Review of Hopscotch



When I was slipping this book into my bag to take to work, my boyfriend asked me, ‘What’s that one about?’

‘It’s a family drama.’

‘Why not just a drama?’

I paused, blinking. ‘I don’t know.’

As I sat on the bus and fell into my usual habit of staring out the window and thinking, I wondered if I had unconsciously taken on some kind of bias. Why should a drama always signify war zones or shoot-em-ups? Why, when it enters the (historically feminised) realm of the family should it be classified as a different type of drama?

I made a note not to use that phrase again, particularly as I’d offered to review this book for the Australian Women Writers Challenge when I got talking to Jan Zwar (who knows the author, Jane Messer) at a conference. One of the aims of the AWW Challenge is to redress the tendency to overlook writing that is written by women, or may have feminine subject matter.

The drama in Hopscotch comes not from car chases, but from the tension in the Rosen family. The Prologue finds them gathered around the table for Sam, their father’s, birthday. Already there is bickering, tentative singing, forced jollity, tears and shouting, while the opening line, ‘Hours before the spring winds crashed through, the sash windows rattled only a little’ signals the disorder to come.

The novel then backtracks to four months earlier and follows the lives of the three Rosen children, Mark, Jemma and Liza. Mired in debt as the GFC hits, Mark and his marriage begin to crack with strain. Jemma, a new resident of Redfern, finds her stereotypical assumptions of Aborigines are challenged when she becomes the victim of crime. Liza is desperate for a child, which doesn’t look like it’s going to happen with her current boyfriend.

This is a middle-class family, dealing with the everyday concerns of mortgages and relationships in Sydney. The strength of the novel lies in its detailed rendition of how the characters negotiate their daily lives, buffeted by the unpredictable forces of illness, desire, violence and financial markets. Although there was so many people in the Prologue that it took me a while to work out who was who, and I found the metaphor of Jemma pleading with her family to harmonise the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ somewhat forced, I was soon pulled into these characters’ worlds.

Each person was well-drawn and consistent, and the push-pull of their relationships was believable. Sam, edging towards death with cystic fibrosis, is apathetic with tiredness, much to his wife’s frustration. Life doesn’t stop when one becomes sick, and Rhonda, impatient, arranges for them to sell up and move. The use of focalisation (of narrating a character’s thoughts in third person), is excellent: ‘He would always be out of reach; she would never be able to repair him or love him or make him well again. She couldn’t stand him … In the kitchen, the boiling kettle whistled. She would make him tea’ (213).

Neither does life stop for Mark, who is crushed by the debris of falling markets. His paranoia, then full-blown terror, over losing his job is mesmerising. Up to his neck in debt, panicking about how to find money for his wife and potential child, he becomes deluded and resentful: ‘He was going to be sacked in the morning, Ingrid was on the lounge resting and not working to save their financial arses, and he was going to struggle to get the funds for the Dee Why deal’ (275). Ingrid is irritating, with her nose constantly in pregnancy magazines, but she rallies when disaster strikes.

While Mark’s life falls apart, the sisters’ lives knit slowly and surely into something stronger. Jemma, uptight, neurotic and recently moved out of home, is traumatised by violence but released into the delight of a new relationship. Liza, after dating a string of deadbeats, slowly becomes more secure through managing a childcare centre. I loved the administrative details of her job and her placation of fractious parents, maybe because I'm obsessed with order myself.

When the novel finished, I was disappointed that I couldn’t read anymore of the characters’ thoughts about childcare, the cloud, or the invasion of online privacy. I wanted to stay involved in their lives, and kept thinking about them for a week afterwards.

Usually, for me, this is the sign of a good book. Yet, while Hopscotch is an undeniably enjoyable read, I also found the plot frustratingly formless and I wanted more ideas to mull over. I couldn’t get much more from it that the notion that people must always deal with the stressors and unpredictability of life regardless of how well-off they are. This aside, if you’d like an engaging snapshot of middle-class relationships in Sydney’s mid-noughties, with drama aplenty to keep you turning the pages, play Hopscotch and you’ll find yourself having fun!


This is my third review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. If you'd like to subscribe to these posts and other updates, you can sign up here.


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.


Just Read Readathon


The last readathon I did was in Boggabri Primary School, when I asked my rellies to sponsor me for each book I read. They nervously nominated 5c per book, knowing how fast I read. I watched their faces as they calculated how much they’d be left out of pocket.  

That at least was a more interesting enterprise than the Multiple Sclerosis Walkathon around the school. I finished the course early, got bored, sat in the grass, then found some catheads to put in the path of stragglers. Someone dobbed me in, so I was made to stand in the circle of shame at lunchtime to be interrogated by Mrs Woodley.

Fortunately I am now an adult and can do adult readathons which don’t involve catheads or burnt grass or heat rashes. I do however, still want some cash.

This is for an initiative organised by author Jane Rawson to raise money for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. The ILF, founded by Suzy Wilson (who runs Riverbend Books in Brisbane), aims to address literacy levels in remote communities.

Many Indigenous kids, particularly in remote communities, cannot get their hands on books. Here are some stats from the Indigenous Literacy Foundation:

·      Indigenous homes, particularly those in remote communities, have fewer books, computers and other educational resources than non-Indigenous homes.

·      The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students emerges early. Non-Indigenous students far out-perform Indigenous students in benchmark tests for reading, writing and numeracy in Year 3 and Year 5.

·      By the age of 15, more than one-third of Australia’s Indigenous students ‘do not have the adequate skills and knowledge in reading literacy to meet real-life challenges and may well be disadvantaged in their lives beyond school’.

·      In the Northern Territory, only one in five children living in very remote Indigenous communities can read at the accepted minimum standard.

The Indigenous Literacy Foundation gets books for these kids and helps them learn to read.

Books have nourished me all my life, particularly when I was younger & didn’t have the social skills necessary for interacting with people. It would be wonderful if more kids had access to the vivid worlds of literature; they certainly kept me from boredom & loneliness,

The Just Read challenge is on over June & July, and I’m using it to read the swathe of unread books on my shelves, including:

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan

The Island Within, Richard Nelson

Z: a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane

Not that Kind of Girl Lena Dunham

The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert

Georgiana Molloy, Bernice Barry

As well as the 50 billion literary journals lying in piles around my flat.

If you want to throw money at me for reading (please do!), here’s my fundraising page. At least this way you can pay a flat rate, and avoid my rellies’ nervousness as their hands hovered over their purses.