2017: My Year of Writing

Even workaholics need to have fallow years if they are to continue functioning well. 2017 was such a year for me, as I needed to pull back after nearly killing myself in 2016 (when I hadn’t even properly recovered from 2015). I finally finished my memoir while I was on hols in Croatia, and while I might still have to do one more draft, it’s been a huge load off my shoulders. I was still unwell for most of the year, but the colds & flu weren’t as intense. And now, after a few weeks off over Xmas, I’m full of beans again. Long may it last! Below is a list of my literary doings over the past year.

 Cockies on the Gold Coast

Cockies on the Gold Coast

Publications

I had more academic work than creative pieces published this year, which makes sense as all my time is taken up by being an academic. If I do write fiction, it’s on the weekends, or bashed out the night before my writing group’s deadline.

At the beginning of the year, my essay on the craft of Georgiana Molloy’s writing was published in Claiming Space: Australian Women’s Writing. I started writing this essay in Rome at the end of 2014! This was followed in October by an essay on eco-memoir in Mediating Memory: Tracing the Limits of Memoir, in which I compared Kim Scott and Hazel Brown’s Kayang and Me with Tim Winton’s Island Home.

Just before Christmas, the Journal for the Association of Australian Studies published my essay on John Molloy’s (Georgiana’s husband) involvement in a massacre against Wardandi Noongars, and the subsequent papering over of this in later accounts. Writing this paper was hard work: it took hours to piece together a timeline of what had happened, as well as the debate over the events that resurfaced in later histories, and to attend to the language that was used in covering up what had happened. I was glad when it was finished.

In each of these volumes or issues, my work sat alongside that of other wonderful scholars, and I am really grateful to the editors for publishing my work.

In August I was Southerly journal’s monthly blogger, publishing four posts (one each week) about writing, deafness and environment. You can read them all via the links on this page. In October my eight-word story was featured on a billboard courtesy of the Queensland Writers Centre. That was pretty exciting!

I was pretty dismayed, once I got to the end of the year, to realise I hadn’t published any creative work (aside from said billboard), but then I remembered I’d finished my memoir. Fingers crossed that it gets somewhere this year.

 UQ Ferry

UQ Ferry

Awards/Funding

I was longlisted for the Elizabeth Jolley Prize again, this time for ‘Depths Exceeded’, which is a small part of my mermaid book. I’m still trying to find a home for it; I’ll get there eventually.

I continued with my study on vernacular criticism, for which I received funding at the end of last year, and will have this written up by March. It turned out to be a much bigger project than I anticipated and is eating up a bit of time. While it’s something that engages me intellectually, it isn’t a topic I’m downright passionate about, which is problematic. I remember one of my supervisors telling me that when you choose a PhD topic, it has to be something you’re obsessed with if your interest is going to carry you over three years. The same holds, it seems, for any kind of project. Still, it’s a good short-term study, and I’m finding I’m applying some of the research methods I learnt as a research assistant at Autism Queensland, which is a boon.

 Gum blossoms!

Gum blossoms!

Teaching

In the second half of the year, I was course convener for Women Writers, the subject I tutored in last year. This was a very steep learning curve – a little hairy at times – but it was ultimately very rewarding. The books I set were: Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Joyce Carol Oate’s Foxfire, Monique Wittig’s The Lesbian Body, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Gillian Mear’s Foal’s Bread, Octavia Butler’s Fledgling and Helen Oyeymi’s White is for Witching. The students responded well to all these books except for The Golden Notebook (and some were a bit mystified by The Lesbian Body). Although The Golden Notebook was revolutionary when it came out, it held little meaning for them now. I wonder how or why that matters; Jane Eyre is poles apart from the experience of women in the 21st century but readers are still enraptured by it. Perhaps it was the form of the novel, which made it hard to digest, whereas Jane Eyre is a fairly conventional romance. Aside from this it was really heartening when students told me they enjoyed the books because they were works they wouldn’t usually encounter.

I tutored a class alongside the lectures, and as with last year I loved my students – they were confident, intelligent and outspoken. But by the end of the year I was in my usual haze of fatigue because of the toll of straining to listen and to lecture (every lecture is a performance). I think most people are knackered by the end of the year anyway, and the holidays straightened me out.

As well as the lectures for Women Writers, I also delivered one on Position Doubtful for the third-year Australian studies course. This year I’ll be lecturing on James Bradley’s Clade and Tim Winton’s Island Home for this same course, but I won’t be doing any other teaching as I need to devote myself to finishing my ecobiography.

 Flowers at Kew Gardens

Flowers at Kew Gardens

Conferences and Supervision

In February I presented on Liptrot’s The Outrun at a conference on excess and desire at The University of Queensland. In London in June, I presented on a digital example of ecobiography, Queensland artist Pat Hoffie’s ground trothing. In retrospect this was not a great example of ecobiography but I was trying to align it with the conference’s focus on digital life writing narratives. Still, I enjoyed being back in London, thought the conference was absolutely fantastic, and met some great Aussie writers and academics, including Ellena Savage and Nicole Matthews, who presented a very memorable paper on hearing air reviews.

From England I flew to Croatia and presented at the European Society for Environmental History conference in Zagreb (preceded by a field trip to Kornati National Park near Zadar). This was the first history conference I had ever been to. I presented a similar paper to that which I’d delivered in Perth the year before, on ecotones, but my paper, I found after some rather harrowing comments from the audience, was not up to scratch (no one likes getting criticism, but having to receive it in a public forum is way worse). Once I recovered from that experience and was able to examine the comments with equanimity, I realised they were constructive. I’m intending to present at the environmental history conference in Canberra this year and to do a better job.

As soon as I arrived back in Brisbane I turned around and went down to the Gold Coast to present on Molloy and ecobiography at a conference on Literary Environments. This was not a very smart move as I was shattered from jetlag, but I couldn’t bear to miss it because Ursuala Heise gave a keynote and a workshop, both of which were amazing.

I capped off the year with a paper on Georgiana Molloy’s participation in botanical connoisseurship – the rage for exotics collected by Europeans and grown in their gardens – for a conference on the Nature and Spaces of Enlightenment. I really enjoyed this conference as well but I was completely wrung out from the year, so I couldn’t make it to all the sessions.

Throughout the year I also took on the supervision of four creative writing students, three doing MPhils and one a PhD. I found this unexpectedly rewarding, as I could chat to them about their ideas and help them with their critical essays. I also supervised a wonderful third-year student who wrote a brilliant essay on young adult novels and their representation of deafness. Aside from my research, supervision is one of the satisfying parts of my job.

 Kornati National Park, Croatia

Kornati National Park, Croatia

Research

I used my funding to fly to the UK and comb through the archives relating to Mangles and his contemporaries. This was a great trip but it was jam-packed and involved zig-zagging up the country from south to north. I like travelling and the distances didn’t faze me, but I could have done with a more leisurely pace. My next big task over this month and next is to collate and transcribe everything so that I’m ready to write in March, as well as writing up the rest of my trip (it's happening, but v.e.r.y s.l.o.w.l.y).

 V cool plants in the UNESCO Stari Grad Plains, Croatia

V cool plants in the UNESCO Stari Grad Plains, Croatia

The Australian Women Writers Challenge

I put the ball for AWW on the shelf last year as I had too much going on, but managed to co-ordinate guest posts from lesbian/queer authors (Kelly Gardiner; Eden S. French; Jess Davidson; and my own thoughts on the themes that have appeared in guest posts by lesbian/queer women writers), and authors with disability (Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, editors of Defying Doomsday; and Anna Spargo-Ryan). This year I’m picking up the baton from Marisa Wikramanayake and am going back to bi-monthly roundups, as well as the usual guest posts. This year, the theme for NAIDOC is ‘Because of her, we can!’ so I really want to feature more posts from Indigenous women writers.

 BrisVegas rainforest

BrisVegas rainforest

The Year Ahead

I have tried not to take on too much this year as I need to focus on finishing my ecobiography, but already there are quite a few pots on the stove. Aside from the two lectures which I need to write and present, and my vernacular criticism study to complete and write up, I’m co-ordinating, with Clare-Archer Lean from the University of the Sunshine Coast, two panels on the interface between science and literature at the annual literature conference in Canberra in July, as well as subsequent publication of these papers in the Australian Humanities Review. I'm also giving a workshop on Writing Animals and Their Worlds for the Queensland Writers Centre on Saturday 28th April.

On top of this I need to prepare a fellowship application for gainful employment next year, as my contract ends in January 2019. I think I had pretty much better say ‘no’ to anything else that comes into my inbox this year.

Health-wise I am determined to start running again, with the aim of doing a half-marathon in August, and of getting out of the city into bush more often. Exercise and the environment will help ameliorate my stress. I’m also casting about for some kind of hobby, instead of working all through the weekend. I think dancing, drawing and going to the movies are back on the cards. Well, time to dive into 2018!

 Everything is going to be ok if there are peonies in the world.

Everything is going to be ok if there are peonies in the world.

On Gratefulness

 

October is far and above my favourite month. The jacarandas are ablaze, lining the streets and cliffs in purple fires. The star jasmine is flowering too, staining the evening air as I walk to my boyfriend’s after French classes. There’s the joy of pulling on a summer frock and feeling it ripple against my bare calves, and of wrapping myself in a cashmere cardigan on still-chilly mornings.

And now there’s one more reason: after five years of unremitting hard work, of research in Australia and overseas, of writing and publishing, travelling to and presenting at conferences, and making applications (9 of them to 7 institutions in that time), I finally won a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award, one of 200 offered to scholars across Australia who have finished their PhD within the last five years. I’ll be based at the University of Queensland and I’ll be writing an ecobiography on 19th century botanist Georgiana Molloy. A biography is a work about a person, but an ecobiography is about a person and their environment – you can’t narrate the life of one without considering the other.

The relief that comes from the promise of financial stability is unparalleled. For five years I’ve survived on a part-time wage, supplemented with Australia Council grants and assistance from my parents. I’ve written one book and the drafts for two more (and a third will be done by Xmas), and I’ve worked so hard that I’ve relapsed repeatedly and tediously into illness.

‘Listen to your body,’ the psychologist said to me two years ago when I dipped down into depression. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t always heeded her advice, but I am at least aware of driving myself to exhaustion. The problem is that there's too much to write and too little time. The problem is also deafness – the concentration fatigue that comes from everyday interactions.

My deafness was responsible for pushing me into writing and research – it was a job that didn’t require too much listening, but which satisfied me immensely. I tried to be a fiction writer when I returned to Australia, but I missed the stimulation and the crisp exchange of ideas that comes with academia, and knew I had to find a way back into it. However, deafness and the strain of listening left me too depleted after teaching to be able to write, and so I resolved to find a postdoc. It’s been an arduous process, but the set backs that come with being a writer prepared me for that. A knock down is irrelevant - you just keep on going. I’m hoping that now, with a new role, I’ll have a better work-life balance.

I’ve just finished importing all of the blog posts I’ve ever written into my new(ish) website. I started them in 2006, when blogging was taking off in the UK. I was appalled, as I tidied them up, at how negative I was in London; so ground down by homesickness & the lack of light that I couldn’t appreciate what was before me.

The process of making oneself happy is one of deduction, and I know now that I can never be away from Australia for long, but it also takes resolve. A friend of mine, whom I took from her calm demeanour to be a naturally buoyant person, once corrected me, ‘No, I make a conscious effort every day to be positive.’ I wish I had known that while I was overseas, but perhaps we never understand how unhappy we are until we have climbed out of it.

There is so much to be grateful for: the scholars at the university who helped me pull my application into shape; Queensland’s abundant, glorious sunshine; my family, who have supported and protected me but still allowed me forge my stubborn, difficult way ahead; my smart and funny boyfriend, with whom I am never bored; and the smell of jasmine that wends through the window on these still, spring nights.

 

Submission to Inquiry into Arts Budget Cuts

 

 

RE: Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts

Dear Madam/Sir,

My name is Jessica White and I’m a writer and researcher based in Brisbane. As of next year, I will have been writing for twenty years. My first novel, A Curious Intimacy, was published by Penguin in 2007 and won a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist award, was shortlisted for the Dobbie award for debut women writers and the Western Australia Premier’s awards, and longlisted for the international IMPAC award. My second novel, Entitlement, appeared in 2012, also published by Penguin. My short fiction has been published in a range of literary journals, including Southerly, Island, Overland and the Review of Australian Fiction. I was recently shortlisted for the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize which attracted nearly 4000 entries from around the world.

I am also a researcher and non-fiction writer. My PhD at Birkbeck College, University of London, was funded by a scholarship from the University of Melbourne. I have been shortlisted for the Calibre essay prize and Peter Blazey Prize for life writing, and my essays have been published in Griffith Review, Southerly, Island and Cordite as well as national and international academic journals.

I have been deaf since I was four, when I lost most of my hearing to meningitis. My disability was responsible for my decision to become a writer and it has also strongly influenced my subject matter and style. I am passionate about giving space to voices which have been overlooked, including those of people with disability.

In 2013 I was the recipient of my first ever grant, $5000 from Arts Queensland, to further my research on 19th century Queensland novelist Rosa Praed. In the course of that research, I located new archival material in England relating to her daughter Maud, who was deaf. This included a 17 page letter Maud wrote to her doctor and, given the history of the suppression of the voices of the deaf, this find was of immense significance. My research on Maud has been woven into a memoir which will help general audiences understand the history and impact of deafness, which is surprisingly little known.

This grant gave me much-needed recognition, particularly in Queensland where I was a relative newcomer. In 2014 I received my first grant from the Australia Council for the Arts ($9,820) from their Artists with Disability programme to write a novel, The Sea Creatures, which is almost completed. In June 2015, I was fortunate to receive a New Work grant from the Australia Council ($15,750) to write a young adult novel, When the World Shivered. Both of these books are about disability, and once they are published I will take them into schools and use them to prompt discussions about disability, and to show that the lives of people with disability are of worth. I am not using these grants to write esoteric pieces of art, but to help knit together our social fabric.

I have been applying to the Australia Coucil for funding since 2008 and these grants were from my 11th and 13th applications respectively. Although they are not large grants, their impact on my life cannot be understated. They have given me the time to write and mean that I do not have to take on additional teaching work to survive (something that, because of my disability, makes me too exhausted to write). They have given me financial stability, which means that I can think about having a family before it’s too late (something I’ve put off because the life of an artist, let alone one with a disability, is precarious at the best of times). They have also allowed me to become financially independent of my parents, who supported me repeatedly while I found my feet as a writer and learned to manage with a disability.

My tenacity in applying for these funds came from desperation: without that money, I would not have been able to write. I have heard many artists say that they have been put off by the competitiveness of the Australia Council’s application process for funding, and I don’t blame them; it is no easy thing to be rejected year after year. Yet I often wonder about these people, and the books they would have written or the art they would have created. How much more culturally enriched would Australia be if the Australia Council had the money to fund these artists?

You can see, then, that George Brandis’s cut of $104.8 million from the already-tight budget of the Australia Council will have huge ramifications, not least by limiting the voices of emerging writers and those with disability. The arts in Australia are in threat of becoming homogenised.

In addition, the new funding mechanism, the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), does not have the same arms-length peer review process as the Australia Council and decisions will be up to the Minister. These undemocratic overtones are alarming, but not unsurprising from a government whose language ever more closely resembles the doublespeak of George Orwell’s dystopian novel about totalitarianism, 1984. In 2014, for example, there was a budget crisis, but in 2015 the Arts Minister thinks it fit to waste money but duplicating administrative processes through the NPEA.

In 2012, Anna Funder won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for All That I Am, a novel about the insidious creep of Nazism in the 1930s. In her acceptance speech, she criticised the then Queensland Premier Campbell Newman who had just binned the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards (one of his first acts of parliament). ‘I have spent my professional life studying totalitarian regimes and the brave people who speak out against them,’ Funder said, ‘And the first thing that someone with dictatorial inclinations does is to silence the writers and the journalists.’ It is telling that there is no mention of literature or writing in the NPEA guidelines.

I have been deaf for as long as I can remember and I know what silence and silencing can mean. Artists reflect the culture that is around them. A government that hobbles the creativity of artists by cutting off funding is a government that does not want to listen to what is said of the society it moulds.

After World War Two, my relative Patrick White returned to Australia from England. In 1958 he published an essay, ‘The Prodigal Son’, in which he wrote of his experiences of returning. He commented, ‘In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions.’ Given the attenuation of the Australia Council through budget cuts, and the meagre amounts offered to artists in general, we are at risk of returning to the culture of which Patrick White wrote. Furthermore, what chance does Australia have of finding a new Nobel Prize for Literature winner when the NPEA guidelines make no mention of literature or writing? How will we find the emerging voices of Indigenous people, migrants, people with disability, or queer/gay writers when many of these minorities, as you can see from my own experience, are just struggling to get by, let alone make their art? Is the voice of Australia to become one that, as Patrick White was panicked to find, merely exalts the ‘average’?

As an emerging author with a disability, the Australia Council has irrevocably changed my life. It distresses me deeply that so many other artists may not have the funding they need to practice their craft or acquire recognition. I urge you to reverse the cuts to the Australia Council – it is so little money, and yet to Australia’s artists and Australian culture, its worth is inestimable.

 

 

On Exhaustion

 

People never ask me what it's like to be deaf, or what I find hard about it. As I lost most of my hearing when I was four and had some speech therapy, my speech is fine, and people don't realise I have a disability until I tell them. Even then, they don't realise how bad it is, because I seem to listen so well. And because I am polite, and hate people making a fuss, I rarely remind them to speak clearly.

It's not the isolation that's difficult – I’ve found ways around that through writing, reading and a small circle of close friends, though it took me a good twenty years to learn the social skills I needed to make friends, and those twenty years were excruciating. Nor is it the inconsideration of people who assume that you’re rude or simple because you haven’t heard them; I accept that I don’t have a visible disability and that, for the most part, people aren’t deliberately unkind. Nor is it the cultural apartheid of cinemas and performance venues that don’t care enough about their deaf patrons to ensure working loop systems, or even to install such systems at all, such as the Cineplex cinemas in Brisbane. On asking the manager at Hawthorne why they didn’t have a hearing system, I was told that the movies they showed were blockbusters, which were so loud that deaf people can hear them. I would have laughed if I wasn’t so angry; it’s quality of sound, not loudness, that makes the difference. Meanwhile, the headphones at Palace Centro are patched up with duct tape, and those at Palace Barracks were broken for months. When I complained about the latter and pointed out that it was discriminatory, I was told that I was being ridiculous. I never went back. I have taken my money elsewhere and I watch films at home, or only go to screenings with subtitles, or watch dance performances that don’t require listening to words.

These are irritations and, like cuts and scratches, they always heal and fade. But the one thing I can never get over is the perpetual exhaustion. I have 25% of an average person’s hearing, and I rely on this bit of hearing and lipreading to get by. I can’t hear with loud background noise, nor in a group larger than three, and even then that’s hard. And as I’ve lost one sense, I’m constantly alert to compensate for it – to check someone’s face in case they’re speaking to me, to strain to hear the words in a sentence and match them with body language, to read lips and put the words into context, to work out how to get some information at a train or bus station when I can’t hear the overhead speakers. The energy necessary to maintain this level of vigilance is enormous.

These past few months I’ve been teaching creative writing one day a week at the University of Queensland. The classes were small enough for me to hear without passing round the transmitter of my FM system (which is like a small walkie talkie for deaf people), though I asked students to use it when they were reading because their heads dipped down to their papers and I couldn’t read their lips. I had to be completely alert so that I could hear their contributions and respond to them. It made the discussions a bit stilted as I could only hear one person talking at a time, but I figured they were adult enough to deal with that.

I loved my students. They tried hard, they listened to the lectures and my tutorials, and they improved in a very short time. Teaching creative writing also helped me to remember my own knowledge about writing, and to refocus on the nuts and bolts of my craft. However, I was so tired by the semester’s end, and so frustrated that I hadn’t had any energy to write, that I resolved to stick to my other, two-days-a-week admin job and write, even if that meant living on baked beans for six months.

Then I was insanely lucky enough to get funding from the Australia Council to work on my young adult novel, When the World Shivered, and the future isn’t looking quite so grim - a huge and unutterable relief. I've only had a handful of days off since February, and this means that I can have evenings and weekends off.

This novel will be based on my short story of the same name, which was published in the Review of Australian Fiction. The novel about the relationships between children with disabilities and their animals. I started thinking about it when I went to the Artists with Disabilities conference in Sydney last year, and watched people with their carers. The carers were people who wanted to be there and who were paid for it, but what would happen, I wondered, if a person with a disability was matched with someone who wasn’t temperamentally suited to caring? I was lucky as I grew up because my brother has a generous disposition and likes an audience, so he was happy to relay information to me that I missed (albeit often elaborated upon; the Whites are nothing if not performers). But what if I hadn’t had that kind of sibling, if my sibling was someone who just wanted to be left alone and not have to look after someone else?

I started thinking about companion animals, and dogs, and how we have domesticated them, which can also be seen as a way of keeping them close to us without their will. Do dogs really want to be dependent on us? Do horses want to carry people around? These are the kinds of ideas I’ll be exploring in the novel. I’ll also be reading books about animals and humans (if you have any recommendations, leave them in the box below!), and I’m about to write a post on Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk. With luck, given my tortured schedule, I should have it up later this week.

I’ve also finally got back on the bandwagon with my author newsletters. If you’d like to be on the mailing list for these, you can sign up here.