MY COUNTRY CHILDHOOD
AUTHOR JESSICA WHITE LOST HER HEARING AS A CHILD, BUT HER RURAL UPBRINGING TAUGHT HER RESILIENCE IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY.
Author Jessica White shares how her rural upbringing taught her resilience in the face of adversity.
DR JESSICA WHITE is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. The 41-year-old is a fiction and non-fiction writer. Jessica grew up on a 2500-hectare mixed farming property near Boggabri in north-west NSW where she lived with father James, mother Anne, older sister Rebecca and younger brother Hadley. Her aunt, uncle and cousins, as well as her grandparents, also lived on the farm.
ONE AFTERNOON WHEN I was four, I became very ill with something like the flu. Mum’s sixth sense told her it was worse than this, and she bundled me into the car. She drove from our property near Boggabri to our family doctor in Gunnedah. He told Mum to go to Tamworth Base Hospital immediately. After a lumbar puncture, I was diagnosed with meningitis. That night I had a respiratory arrest, but I pulled through and recovered. A few weeks after I was discharged, though, my parents realised something wasn’t right, as I didn’t catch everything they said to me. They took me to a specialist in Sydney, who discovered I had lost all of the hearing in my left ear and half in my right.
On the farm, we were a long way from services, and this shaped the decisions my parents made about my education. One option was to send me to boarding school for deaf children in Sydney, but this was a six-hour drive away and I was too young to board. Dad also couldn’t uproot us from the farm to move to the city. Instead, I attended the public school in Boggabri, which had just 100 kids from kindergarten to Year Six. As I was speaking by the time I lost my hearing, I was able to learn to read and write without too much difficulty. For most deaf people, it’s much easier to learn to sign. I would have benefitted from sign language, but this didn’t become apparent to me until I was an adult.
My brother, sister and I grew up on the farm with six cousins. My brother and I roamed the creeks and paddocks, rode our bikes on the roads, or visited our cousins to swim in their pool or pat their horses. Sometimes we’d ride with Dad in the header as he harvested, or muck around at the machinery shed. Mum tended a huge flower and vegie garden, as well as fruit trees, so we always played outside when she was gardening. In summer, we spent long days in the pool and ate grapes from the vine.
Deafness made me shy because I could never get the knack of talking to people outside my extended family. At school, I used a piece of technology called an FM system, which is like a small walkie-talkie. A teacher for the deaf visited me once a week. My voice used to be flat, and my teacher taught me to put modulation into it. As listening and communicating were difficult, I retreated into books. Stories assuaged the loneliness and boredom
I often felt, and passed the long car trips between home and the audiologists, school and music lessons. From reading I turned to writing as a way of expressing my frustration with being deaf in a hearing world. However, I wouldn’t have taken my love of writing any further were it not for my father.
Dad farmed with his brothers during the day and painted watercolours at night. He won the Currabubula Art Prize in 1964, just as he left school, and more recently in 2019! When I was 15, he moved us to Armidale to take up a position as an art teacher at The Armidale School. My parents bought and began renovating a rambling building that had been built in 1874 and extended as the owner’s family grew. The last extension was made around 1885. Over a century, the house fell into disrepair, eventually being converted into four flats. Despite its dilapidated state, my parents fell in love with its bay windows, high ceilings and French doors. I became a day girl at the New England Girls School. I studied hard, excelling at English, while my teachers and the librarian encouraged my writing. In 1996, I began a degree in English literature and creative writing at the University of Wollongong. It was here, thinking about how Dad persisted with his art, that I realised I could become a writer if I continued to work hard.
When I graduated from the University of Wollongong, I enrolled in a Master of Arts in Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney. From there I moved to London to do >
“...I also recognised how deafness and country living taught me important lessons: resilience, self-reliance, and a love for nature.”
my PHD. My first novel, A Curious Intimacy, was published in 2007, and my second novel, Entitlement, in 2012. I have recently published my third book, Hearing Maud, a hybrid memoir which uncovers the life of Maud Praed, the deaf daughter of 19th-century Queensland-born novelist Rosa Praed. In researching Maud’s story, I realised how isolated I had been as a young deaf person because we were so far from urban areas where I might have met other deaf children, or deaf role models. Yet I also recognised how deafness and country living taught me important lessons: resilience, self-reliance, and a love for nature.
Over the years, I have returned repeatedly to my parents’ house in Armidale to write. The quietness of the town and of Mum’s garden has been a restorative when my busy life as an academic, as well as the unrelenting demands of deafness, wear me down. I often sit in the front room with its library of books lining the shelves, writing, as Dad sits down the back, painting in his studio. Our lives in Boggabri have become the rootstock of our work. Dad’s subjects include scenes from the saleyards, chooks and eggs in wire baskets, the ochres of the outback, and images from the beach, to which we escaped after the harvest was finished. I write about rural communities and life in country towns, focusing particularly upon the experiences of women.
From Dad I learnt to love the stillness of the bush in the evening and the subdued colours of a sunset after a hot summer’s day. I am now a committed environmentalist, and my next books are about the preciousness of Australia’s unique environment and how critical it is that we care for it.
As I describe in Hearing Maud, had I not become deaf, I would never have become a writer. Additionally, had I not experienced that amazing childhood in the country, I would also not be writing the kinds of books that I am now. Growing up so close to nature was a gift, one that we should ensure is passed on to future generations.
For more information, visit jessicawhite.com.au
The following is an extract from Jessica’s latest creative non-fiction book, Hearing Maud, a hybrid memoir, which intertwines her experience of growing up deaf with that of deaf 19th-century novelist Rosa Praed.
ON A MORNING IN early summer, I lay on a pale-blue trampoline beneath the apricot tree. Its branches, which scraped against my bedroom window in storms, arched over me. The tree was planted by workmen who had lived in our weatherboard cottage before my parents moved in, but it never bore fruit. My mother appeared at the side of the trampoline. ‘How are you feeling?’ she asked.
I shook my head, unable to answer. I was nearly four years old. My head, neck and shoulders were awash with an ache. A light breeze scraped my skin like a blade, while the sunlight, normally soft and dappled, speared through the leaves above.
My mother sensed there was something wrong, she would tell me in later years, something worse than the flu. She thought for a few minutes, then went inside and changed her farm clothes for a skirt and blouse. She collected her handbag, found my shoes and scrawled a note for my father.
Back at the trampoline, she wriggled the shoes onto my feet. ‘We’re going to town to see the doctor.’
‘Okay.’ It was hard to speak.
Mum collected my brother and sister, Oliver and Bella, and dropped them at my grandmother’s house a few kilometres away. We then drove over rough gravel roads for 40 minutes until we reached Gunnedah. When the local doctor saw me, his movements became quick and urgent: I was to go to Tamworth Base Hospital immediately. Mum drove for another hour. Sweat formed beneath her hands, making the steering wheel sticky.
At the hospital she watched in horror as she held me down while I screamed and the doctor drove a needle into my
spine. Results confirmed it was meningitis and I was given a massive dose of antibiotics to kill the infection on the lining of my brain. After that there was nothing to do but wait.
A few hours later my father arrived. My godparents, who lived on a property on the way to Tamworth, rushed in. They sat by the bedside in the darkness while I had a respiratory arrest and stopped breathing. A minister appeared, praying silently with my godparents, who were devout Christians. My atheist parents, having lost a child five years before, held hands against the death of this one.
In the morning, my eyes opened. The adults held their breath. I blinked: ever combative, I had won.
I was in hospital for a month. My bed was adjacent to a sliding glass door that led to a small, fenced courtyard. If kids wet their beds, nurses slung the sheets over the fence to dry. Sometimes they were mine and the nurses chided me for it.
My father often sat beside me, reading a Strawberry Shortcake book. I twisted the plastic identification bracelet on my wrist, unable to follow what was happening because his voice was a low burble. I liked the pictures, though.
Finally, I was allowed to go home. I tucked my stuffed toys, Mr Tickle and Mr Chatterbox, into the car seat beside me.
Within a few weeks, my parents realised something wasn’t right. ‘She keeps asking me what I’m saying,’ my mother said. ‘This morning I yelled at her down the verandah to clean her teeth and she just looked at me.’
I leaned against the doorway in the kitchen, watching them. My father laid his hand on my head and stroked my hair.
Some weeks later, he and I rose in the coal-glow of morning and set off for Sydney, a six-hour drive away.
We stopped for lunch by the banks of a river and took out the sandwiches Mum had made. A weeping willow drooped into the water. Beyond it was a rickety wooden bridge, over which cars sometimes rattled. The sunlight was bright, the grassy bank warm beneath our legs. When crumbs from the sandwiches fell into the water, a swathe of eels appeared.
The bank looked precipitous and the eels writhing below our feet were disturbing. I drew up my legs.
In Sydney we stayed with friends who lived in an apartment, the first one I’d ever seen. Their kids, a boy and girl, showed me how to slide down the carpeted flight of stairs between each floor. In the evening, we put on a finger puppet show for the adults. I couldn’t follow what the kids were saying and quickly lost the thread of my lines. I kneeled beside the cardboard stage, silent and ashamed.
This sense of soreness, of being around people and not knowing how to deal with them, has throbbed all my life. This is my first recollection of the feeling, and yet I have no memory of the visit to the audiologist who found I had lost all the hearing in my left ear and half in my right.
It transpired that the large dose of antibiotics injected to cure the infection on the lining of my brain had saved me, but it had also damaged the nerves of my cochlea. My life came to be defined by what the ancient Greeks termed a pharmakon, that which is a poison and a cure. Hearing Maud: A Journey for a Voice by Jessica White, UWA Publishing, $27.99.
ABOVE Jessica, riding pony Stumpy at age eight, grew up on the family farm at Boggabri, NSW, with her sister Rebecca, brother Hadley and six cousins.
Jessica White has written three books and is a lecturer at The University of Queensland.
FROM LEFT Five-year-old Jessica and her brother Hadley, four, feeding lambs; aged 12 after winning at an eisteddfod; at her wedding in October 2019; playing the euphonium aged seven; Jessica, four, ready for her first day of preschool; dressed as a fairy for a school concert.
FROM LEFT Jessica, seven, learning to ride a bike with the help of her six-year-old brother Hadley; holding a lamb; seven-year-old Jessica (far left) raiding the strawberry patch with her brother and cousin; Jessica (left, in white) aged six with her cousins, Jessica’s father James with a sow on their property in Boggabri, NSW.