Spotlight On / Fiona Murphy

‘Once I had amassed enough facts, my rage fortified me. I couldn’t contain my secret anymore. My sadness and fear seeped onto the page, as well as an unbridled joy when I discovered Deaf culture.’

Occasionally we shine our spotlight on a member of the Writing NSW community to learn more about their writing journey, achievements, and inspirations.

This month we spoke with Fiona Murphy, author of The Shape of Sound. Nikole Evans, our Administration Officer, spoke with Fiona on her new book, the challenges of writing about personal experiences and what’s next for the award-winning Deaf poet and essayist.

Congratulations on the publication of your first book The Shape of Sound! Can you tell us a bit about the book?

Thank you! It has been thrilling to see it in the world. The Shape of Sound is a memoir about my experiences of keeping my deafness a secret for over twenty years and how I eventually developed Deaf Pride.

There are interesting intersections in your memoir between personal experience and your exploration of the way deafness and disability are shaped by politics, economics, healthcare, and society. Why was this such an important story for you to tell?

I began writing the book hoping to answer the question: Am I deaf? This might seem like a simple yes/no question, but it had troubled me for decades. Part of this confusion came from how medical professionals, policy makers and educators view deafness as a problem that can be “fixed”. Because I can hear with one ear, I was told by audiologists that I “wasn’t deaf enough” to learn sign language. By learning how to speak I was praised by doctors and teachers for “overcoming” my deafness. And yet, my body continues to feel at odds with the world. Every day I physically contort myself to follow conversations and often collapse into bed with exhaustion once home. Given that 1 in 6 Australians have hearing health issues this experience is extremely common, though it is rarely represented in the media. We are simply told to “go get hearing aids”. The reality is much more complex than that and I hope that my book gives people an understanding of what it is like to be a deaf person living in a hearing world.

The Shape of Sound is your first longform project as a writer. As an essayist and poet, what made you decide to write a memoir?

I didn’t plan to write a memoir! I was very determined to keep my deafness a secret. But slowly the manuscript morphed from a series of essays into a memoir. This wasn’t a linear or even inevitable process. It was a hard slog of reckoning with why I was so afraid of being openly deaf.

There is a tremendous amount of stigma about hearing loss. There are also very real and horrific financial, professional and health consequences of living in a deaf body. Our lifetime earning capacity is significantly lower as we aren’t given the same educational and professional opportunities. We are also twice as likely to experience mental ill health compared to hearing people; anxiety and depression is common as we endure social isolation. And our lives are significantly shorter than hearing people as accessing health care continues to be extremely difficult.

Once I had amassed enough facts, my rage fortified me. I couldn’t contain my secret anymore. My sadness and fear seeped onto the page, as well as an unbridled joy when I discovered Deaf culture.

The Shape of Sound examines the ways you are unlearning the habit of secrecy. Your book is powerful, and very personal. Did you find writing about your personal experiences to be a daunting or cathartic process?

It was extremely daunting! For most of my life, my secret felt essential for my survival. The writing process didn’t change me, but the book reflects the immense changes that were unfolding in my life. When I began to learn Auslan (Australian sign language) my sense of self shifted dramatically. I met other deaf people who were proud of their deafness. I found culture, community and connection. This was cathartic. I had never anticipated I could feel such joy.

What advice can you give writers interested in sharing their stories through memoir or personal essay?

Allow yourself to make a mess: often we think we know what key moments have influenced our lives. But generally, these are only the memories and feelings that sit within easy access. Write into the unknown. Be playful, let your mind roam and from one thought to the next. Write about the small, seemingly insignificant moments. Being open to surprise as this will inevitably allow more memories to rise to the surface. Just like life, writing a memoir isn’t like following a script, it should feel entirely unpredictable.

Do you have any influences as a writer, or are there any Australian Writers that we should all be reading right now?

I adore being influenced by other writers! It is so pleasurable studying how other writers play with syntax and punctuation. While working on The Shape of Sound, I read: Valeria Luiselli, Anne Enright, Han Yujoo, Fiona Wright, Carmen Maria Machado, Virginia Woolf, Gratiagusti Chananya Rompas, Kate Briggs and Brian Dillon.

In the past few months I’ve read so many brilliant Australian releases, including: Love Objects by Emily Maguire; Echoes by Shu-Ling Chua; My Friend Fox by Heidi Everett; Design: Building on Country by Alison Page and Paul Memmott; Eating with My Mouth Open by Sam van Zweden.

What will be your next creative project?

I’m working on a novel set in regional NSW. It’s a literary thriller about the lessons we learn from death. I’ve also started research for a collection of essays about disability equality and dignity.

Find out where to purchase The Shape of Sound here.

Fiona Murphy is a Deaf poet and essayist. Her work has been published in Kill Your DarlingsOverlandGriffith Review and the Big Issue, among other publications. In 2019, she was awarded the Overland Fair Australia Essay Prize and the Monash Undergraduate Creative Writing Prize. In 2018, she was shortlisted for the Richell Prize and highly commended by the Wheeler Centre Next Chapter program.

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