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My earliest memories of books and words are of awe and suspicion. It seemed magical that each squiggly shape represented sound. And yet, my classmates readily gave voice to each tiny mark, chanting the alphabet and charging through books with joy and understanding.
It took me years to learn how to read, and longer still to learn how to write. My memories of this particular time shift towards feelings of terror and shame. After all, I knew that I was to blame: I was deaf and dumb.
Passing as hearing became a point of pride.
For over 20 years I kept my hearing loss a secret. I learned how to hide my confusion in crowded rooms; how to subtly ask people to repeat themselves (‘That’s so interesting, tell me more’); how to read faces, scanning from eyebrows to lips, capturing the contours of each syllable.
I became good at hiding my deafness. So much so that in rare instances of honesty, people refused to believe me. They would tell me that I was too capable; too confident; too clever. Passing as hearing became a point of pride. I wanted people to believe that I was all those things, even if I didn’t believe it myself.
Despite becoming literate, and eventually a bookworm, I continued to feel skittish about writing. Each school assignment would be run through with red. I constantly mixed up tenses, swerving from the past to the present, unable to grasp suffixes. Single syllable words (a, the, an, at) somehow always eluded me.
For years I considered these mistakes to be irrefutable evidence that I shouldn’t become a writer. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I learned that these are signs of language deprivation. Signs that are common among children with hearing loss. I revisited my memories of school with the clarity of rage. Why are deaf children still denied sign language?
Not long afterwards, I began to learn Auslan and, for the first time, felt a sense of ease within a language and within my body. This shift coincided with a new-found confidence with writing. Along with it came awards, fellowships, international residences, a book deal. My grasp on grammar hadn’t changed. Rather, I had found my voice.
Deafness does not just exist in one’s ears. Deafness is a state of being. It is also, I believe with increasing conviction, a mode of writing. To me, deaf writing feels like a deaf conversation — it resists linearity, it is responsive and recursive, deeply layered, fast moving and expansive. It is formally inventive, assertive and playful. It is Cece Bell, Ilya Kaminsky, Jessica White, Sara Nović, Raymond Antrobus, Judith Wright.
I’m now proud of how my deafness seeps onto the page. It continues to do so in surprising and unexpected ways. My book editor, Penny Hueston, pointed out that my descriptions of sound always involve taste, sight or touch. I reflexively felt a sense of shame, and then blossoming delight. These weren’t mixed metaphors. They were accurate; they were gloriously deaf. My descriptions of sounds remain exactly how I experience them: warm, sweet, firm, shining, blue.
Fiona Murphy is an award-winning author, freelance writer and editor based in the Blue Mountains, NSW. Fiona Murphy’s book The Shape of Sound is published by Text.
This story appears in Openbook spring 2022.