MY COUN­TRY CHILD­HOOD

AU­THOR JES­SICA WHITE LOST HER HEAR­ING AS A CHILD, BUT HER RU­RAL UP­BRING­ING TAUGHT HER RE­SILIENCE IN THE FACE OF AD­VER­SITY.

Country Style - - CONTENTS - WORDS JES­SICA WHITE

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.

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