It’s been a while since I posted in this beleaguered blog, as I’ve been gallivanting around the country. H & I travelled to far north Queensland so I could do research for my next novel, then we dashed to Parental Unit’s as our mum was unwell, then I had a week back in Brisbane, then flew to Sydney for the Australian Society of Authors congress. More on these excursions later. In the meantime, I wanted to pick up where I left off in my last post.
I finished up at the ASAL conference early and caught a cab through various paddocks to the Wagga Wagga airport with the lovely Lydia Weaver, who organised the conference in Wellington last year. From there I flew to Sydney and thence to Brisbane, caught a cab home, changed into my favourite frock from San Francisco and my red boots from London, and caught another cab to the convention centre, where I was to deliver a talk to attendees of the Australian and New Zealand Conference for the Education of the Deaf.
I was raised as a hearing person because we lived in a remote area, so attending the local primary school was the only option. I never learned sign language, aside from some finger spelling that my itinerant teachers taught me, so to be in a room full of people who were signing, on a balmy Brisbane evening no less (which was wonderful for thawing out after Wagga), with the lights of the wheel and the city beyond, was magical.
After the welcome to country by an Indigenous woman, there was a talk by Karen O’Reilly whose mother Carol O’Reilly was an incredibly strong deaf woman who had travelled around collecting stories by deaf Australians. She compiled two books, Deaf Australian Stories, which are available for purchase. I then gave my talk, the transcript of which is below.
It was a morning in early summer, on our property in northwest NSW. I was nearly four years old, and lay on the pale blue trampoline beneath our apricot tree. My head, neck and shoulders were awash with pain. The light chill in the breeze scraped against my skin and the sunlight, normally soft and dappled, speared through the green leaves of the tree. Everything was abnormally bright, with a photographic crispness.
My mother appeared at the side of the trampoline. ‘How are you feeling?’ she asked.
I shook her head, unable to answer.
My mother stood there for a few minutes more, unable to dispel a strong sense of disquietude. Then she went inside, changed her farm clothes for a skirt and blouse and collected her handbag. She found my shoes and scrawled a note for my father.
Back at the trampoline, she wriggled the shoes onto my feet. ‘We’re going to town,’ she told her, ‘to see the doctor.’
‘Okay,’ I said quietly.
The local doctor in Gunnedah was a family friend. When he saw me, after the half hour trip into town, his movements became quick and urgent. He suspected meningitis, and I was to go to Tamworth Base Hospital immediately.
My mother drove for another hour over poor tarmac roads. Sweat formed beneath her hands and the steering wheel became sticky. She watched me through the rear vision mirror. I had closed my eyes, but whether from tiredness or pain it was impossible for her to tell.
At the hospital in Tamworth, she watched in horror as, holding me down, the doctor drove a needle into my spine. The results confirmed it was meningitis. The doctors gave me a massive dose of antibiotics to kill the infection, and after that there was nothing for it but to wait. In the morning, my eyes opened, and the adults held their breath. I blinked: ever-combative, I had won.
A few weeks later, however, my parents realised that something wasn’t quite right, for I kept asking them to repeat things. We went back to the local doctor, and then to an audiologist in Tamworth. Hearing tests confirmed that I was severely-to-profoundly deaf, with no hearing in my left ear, and half in my right.
This is my first memory. My second memory is of sitting on the hospital bed with my father as he read me a story about Strawberry Shortcake, although I couldn’t hear him well and it was hard to follow what was happening. My third memory is of pulling a cardboard box of coloured letters from their place beneath the dresser and of pestering my mother, ‘Can I do my words?’ These three memories, strung together, can be read as a narrative for my own move towards writing. Meningitis caused my deafness and subsequent retreat into books for solace, which in turn, encouraged me to write.
From an early age, I consumed books obsessively, not just because I enjoyed reading, but because it was easier to move into other worlds than to interact within my own. My parents had decided to send me to the local primary school at Boggabri, because I was too young to be sent to boarding school in Sydney, and my father was a farmer who couldn’t leave the land. I had two itinerant teachers, Mr Tony, who was there until Year 2 (I never learnt his last name), and Mrs Tibbits, who helped with my speech therapy. I remember both these teachers strongly, and rather than feeling stigmatised by them, they made me feel special, and contributed to my self-esteem. Mrs Tibbits also recognised my skill with writing, and arranged for me to put together a magazine which involved visiting the local police station and interviewing the policeman, who showed me a crop of marijuana seedlings he had appropriated.
I was raised as a hearing person, but because I couldn’t hear much, I constantly felt inferior to my noisy, extroverted, siblings and cousins. I also didn’t really learn any social skills until my 20s. As socialising was difficult, I would pick up a book instead of making conversation. As I grew older, it was only a short step to writing my own voice. On visiting a careers adviser as I neared the end of my schooling, I was told that I needed a creative outlet to express my frustration with being deaf. I was amazed that he had sensed my isolation, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been: many Deaf people who belong to a community could express themselves with sign language, but I had no one I could talk to about being so out of place. As soon as he mentioned creative writing, I knew this was what I wanted to do.
To my surprise, I found the careers advisor was correct. I started a double degree in English and Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, and began writing in a journal, literally pouring my self and my difficulties into page after page, and all the time improving as a writer of short stories, poetry and novels. In 1999 I spent a year on exchange at the University of California, Berkeley, and a year later graduated with first class honours from Wollongong. I then won a scholarship to undertake my Masters in Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney, where I wrote my first novel, A Curious Intimacy. This was published by Penguin in 2007 and won a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist award, was short listed for the Western Australia Premier’s awards and the Dobbie award, a prize for first time women writers, and was longlisted for the international IMPAC award hosted by Dublin City Council. Just prior to this, in 2004, I was offered the Sir Arthur Sims Travelling Scholarship by the University of Melbourne to undertake my PhD at the University of London. My second novel, Entitlement, was released by Penguin in September last year, and is available for sale here tonight.
I’m convinced that these successes wouldn’t have been possible if I wasn’t deaf. As socialising was such hard work, it was simply easier to focus on my academic work. Deafness has also influenced the themes that I write about, in both my fiction and non-fiction. I often write about people who have been marginalised, such as lesbians, refugees or, as in Entitlement, with Indigenous people, for I feel that, as a person with a disability who is also articulate, both in writing and speech, I have a responsibility to speak on behalf of those who do not have a voice. My third novel, which I’m writing now, is also influenced by my position as a woman who is neither completely hearing, nor completely deaf, and I’m using the figure of a mermaid to explain what it is to be like to be situated between worlds, for a mermaid is neither human nor animal, and belongs neither to the sea nor the land.
Thus, while deafness has been for me something that is exhausting, isolating and frustrating, it has also been the source of immense creativity and success. It is also true that, without my teachers for the deaf, Mr Tony and Mrs Tibbits, I would not have received the encouragement I needed to take this path. So I’d like to thank all of you for your work, and for helping deaf children to realise their dreams.
After the talk, a lady came up to me with Mr Tony’s surname written on a piece of paper, and to my delight I recognised it. I then sold a whack of books, which was also wonderful. It was a delightful evening, and I’m so grateful to have been given the opportunity to talk to teachers for the deaf about their amazing work.