by Jessica White
Everything begins with the body. With lying on a trampoline on a spring morning, the season in which wattle bursts across dun hills and chilly air tickles bare legs. Except now it scrapes my cheeks and the clear light hurts my eyes. An ache spills from my shoulders, across my neck and down my back.
My mother, sensing something is wrong, scoops me up and takes me to the local doctor in town, a half-hour drive away on gravel roads. He sends us to the regional hospital, another hour’s drive. They stick a needle in my back and confirm I have meningitis, then dose me with antibiotics. In the middle of the night I have a respiratory arrest, but I’m too stubborn to give up.
In the morning I open my eyes and the pain is gone. A few weeks later my parents discover that my hearing went with it.
The point at which a person becomes deaf has implications for their relationship to reading and writing. For a person who is deaf at birth, learning to speak is arduous. It requires concentration, patience and a good teacher. The process of connecting those spoken words with marks on a page is also hard work. It is easier for most deaf people to read and write through their hands using sign language.
I was speaking by the time I became deaf, when I was nearly four. I also had a residue of hearing left – twenty-five percent of an average person’s hearing. With a hearing aid, this was enough for me to learn to read and write. My parents, whose only other option was to send me five hundred kilometres away to a boarding school for deaf children in Sydney, enrolled me in the local public school with my brother, sister and cousins. I had extra help and speech therapy from a teacher for the deaf who travelled around the district, as well as a small walkie-talkie known as an ‘FM system’ to help me hear the teacher. Even with all this, listening was exhausting.
For a child raised in a family of extroverts, trying to keep up was difficult. They were always talking but I couldn’t follow the threads of their conversation. They sang, but I was told I couldn’t sing in tune. I missed the punch lines of jokes, but pretended to hear to avoid the hassle of having them repeated. Instead I turned away and picked up a book.
Reading was a respite for my restless mind and it transported me from my isolation. Our country town was too small for a bookstore, so Mum ordered books via a paper catalogue that was sent home with pupils, or bought them from the travelling book fair that set up in the school library once a year.
Sometimes, she would admonish me, ‘Put your book down! Go out and talk to people.’ Although she supported my reading habit, she was concerned that I would not learn how to interact and get by in a hearing world. Yet talking meant mis-hearing and mockery. It was easier to run through the bush after Lara in Thunderwith.
From reading came writing. A careers advisor recognised that, as a creative person, I needed some way of expressing my frustration from missing out on conversations. Given my obsession with literature, he suggested creative writing. No one thought to prescribe deaf friends and sign language as well.
I enrolled in a course and moved away from home. I was lonely and had no idea of how to speak to anyone. When I sat in the dining hall, conversations swirled around me and I felt as though I was drowning. While people hung out with their friends at parties or the uni bar, I sat at my desk in my narrow room in college, pouring my loneliness and sense of displacement into journals and short stories.
When I returned for the second year of my course, my teacher, John Scott, read my work. He asked, a light in his eye, ‘Have you been drinking?’
‘No! I’ve been writing.’
It takes resilience and stubbornness, a capacity to deal with isolation, when you’re a writer. I had already learned these things by the time I came to develop my craft. Rejection slips didn’t bother me; I had endured years of rejection, sitting alone at school with a book because I didn’t know how to engage people. Writing filled up the time I spent on my own, until it became an extension of myself. Piecing together plot and character and theme and language was simply the way I operated as a deaf person.
The world is a poem. I step outside, check for cars when I cross the road because I can’t hear them coming. I smell jasmine entwined around the stilts of a Queenslander, coffee brewing in the café on the corner. I notice ants trickling across the footpath, feel sunlight on my cheeks, watch it silver the river. The first time I caught the ferry I checked its destination lit up in an orange neon sign at its top. I didn’t want to expend energy by asking the ferry master.
As the ferry pulls away I touch the worn fabric of my seat. When we dock at the university, I walk along the jetty, swaying, until I reach the cement. The impact travels up my stilettoes to my calves as I stride to my office. Sight, smell and touch swell up in the place of my hearing and overflow into my work, grounding it with detail.
I teach a couple of classes with the help of my FM. Even with technology, though, I don’t catch everything.
I turn around from writing ‘fierce’ on the whiteboard to rows of puzzled faces.
‘I’ve heard the wrong thing, haven’t I? Did you say “fierce” or “peace”?’
‘This is why I’m a creative writer,’ I joke. ‘I’m good at making things up.’
I turn and rub out fierce, replacing it with peace.
In Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body, Michael Davidson moves beyond representations of the disabled body in art to examine how disability shapes aesthetics itself. Composer Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, for example, was commissioned in 1930 by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during World War One. This was one of a large collection of works for the left had written by composers such as Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Strauss, Prokofiev, and Bartok. While they were often created to ‘showcase or strengthen a hand that commonly accompanies more difficult material in the right’ (Davidson 2), a large number were also ‘commissioned by pianists who, through repetitive stress disorders, arthritis or injury, lost the use of one hand’ (2). In this sense, Ravel’s concerto ‘could be linked to the work of artists whose disability, far from limiting possibilities of design or performance, liberates and changes the terms for composition’ (4).
I sought a research-focussed academic role because writing doesn’t bring in enough cash and because, although I enjoy the buzz of teaching students, it requires vast reserves of energy to hear them. Deafness has also directed me to particular subjects: romance and desire, from my inability to speak this language when I was younger; my immersion in the natural world, from running in the bush to escape the pressures of being a deaf teenager; communicating difficult concepts such as climate change, or the science of plants, from a longstanding frustration with people who do not speak clearly or who use unnecessary jargon.
I am just one among many Australian artists and scholars whose disability informs their work. The writing and craft of Donna McDonald, Gayle Kennedy, Gillian Mears, Amanda Tink, Gaele Sobott, Honey Brown, Kate Richards, Sofya Gollan and, further back into the 19th century, Henry Lawson, have been influenced by their disabilities. Dance troupe Merry Makers, the Australian Theatre of the Deaf, Australian-born Caroline Bowditch and Dan Daw, Jana Castillo and Chris Dyke challenge and engage audiences with their performances. The visual art of Billy Benn Perrule, Tim Sharp, Nathan Taylor and Peter Drewett represent a vision that is shaped by disability.
These, and thousands more, show that our disabilities do not limit us; rather, they are reservoirs of inspiration and creativity.
In a perfect cadence, the doctor who saved my life went on to open a bookstore.
Davidson, Michael. Concerto for the Left Hand Disability and the Defamiliar Body. Ann Arbor,