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Re-imagining stories: What if Estella or Jane Eyre had been deaf?

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Dr Donna McDonald

I am a reader and draw much inspiration from books; when I was a child reading English adventure stories and Greek fables, I imagined that I would be a librarian when I grew up so that I could read all day and into the night. My teenage day-dreams were full of Catherine and Heathcliffe, Pip and Estella, Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester.  My reading choices in my adult years have taken in English crime fiction, Russian family sagas, American court-room dramas, Australian novels invoking colonial landscapes and urban angst, and yet for all this diversity, I cannot recall a single chance encounter with a deaf hero or heroine. 

While I did not notice this absence until recently, presumably because I was not looking for it, I am now intrigued by it. Even if we read only for entertainment and escape, we occasionally pause during our encounters with narrative characters to wonder, “How would I react, feel, or cope in this situation?” If authentic stories of deaf people are routinely missing from the literature – memoir, biography and fiction – do their absence have a constraining effect on the imagined possibilities for deaf people by readers, both deaf and hearing?

Literature is both a rich resource and a blunt instrument in conveying the complexities of identity, in particular, the elusive “deaf identity.” Just as knowledge is not absolute, so is identity mutable, fluctuating over time and in response to context and circumstance. The corollary is simple: it is a risky business to extrapolate from the faceless “expert knowledge” of deafness to the individual child standing before you.

Reading deaf fiction and memoirs has been helpful for me. I have enjoyed the companionability of it, and I enjoyed seeing my deaf-self/hearing-persona experiences reflected in, or challenged by, what I read. Other deaf writers’ recollections stirred into fresh life my own buried memories, prompting me to re-imagine them so that I could examine my responses to those experiences more contemplatively and less reactively than I might have done originally. I have particularly enjoyed the unexpected pleasure of reading Frances Warfield’s memoir, Keep Listening (1957).

Frances Warfield, an American journalist and writer, wrote an early fictionalized memoir, Cotton In My Ears (1948) before writing a second reportage-style memoir, Keep Listening (1957) which takes place between the years 1933 to 1956. Both memoirs bear the hallmarks of her journalistic skills as she deftly converts the incidents of her life into stories replete with the tension of the diagnosis of hearing loss – “Since childhood I had been somewhat hard of hearing, and under the care of the best ear specialists that could be found” ( Keep Listening 11), – drama of adapting to her hearing impairment, grief of disappointment, self-deprecatory humour as she stumbles from mishap to mayhem, and even a happy ending in each, with a marriage proposal in the first fictionalized memoir and the restoration of her hearing through surgery in the second reportage-style memoir.

Reading Frances Warfield’s memoir of her deaf life was like listening to an aunt talk zanily but seriously about the impact of her hearing loss on her life, and her relationship with her “hard-of-hearingness.” Her story reached out to me down through the history of years to such an extent that I realised that I would have liked such a mentor in my own life. The force of this realisation winded me. I felt the warmth of an imagined friendship with Warfield and the chill of its absence.

I also want to briefly draw attention to three contemporary novels, An Equal Music by Vikram Seth (1999), Deafening by Frances Itani (2003), and Talk Talk by TC Boyle (2006) which differ markedly in their representations of deaf people and deafness. Their competing perspectives of deafness are shaped by their thematic concerns – music, deaf history and identity – and so they position the reader to respectively witness, be immersed in, and navigate experiences of deafness:

  • Vikram Seth’s novel, An Equal Music, is a love story about two concert musicians, Michael and Julia, set in present-day England. Unbeknown to Michael, Julia has recently lost her hearing and is still adapting to her loss. In most fictional stories featuring deafness and deaf people, the reader sees the life of the deaf character through the perceptions and experiences of the hearing narrator. And so it is in Seth’s novel; the reader discovers the implications of Julia’s deafness by witnessing Michael’s grief-laden reactions and other people’s responses to her different hearingness. Their grief is all the more sharp for taking place within the drama of music.
  • Frances Itani’s novel, Deafening, immerses the reader in the deaf experience through the narrative device of the deaf heroine’s interior monologue supported by an omnipotent narrator’s observations of other people’s responses to her deafness. In this way, the reader is immersed in Grania’s preoccupation with her deaf-self and social isolation. By setting the love story of Jim and Grania during World War 1 against the imaginative sound-tracks of the gun-fire of the war in Europe and the quiet of small town life in Canada, Itani also provides a fictionalized but authentic social history of the attitudes towards “the affliction” of deafness and the education of deaf people at the turn of the twentieth century.
  • Changing tack from both these perspectives, T .C. Boyle’s adventure novel, Talk Talk, uses the crime of identity-theft to navigate the reader through issues of identity-formation, not only for the deaf heroine but for all the major characters in his novel. When the heroine, Dana Halter, who lost her hearing as a child, discovers that she is the victim of credit-card identity theft, she pursues the thief, Peck Wilson, across North America with her boyfriend, Bridger. Dana’s deafness is independent of the unfolding drama. In Talk Talk, the reader is drawn into a plot driven by the crime of identity-theft, rather than by the impact of deafness on people’s lives.

We can learn about the diversity of deaf experiences and the nuances of deaf identity that rise above the stock symbolic scripts by reading authentic, well-crafted stories such as the memoirs of Frances Warfield and the novels of Vikram Seth, Frances Itani and T.C. Boyle. Whether they are hearing or deaf writers, by providing different perspectives on deafness, they have something useful to say, demonstrate and illustrate about deafness and deaf people.

Donna M McDonald © 2008

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Brisbane-born Donna McDonald (BA BSocWk MA PhD) is a public policy analyst with 30 years experience in Australia and the United Kingdom. Her essay about her deaf girlhood, I Hear with my Eyes, was published by Griffith Review in 2006 and republished by ABC Books in 2007 in A Revealed Life: Australian Writers and Their Journeys in Memoir. It has also been reprinted in Link: disability magazine (October 2008 | Volume 17 Issue 4).

Donna is now writing an extended personal memoir-style essay, The Art of Being Deaf for her PhD in Creative Writing (The University of Queensland). Her exegesis is Hearsay: how stories of deafness and deaf people are told. Her article, Shattering the Hearing Wall, was published in the July 2008 edition of the Journal of Media and Culture, at She has two other journal articles, Sounds of Silence and Not Silent, Invisible, scheduled for publication in the United Kingdom and North America in early 2009.

This is an extract from Donna’s work-in-progress thesis, Hearsay: how stories of deafness and deaf people are told.




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