Brisbane author and University of Queensland academic, Dr Jessica White, has been challenging perceptions of what it’s like to live with deafness through her memoir, Hearing Maud: A Journey for a Voice.
The book is a non-fiction work that intertwines the story of 19th century woman Maud Praed’s experience with deafness and Dr White’s own experiences with deafness.
Hearing Maud, which is Dr White’s third book, was published in July and has since been the subject of author talks at various Brisbane City Council libraries.
After researching Maud’s mother, Australian novelist Rosa Praed, for her PhD at the University of London, Dr White decided she would focus an entire book on Rosa’s daughter instead, a deaf woman named Maud Praed, who resonated with Dr White and her own experiences with disability.
Maud Praed was profoundly deaf and was made to conform to the hearing world as she grew older, before being sent to a mental asylum in the United Kingdom.
“I was trying to get the book on Rosa Praed published, but it was too academic, then I tried to write it as creative non-fiction, but it was still really boring,” Dr White said.
“And then I started thinking, the most interesting part of this is [Maud’s] deafness,” she said.
“When I put myself in the text it came to life.”
“But then even doing that it still took, I think I did 20 drafts to try and get that balance between voice, memoir and history right,” Dr White said.
Director of the University of Western Australia Publishing, Professor Terri-Ann White, said even before she read the book, she was already fascinated by the concept.
“She [Jessica] is a words person, a literary scholar and novelist, and so we see how her life is shaped, not only through a disability, but also through the vocation she has adopted and works at very robustly,” Professor Terri-Ann White said.
Jessica White said writing Hearing Maud gave her an opportunity to educate people about the reality of deafness.
“I don’t think they really get it, which is why I wrote the book to explain to them,” she said.
“I have friends that I’ve had since school and they don’t understand that it’s difficult.”
“Even my family didn’t know how difficult it was until they read the book, because I never really told anyone anything,” Dr White said.
“I’d find I’d say to people ‘I’m deaf’ and they would forget two minutes later because my speech is so good,” she said.
Dr White said she was raised “as a hearing person” in remote Northern NSW.
When she was four, bacterial meningitis resulted in her losing 75 per cent of her hearing.
Dr White said she was already able to speak before the infection took her hearing, and she was also taught to lip read.
“So, I don’t really have an obvious impediment, though it’s pretty bad when I get drunk.”
She laughed, but there are serious challenges in having an invisible disability.
Dr White said high school was especially hard for her, as she explained that most social skills were gained through over-hearing the conversations of others, and she was never able to over-hear.
Dr White’s family chose to send her to a mainstream school in her hometown with her siblings and cousins, where they didn’t know anybody else with deafness, instead of sending her to a boarding school for deaf children in Sydney.
Because of this Dr White said she didn’t meet her first deaf friend until into her 30s, despite travelling to Wollongong, Sydney and London for her tertiary studies.
She said it was after this, and after writing Hearing Maud, that she found her identity in her disability.
“There is medical deaf, which is the way doctors perceive deaf people, and then there’s culturally deaf people, which is capital D, and they are people who sign and have a very strong sense of being a part of a community, and having a deaf identity,” Dr White said.
“And that’s what I have now, not part of the community, but having a deaf identity,” she said.
Although circumstances are better now for the deaf community, Dr White said the world Maud grew up in wasn’t entirely different from her own experiences.
“There’s still a terrible pressure to make deaf people conform to the hearing world,” she said.
“In some ways things are really different, and in other ways being deaf is still the same.”
Now that Hearing Maud is published, Dr White said she had her energy focused on another work of non-fiction, about Western Australia’s first botanist, Georgiana Molloy.
She said she had always had an appreciation and affinity for the land, having grown up on a remote property.
“I needed to write that book [Hearing Maud], but I’m actually driven by environmental things,” she said.
“I don’t think there’s a point in writing or being an academic if you’re not doing something about the environment,” she said.
“It frustrates me that people have all their hearing and they’re not listening.”