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Hearing in other ways

Brisbane novelist Jessica White talks about her practice as a deaf writer…

I’ve been deaf since age four, when I lost all the hearing in my left ear and half in my right from meningitis. When I learned to read, I consumed books voraciously because it was easier than socialising, which I found stressful, tiring and alienating. When I was 16, a careers advisor observed that I needed a creative outlet to process the frustrations of deafness, and when he mentioned creative writing I knew this was what I wanted to do.

As I’ve lost one sense, my other senses have improved to compensate. This means that I’m observant of body language, scents, what people wear and sensations such as wind on my skin. Incorporating details such as these into my writing is an important way of grounding a reader in a place or situation, and it brings the work to life.

As well as adding to my writing in this way, deafness also influences the mode of fiction that I use – the fantastic – which blurs the real and unreal. I began experimenting with this approach in my short story ‘Unearthed’ published in the Review of Australian Fiction, in which the strange elements of the deaf protagonist’s life cause the reader to question whether she is actually hearing things or making them up. I continued it in my novel-in-progress The Sea Creatures using the figure of a mermaid, who is neither wholly fish nor human, to express a state of in-between-ness that I frequently experience, being neither completely hearing nor completely deaf. I also used it in another story recently published in the Review of Australian Fiction, ‘When the World Shivered’, which looks at connections between animals and characters with disability. I like this mode because it’s a way of drawing attention to the extraordinary ways in which people with disability experience the world.

In fiction, deaf characters are rare and positive portrayals of deafness are even rarer. In response to this, I’ve been writing deaf characters who are confident and resilient, and whose disability enhances, rather than detracts from their life. In terms of non-fiction, I think readers enjoy learning about deaf people because they aren’t aware that deafness is more than simply being hard-of-hearing, and that it can have huge and varied impacts on one’s life according to when one became deaf, how much hearing was lost and what kind of education one had. A deaf individual is always unique, and their stories reflect this.

I would have liked to have read stories such as these as I was growing up, and my transition to adulthood would have been easier had I known of other deaf people and how they interacted with the world. By communicating with audiences about my deafness, I hope that I can reach out to young deaf people, help them to feel less isolated, and show them that deafness is not detrimental.

I’m not writing solely for deaf audiences however, as artists with disability have the potential to expand awareness of disability by engaging wide audiences through their work. For a person with disability, everyday life is usually exhausting and it’s difficult to engage in advocacy on top of everything else. For this reason, I find it inspiring to see artists with disability continuing to create, discuss and making themselves heard. They’re contributing to the recognition that, with the right support, people with disability can make immeasurably rich contributions to our society.

Jessica White
Jessica White lost most of her hearing from meningitis at age four. Being a determined little girl, she refused to be daunted by her disability, instead making her way from a tiny school of 100 pupils to publish her first novel at age 29 and graduate with a PhD from the University of London. She is the author of A Curious Intimacy (Penguin, 2007) and Entitlement (Penguin, 2012). She is currently working on her third novel, The Sea Creatures, as well as a non-fiction book on 19th Century Queensland writer Rosa Praed and her deaf daughter Maud. Jessica is the recipient of funding from Arts Queensland and the Australia Council for the Arts, which has included a writing residency at the B.R. Whiting Studio in Rome. Jessica’s website is