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

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.

Jessica White in conversation with Inga Simpson

Book coverHearing Maud, author Jessica White told us in her conversation with Inga Simpson two weekends ago, was 15 years in the making. This is something I already knew, because, as the result of our involvement in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I’ve met Jess and we’ve talked about this book. However, it was excellent to hear the more detailed story – and at its conclusion rather than partway through. Jess is clearly very happy to have it finally off her hands, but it’s also clear that the book was, and is, very important to her – as you shall see.

The participants

Simpson and White

Simpson (L) and White (R), Muse, 2 Nov 2019

Jessica White has written two novels A curious intimacy, which earned her a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist gong, and Entitlement (my review). She’s been listed for various prizes, and has had essays and short stories published in Australia’s best-known literary journals, including MeanjinSoutherlyOverlandIsland and Griffith Review. She is a lecturer/researcher at the University of Queensland.

Inga Simpson, whom I’ve still to review here (but I will), has written three novels, Mr Wigg, Nest and Where the trees were, the last two of which have been listed for or won prizes. Her latest book, Understory, is a memoir about her love of Australian nature, and especially trees.

The conversation

As Simpson advised at the beginning, the conversation was not a Michael-Parkinson-like hardball interview but more a conversation between friends which, apparently, they are. As a result, it had a warm, natural feel, while still addressing some important points and issues.

Hearing Maud, which I’ve just started reading, is one of those hybrid memoir-biographies that I’ve talked about recently. However, most of those have been mother-daughter stories, the biography being about the mother and the memoir, the daughter. White’s book is different. The biographical subject is Maud, the deaf daughter of the late nineteenth-early twentieth century writer Rosa Praed (1851-1935) (whom I read before blogging). White did not know or ever meet Maud so her knowledge has come from her research, which, Simpson said, is a strength of White’s.

White began by talking about the book’s genesis. It started with her PhD research into Rosa Praed, with whom White felt a connection, given they shared a rural, bush background and a love of romance! White was drawn to Praed’s “racy romances”, she said!

However, as she researched Praed, she discovered the existence of Maud, and the more she researched the more she realised what a “terrible life” Maud had had. So, she started writing a biography about Rosa and Maud. This was rejected by a publisher, but in rejecting it he suggested that she make the book “more about deafness”. To her credit, White was not put off. Having initially felt that deafness hadn’t challenged her, she started, as she continued to research Maud’s life, to recognise more about her own life as a deaf person – and then to perceive the intersections and divergences in their two lives.

Patricia Clarke, in her biography of Praed, Rosa! Rosa!, wrote that it was fortuitous for Maud to be born at a time when they were teaching deaf to speak, but White, now understanding more about deafness, saw it differently. It was a time of Social Darwinism – when the idea was to breed out disabilities – so the pressure to conform was strong. This was often, as it was in Maud’s case, counterproductive, if not disastrous. I will write more on this when I review the book, but essentially, a number of factors, including the breakup of Maud’s family and Rosa’s non-inclusive attitudes, resulted in her having a mental breakdown at 28 years old, and being committed to an asylum. She spent the next 39 years of her life there, that is, until she died!

The conversation spent some time on White’s own experiences as a deaf person. Simpson, being a writer, was particularly interested in language, so questioned White about words she’d used in different contexts to those Simpson was familiar with, such as, “coming out” (as a deaf person), “assimilation” (of deaf people into hearing culture), “mainstream” (of people with disabilities into abled-culture), and “colonialism” (of deaf culture and language by hearing culture.) Coming out as a deaf person was a slow process for White, not so much because she was resistant to the idea but because she hadn’t realised how much deafness had impacted her. Living in the country amongst a large extended family, she’d been, essentially, sheltered from fully experiencing her deafness. She was, she said, brought up as a hearing person, and just saw herself as “a bad hearing person”. That got a rueful laugh from the audience.

However, White was conscious through her teens and early twenties of a sense of isolation and loneliness. It was not until she was in her 30s that she started think about herself as deaf, and understand its impact on her life. She recognises, though, the paradox (“the poison and the cure” that she discusses in Hearing Maud) of her deafness, because she believes it has had, for her, negatives but also positives. She would not, she says, have become a writer if she hadn’t been deaf, and turned to reading at a young age.

Signing during the conversation

The conversation was signed.

The conversation, at this point, engaged in some of the history and politics of disability (and particularly deafness, of course): on government policy regarding educating deaf children, on the politics of whether to teach signing or not, on the notion (that is embedded in the cochlear implant development) of ”fixing” people. White argued that this medical model of disability opposes the cultural model, which, for example, allows deaf people to sign, to have have deaf friends, to, in fact, be deaf. White observed that signing is strongest in poorer countries where the medical model is not so developed/can’t be afforded! White is now interested in learning to sign, and is pleased that the book has opened pathways for her into deaf communities. She clearly hopes this will result in mutual benefit to them all.

White also explained how her deafness forced her to develop the ability to intensely focus – on faces and body language, for example – to find patterns and thus meaning. This need to attend to detail makes her a good scholar, she believes, albeit also exhausts her!

Returning to more literary topics, White addressed that tricky memoir issue regarding their potential to hurt others. White said that although she says some tough things, this was not an issue in her clearly close family, whom, she described, as over-sharers! Nonetheless, she did pare back some difficult things in her parents’ lives. She also said that the self in the book is her authentic self.

As for what’s next, White has other things planned – as indeed I know she does because, from my meetings with her, I know she has a mile-a-minute mind! One project is an ecobiography about the pioneering Western Australian botanist, Georgiana Molloy, in which she wants to show the importance of biodiversity. She defined ecobiography, as being about how ecology shapes who we are. I’m intrigued by the various ways the biography form is being explored, expanded, teased out in contemporary literature, so I look forward to White’s ecobiography take.

Q & A

There was a short Q&A, which I won’t share in full, but I did ask White why she’d decided to combine memoir and biography. She said that she wanted to tell Maud’s story, but that hers created a foil or mirror for that story, and in doing so, it enriched both stories.

Another questioner, commenting on deaf people having to conform to the speaking world, asked what the speaking world could do to make life easier for deaf people. White said that many people don’t understand the feeling of powerlessness that disability can bring. She hopes the book will help people see that there are different ways of being.

Jessica White in conversation with Inga Simpson
Muse (Food Wine Books)
Saturday 2 November, 4.30-5.30pm