Earlier this year in April, on a balmy autumnal Brisbane evening (is there any other kind?), I put on one of my Leona Edmiston frocks and caught the bus to my beloved Avid Reader bookshop in West End. This time the occasion was the launch of Donna McDonald’s memoir The Art of Being Deaf.
When I moved to Brisbane from London and found a job, my boss urged me to get in touch with Donna, with whom she’d once worked. Donna had been deaf from birth, but her lipreading skills, my boss said, were incredible. In 2010 I met Donna over coffee at the University of Queensland, where she was writing her PhD. Although I had been reading about the history of deafness and the education of deaf people for my PhD, that coffee with Donna was responsible for the intensification of my interest in how writers represented deafness, and my own identity as a deaf writer. I read a version of her exegesis and creative piece, which later found publication through Gallaudet University Press and thus was being launched at Avid.
This launch was quite different to others I’d attended, although perhaps it shouldn’t have been. There were two interpreters – one who translated the signing of Bretty Casey (Deaf Services Queensland CEO), into speech (and the translator didn’t just speak, but captured the cadences and nuances of his expression), and one who translated speech into sign language. Krissy, the events coordinater, joked that she wanted a sign language interpreter for the launch of her next erotic novel (let’s hope that comes to pass!) The work was then introduced by the ever-lovely Kris Olsson, and it was beautiful to see Donna’s friends, whom she mentions in her work, sitting in the front row.
The prologue of The Art of Being Deaf opens with the three-year old Donna removing her new hearing aid with a particularly BrisVegas flourish on the William Jolley Bridge, leaving ‘white clouds of softness falling into my ears’ (x). This gesture acts as a motif for the rest of the book, in which Donna explores and resists the efforts of others to have her conform to their vision of what a deaf person should be like. Which, in essence, is like a hearing person.
The prologue also introduces the reader to Donna’s mother, a strong-willed woman who was determined that her daughter would succeed at all costs. Rather than having Donna learn sign language (which is easier and more natural for deaf people than speech), she sent her daughter, age 3, to a school which taught her lipreading and how to speak. Five years later, Donna was transferred to a private girls’ school. She went on to a successful career in the public sector in England and Australia, worked as a freelance policy analyst, and now teaches at a university. Donna’s and her mother’s perseverance certainly paid off, but it wasn’t without cost.
Donna’s exploration of the impact of deafness upon her identity was prompted by a visit to a psychologist who stated, with a question, ‘Your hearing loss must have had a big impact on you?’ She didn’t respond to the question at the time, but as she began to think about her past, she wondered about the impact of her removal from the deaf school. Her mother, she writes, ‘had been vigilant and successful in her determination to raise me as a full-fledged hearing person’, a vigilance in ‘keeping me apart from the deaf world [that] had bordered on inflexible’ (62). Yet Donna was deaf, and a part of her history was missing. She began to get in touch with her friends from the deaf school and, her antennae now up, she also realised ‘how rarely I had met deaf characters in novels’ (63). She set about finding some more literary people by trawling the stacks at the university library.
Her reading was a depressing exercise, as she explains: ‘The publishers’ blurbs and abstracts revealed a tendency by most “expert” writers to portray deafness as a melancholy condition, or as a subject of caricature, or as a problem to be understood, overcome, or resolved … The language used in so many titles of books, essays, videos, and other documents on deafness emphasised an “otherness” experienced by deaf people that is apparently bleak, hopeless, and lonely’ (64). She switched genres, hoping for a better response from memoirists, but this was no better. Their rendition of deafness as something traumatic was completely alien to her own experiences. Eventually, she began reading novels about deaf characters, and was heartened, although the pickings were slim and the authors themselves were not always deaf. Neither Vikram Seth, (An Equal Music), Frances Itani (Deafening) and T. Coraghessan Boyle (Talk Talk) were deaf, but ‘they were able to imagine their way, with reasonable credibility, into deaf experiences’ (68).
It’s significant that Donna’s journey was conducted through literature. In a paper given at a conference, she said, ‘Stories of deafness have to travel out beyond disability and medicine into the world of novels and films. We learn about who we are as much by what we read and see about ourselves, as by what we are told and by what we experience’ (102). Until deaf people can view or read positive representations of themselves, deafness will often be considered to be a curse rather than a unique experience. The same holds for many other minorities, including Indigenous people.
Donna mentioned this finding to me during our coffee at the university, and it compelled me to begin actively writing about the positive aspects of deafness. Although at the time I told her (and she recounts this conversation in her book) that I felt as though I would be cheating if I wrote about deafness (largely because I couldn’t see how it would challenge me as a writer), I’ve since realised how important it is to tell good stories about deaf people. I’ve since published an essay on the creativity inherent in my experience of deafness, and used the ambiguity of hearing in a short story published in the Review of Australian Fiction.
The act of writing, and particularly the act of writing memoir, is a way of creating a map of one’s life, but Donna was specific about what kind of map she created. This was no narrative about ‘triumph over adversity’, for her deafness had not caused her any great adversity. Nor was it an account in which she wanted to dwell in misery (or ‘inspiration porn’, as the late Stella Young termed it). Rather, she drew her own, original map of the contours of her experiences of deafness, creating a land into which other people could travel and learn of its customs.
At the book launch, Kris handed over to another wonderful Queensland writer, Indigenous author Melissa Lucashenko. In many ways, I’ve found through my reading, the experiences of deaf people who have been forced to speak are akin to those of Indigenous or any people who are colonised, for they have been removed from their own culture and assimilated into the dominant culture, and forced to speak its language. Melissa talked about the importance of elders in Aboriginal culture for educating children and showing them a way forward. Donna, she said, had not had any such elders in her deaf community, and had needed to work things out on her own. Unfortunately by this stage I was starting to mist up, for I recognised the loneliness she was talking about, and I missed the rest of her talk because I couldn’t lipread it.
One of the important aspects of first hand accounts is that they demonstrate the diversity of the experiences of being deaf. The amount of hearing someone has, when they became deaf, and whether they were raised to speak or to sign all have an impact on how they interact with and respond to the world. This is why Donna’s memoir is so significant – it is another contribution to literature on deafness and, most importantly, it indicates that deafness is not, as David Lodge, author of Deaf Sentence, might have some believe, a death sentence. Unsurprisingly, every copy of her book sold at the launch at Avid that night.
It might seem incredible, but after some thirty years on this earth, Donna was the first deaf person with whom I had ever interacted at length. Until that coffee, I had felt myself to be an aberration, but when I met her then, and every other time we catch up, I am completely at ease in my own skin. This is one of the best books I read in 2014. I hope you pick it up over the holidays and enjoy it as much as I have. Copies can be purchased here.
Book details: McDonald, Donna. The Art of Being Deaf: a Memoir. Gallaudet University Press, 2014.
Purchased from Avid Reader.
This is my 7th review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.