We live in an age where memoirs arrive thick and fast, and a book deal comes easiest to those in the public eye. When there’s little money in skewering yourself for general consumption unless fame has first taken its toll, it’s unlikely a memoirist ever gets back as much as they give. Towards the end of Jessica White’s Hearing Maud – in which the author bares a great deal of herself – White explains she wants readers to understand how difficult it is being deaf, still, and how hard people with disability must work.
It seems like an act of emphatic generosity, then, for White to publish the story she offers here. “All writing, all art, is an act of faith,” Truman Capote said. “… Any work of art, provided it springs from a sincere motivation to further understanding between people, is an act of faith and therefore is an act of love.” For White, who lost most of her hearing after contracting meningitis at four, this is also a demonstration of divine empathy.
On scholarship in London, White amassed a great deal of information when researching 19th- and early 20th-century Australian novelist Rosa Praed, and this led to the discovery of Rosa’s daughter, Maud, who was deaf, and who spent the latter part of her life institutionalised. As White explores and explains the problems that Maud had, she is also elucidating some of her own; there are many parallels to be drawn. She builds empathy for Maud and appreciation of the decisions Maud’s mother made on her behalf, and draws on a deep well of understanding for her own parents and their decisions in bringing her up.
A narrative is a way of wresting and then maintaining control, forging a path, and perhaps – with luck – accepting. We read, after all, to know ourselves, to find out we’re not alone, to locate our borders, so there is nothing quite like the joy of discovering a story or character akin to yours. White here is both reader and writer. She reads all the time to deal with or avoid dealing with the difficulty of talking with people and trying to communicate. She writes and she writes, exploring her belief that her deafness made her a writer. She is profoundly hardworking. When others use first-year university as an opportunity to practise extreme idleness, she spends long days at the desk.
White’s great-grandfather George White was a cousin of Patrick White’s father, and it is her great-grandmother’s name, Ivy Voss, that the novelist stored for safekeeping and used decades later in his Voss, the inaugural winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award. White’s family background is enthralling and many aspects of it sound extraordinarily sweet. Her parents met in Sydney when her mother popped to the downstairs flat to borrow a fondue set. White describes an idyllic country childhood surrounded by extended family, with cousins always nearby, the buffer of a clan. She is particularly incisive in defining the quietly devastating ways a loving, well-meaning family can nonetheless be unresponsive to a person’s different needs.
The book wrestles with two opposing concepts of deaf education and communication. The German or oral method is predicated on the belief that deaf children should learn to speak. The French system believes that deaf people should communicate using the much easier sign language. White delves into the shifting perceptions of deafness, and the Darwinian anxiety over speech as a means of showing evolution. In the past, speech has been associated with reason, and in ancient Rome deaf people were categorised alongside imbeciles. White is unflinching when she elucidates her internal conflict, which centres on her expectation that she should behave the way a hearing person would; she is disappointed when she doesn’t meet the rigorous standards she sets herself.
At the local school White was not taught to sign, and the ramifications of this hang over the narrative. She describes how it feels to stand in a group of people whose conversation she is unable to follow, and the unrelenting stress of straining to be present in a discussion. She is forced to rely on persistently unreliable technology. It is exhausting. Of course she relates to those whose rights have been set aside by the dominant power.
Hearing Maud seamlessly balances memoir with the historical account, and the two narratives are bound up in each other, equally compelling. When White quotes from Rosa’s second novel, Policy and Passion: A Novel of Australian Life (1881), “Flaming hibiscus flowers stared at the beholder in a hot, aggressive fashion”, the vibrant image is a cue to seek out the treasure in countless forgotten books. With the exception of academics and scholars, we rarely go back, but reading across time reminds us of the ways in which humans have always treated one another. When people are unkind to White, it is because they have made themselves immune to the ways in which their behaviour might hurt. It is shocking when White is mocked but each time someone delivers a hot little cruelty, the reader’s sharp surprise is matched by the writer’s tolerance.
White expresses an abiding interest in “a love that redeems all”, both in her stories and in life. Her warmth and perseverance make her an engaging narrator and it is impossible not to want the best for her. The elusive nature of romantic love here is contrasted with the abiding affection and generosity of her brother. If only Maud’s brothers had been so kind.
This is a quiet book: no grandstanding, no grandiose claims and no sweeping generalisations. White has shucked off the minor stylistic inhibitions that hampered her earlier novels, A Curious Intimacy and Entitlement, but maintained her focus on life’s small important details. She is perceptive when she describes her ability to detect harmony in writing, and the specific way in which this facilitates her style. Her observant meditations have the gravitas that only acute self-awareness can bring, and her language is consummate rhythm.
UWA Publishing, 288pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 3, 2019 as "Jessica White, Hearing Maud". Subscribe here.