.

    This book made me think about an excellent article recently in the Sydney Morning Herald – I think the writer was a doctor – saying how much he admired his son’s girlfriend, who in her early twenties, was planning to study medicine. He said she also suffers from very brittle diabetes.

    He was deploring the way people dying of covid are often described as “having underlying health issues”. He said if she died of covid, she woud be described like that, as if it was her fault, or somehow made her more expendable, or as if her death were less harrowing.

    I’ve been thinking this myself when I hear this said on the media. I thought it was worth bringing up here. People with underlying heath issues/disabilites are far from less worthy – I wonder if we could stop commenting on these unfortunate people’s other health issues!

    Thanks for the review!

      • Yes, that was the main intention Bill. I don’t think there was any intention whatsoever to disrespect those who died, but to try to encourage those who are alive to still see vaccinations as a good thing to do.

    • Thanks Sue. I love that the book has made you think about these further things. How wonderful that your mother did Braille transcribing. My mother read law textbooks onto audiotape for a blind student at Macquarie University, which impressed me, but to learn Braille, as your Mum must have done, is going a whole other mile. I’m guessing that was the North Rocks school? We had a student from there come to our high school.

      That issue about underlying health conditions was raised on The Drum too by a disability advocate. It made me think about what assumptions we make about the things we hear. As Bill as commented, I certainly didn’t hear it as saying they are expendable, but that it explained why Covid was more likely to “get” these people, even it they were partly or fully vaccinated. I understood that the intention was for these deaths not to discourage people from being vaccinated, because it is a fact of life that if you have other health conditions you are more vulnerable to all sorts of other health events. What made me mad about these reports is that they revealed that many of the people who died with Covid, and had underlying health conditions, got Covid in hospital where they were being treated for those conditions! For me, that’s the really bad message.

      However, hearing different “readings” of the message does make you stop and think.

      • I agree about the intentions Sue and Bill, but I also see how it can be misinterpreted as “oh well they had underlying health issues anyway”.

        Talking to disability support workers here, they are still waiting for their first vaccination which is incredible. We have just had a walk in vaccination hub open up here and the queues go around the block all day.

        Yes Mum transcribed Braille for the school at North Rocks Sue! I met some of those young students as adults and they had gone through university and done really well. One of them was Graeme Innes, our former Disabilities Commissioner. I met him by chance and when he heard my surname he asked about my mother! That was rather wonderful.

        She did it with a small pointed instrument dot by dot! You can imagine the time it took to translate an entire textbook. She became very killed herself at reading with her hands.

        Still waiting on my second A-Z! We are staying in lock down here in the Central West due to the prison and nearby indigenous population. It’s a real mess here!

        • Yes, Sue, I could see it when it was pointed out to me but hadn’t thought of it before. The vaccination roll-out to disability workers and people, and to aged care workers and people has been so badly botched, here in the ACT too. I think they were Federal government responsibilities?

          What your Mum did is amazing. We have good and bad handwriters, but if you were a bad Brailler (is that a word) you could really make a mess I can imagine! Anyhow, how nice that Grahame Innes (whom we see often on The Drum) recognised your name.

  2. I remember being offered this one last year, but as is so often the case, I was snowed under at the time and reluctantly said no thankyou.
    I’m glad it’s found a home on your blog because she is an amazing woman.

    • Thanks Lisa – then you know how VERY long is has taken we to actually read it and write up my review!! I probably shouldn’t have taken it on either as I am feeling quite overwhelmed at the moment. So much I want to read and so much I’ve promised to read, and somehow so much to do that gets in my way!

      • Well, it’s not easy to say no, especially when we know review opportunities have so much value for authors.
        But I try to have the book done and dusted within 6 weeks, and if I think I can’t do that I let the publicist know that it might be 8 weeks or so. But if I can’t do that, I say no, and if they send it anyway it goes into my unsolicited pile, to be dealt with ‘eventually’.

        • Oh yes, except my rule of thumb was 3-4 months (until the last year or so when it’s got out of hand and I don’t quite know how I’m going to claw it back). If I could get to 6 weeks, I’d be thrilled. I do say no to a lot, but some of course come out of the blue. Those it depends, but in the last year or so they’ve been ones of interest because those publicists know my taste, so they’ve gone in the queue. I think I’m going to have to go back to not putting them in the queue, and making them “eventually” too.

        • If it’s any help, I feel less guilt about the ‘eventually’ pile.
          (Yes, I know that’s absurd, to be feeling guilty, and I tick myself off every time I think it. But still, there is so much need ATM).

        • It does help Lisa. I agree we shouldn’t feel guilty, but there is need, as you say, and your heart goes out to them. But, we have to look after ourselves too, don’t we.

  3. That is dreadful to think that she was made/left blind on two occasions when she might have been sighted.
    I sometimes wonder what blind (at birth) people think about sight, as Younan says, it has to be explained to her what she lacks.

    • It’s not quite as simple as that Bill, but is sort of like that.

      Yes, it’s hard to imagine isn’t it explaining sight – or I suppose hearing – to people who have never had it. I’ve wondered about that. Her comment was really eye-opening. It came when she was playing a ball-game with her sisters and she couldn’t work out how they seemed to always get the ball, and she didn’t. It also suddenly explained how she kept bumping into things when she was walking around and they didn’t.

  4. This woman’s journey reminds me of what I’ve read about deaf people in the same time period. They were often kept home and considered ignorant, an assumption that left them illiterate. For as conservative a state as Indiana is, which is where I currently live, I will say they have the Indiana School for the Deaf, a residential school at which students lived and then went home on the weekends. They learned to sign, and so came out education individuals ready for “real life.” Letting a child go off to school can be scary, but in the case of deaf people, at least, a residential school filled with peers who use the same language makes a world of difference compared to putting a deaf child into regular public school and having them use an interpreter all day.

  5. I got talking to a lovely young woman in Melbourne once, who was walking using a white cane. At a tram stop as we talked, she said she was longing for a guide dog one day.

    I looked her up on Google a couple of years ago, and she had got accepted to Harvard University, and had a guide dog at last. She said walking with her guide dog felt like flying.

    Until I read that I had never thought about the huge difference it would make walking with a dog instead of tapping along with a cane.

    When I last checked she was finishing her Ph.D. in literature. Wonderful!

  6. Thank you so much Sue for this review. You obviously read our book carefully despite your piles of other books waiting to be read. Thanks also to readers for your comments. I will read the review and comments out to Marie as soon as lockdown finishes.
    Yes, it was a lot of work, but it was a joyful process for both of us, as Marie delved more and more deeply into her life journey, came up with endless fascinating and often hilarious anecdotes and I worked to do justice to her spirit and to her unique voice. I had to be aware of the temptation to overlay her voice with my more educated writer’s voice and stop myself from doing so. I learned a lot from her over the years we worked on it together.
    Marie is absolutely thrilled with the book and how it has been received by her family members (dotted around the world), within the Assyrian community and in the blind community.
    We had a lovely launch that was hosted by Vision Australia. Chloe Hooper engaged us both ‘in conversation’. If you’d like to see and hear Marie and me talking with Chloe Hooper at the launch, it is available on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Y_ZtTixyaI
    It has been a privilege to work with Marie to have her story told and published.

    • Oh how lovely to hear from you Jill. I’m glad if you think I did her story justice. You can tell it has been well-honed but also that there’s been such a big and busy life there. I can imagine that writing this was both a lot of fun and a lot of hard work.

      And, a conversation with Chloe Hooper. That’s great. I will listen to it.

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