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Exploring The Beauty Of Sound Through Deafness With Fiona Murphy

Explore the world of sound, music and deafness with writer and music critic Fiona Murphy. Peta and Fiona discuss Fiona's memoir, 'The Shape of Sound,' discussing challenges,  over achievement, deaf culture, mental health, and the beauty of Auslan.

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Instagram: @petahooke



Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to The I Can't Stand Podcast, the podcast answering our questions about what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peta. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week I have the amazing Fiona Murphy. Fiona is a writer and music critic, and her perspective on what life is like when you're deaf was truly fascinating. So let's go find out what the Shape of Sound is like for Fiona. Let's get into it.


Fiona [00:00:47] Hi, my name is Fiona Murphy. I am a writer and editor based in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.


Peta [00:00:56] First and foremost, what is the shape of sound for you?


Fiona [00:01:01] The Shape of Sound is my debut book, and it's a memoir about my experiences of, growing up with hearing loss. I was diagnosed as profoundly deaf in my left ear when I was six years old, and it was only discovered when I was, trying to learn how to read and write. My teachers were very much like, she's a really well behaved girl, but she's just not getting this whole reading or writing thing. And they suggested to my parents that I, be tested for a learning disability. And I vividly remember going into this city and having all these tests done. And towards the end of the day, I was asked to sit in, a booth and I was given a little presser, a button and given the instruction to press the button whenever I heard a sound. And I thought I was absolutely nailing it because I was sitting there in the booth going, press, press, press. And by the time I came out and the, health care professional went through the results, they, were really apologetic when they're breaking the news to my mum of saying, really sorry to tell you this, but your daughter has, profound deafness in her left ear. Learning how to read and write was immensely challenging for me. Compared to my peers, they seemed to just grasp it and run with it. And I was very much, at the bottom of the class, being encouraged to go into this special education unit. Which had a little bit of stigma associated with it. And that's, something my parents wanted. And I can understand their rationale. They just wanted the best for me, and they were really wanting to keep me in mainstream education. And there wasn't the supports available in the 90s. In the same way supports are available now. So I was having to do a lot of, learning how to read and write outside of school, and that's really where the shape of sound comes into it. For me sound isn't just an experience in my ears. It's very much, a process of problem solving. I have acquired the skills of lip reading, but also filling in the gaps because my ears aren't going to pick up all the bits and pieces. And I think that's a really great skill and expertise that deaf people have. And people who are hard of hearing is navigating the world and communication. When you're forced to be extremely flexible in our approach, because even today, the amount of barriers that exist out there every single day, particularly during the pandemic, it was, next to impossible to navigate day to day situations in a way that felt easy, comfortable and familiar. And that's really what the book is about, is, showing people that deafness doesn't just exist in your ears. It can have impacts across your entire body from, your physical health to mental health, and emotional health as well.


Peta [00:04:35] Obviously sound has been such an important element of your life. But before we go to that area, I want to talk to you about the fact that your disability was framed to yourself and your mum as a negative thing. Had that had any impact on you looking back?


Fiona [00:04:55] Absolutely. It's impacted. Everything about how I consider disability. I was really ashamed. And mainly because. It was framed as being such a nuisance and something that I had to overcome. And that achievement complex has really impacted me. And this is something a lot of disabled friends I have experienced as well of you have such low expectations of you that are placed on you, that this desire to prove yourself and achieve and achieve and push yourself harder and harder to prove that you are competent and worthy and articulate and you're, worth having a seat at the table has really shaped me. And that's something that, whilst I have managed to navigate my internalised ableism, which took a really long time, and whilst I've developed a confidence within myself, I'm still really having to navigate that achievement sort of complex that I have of knowing when it's okay to rest and that, this need to prove that I am a worthy individual is it's such hard work. It's so, so hard to just be like, okay, I am enough. I don't have to keep striving. But it was having huge impacts on my physical and mental health. Massive impacts. I was so burnt out and frazzled when I was navigating my career. I was a puddle after work every day, and I was looking at my friends and they just had this, endurance that I didn't have. And for a long time, I just thought it was a personal failing that, I didn't really quite connect that my deafness was impacting every aspect of my life. Then it was really hanging out with other disabled people in my mid to late 20s that I was like, there is so much I don't know about, disability in general. Which was kind of ironic because I had been working as a physiotherapist, and there's this idea that, physiotherapists, have a great deal of knowledge about disability, which I really question now. And so when it was coming to write the book, I was still secretive about my hearing loss. And that was really the entry point into the narrative itself, that kind of universal theme of realising that everyone has secrets. But what is the impact of keeping secrets and this incredible body of research to show that secrets physically do have, a weight to them. So if you are carrying a secret, it shows up in how you move. You feel physically weighed down and heavier. It impacts the way you, breathe and your blood pressure. And just knowing the physiological impact of secrets really made me think about what the costs were of hiding my deafness. It went from me feeling really chuffed and proud to realising, oh, and maybe what would the world look like if I didn't have to hide it?


Peta [00:08:42] That's such a beautiful articulation of what it can feel like to have a disability. Like it's so brave, in a way, to put your thoughts down on paper for people to read and consume. And I really congratulate you on that. What was it like then to have an editor go through your work and suggest changes, particularly around how sounds feel to you?


Fiona [00:09:09] When my editor started to pick up mistakes where she, would point out metaphors that I would write about sound, and she would say, you've described sound, but you've described it as something visual, like a sound wave, and you can see the wave that's not quite right. Can you fix that? Or she would discover a metaphor, and I would describe the, the taste of a sound. And she's like, that's a mixed metaphor. Can you fix that one as well? Throughout the entire manuscript there are all these perceived mistakes of Descriptions.m And at first I was so embarrassed. I was like, it felt like I was that six year old again. I was like, oh my God, I how did I even get this book deal? Like, I am the worst person to write this book. I've clearly got no grasp on the written word, and I was really beating myself up about it. It kind of really occurred to me, I'm like, those aren't mistakes. That is my deafness on the page. That is how I experience sound. It's those metaphors aren't mixed and wrong. It's just death, poetry and reality. And that was a really lovely moment to go back to my editor and say, thanks for your feedback, but these metaphors must stay the way they are, because this is how my body is. I didn't even realise that I wasn't describing sound in, auditory aspect, but it was very, sensual in terms. It had a taste, a texture feel. It looked like something. Since then that's made me so determined to keep my writing as deaf as possible. It's a space of possibility and artmaking that I hadn't been, cognisant of until that editorial experience.


Peta [00:11:14] Based on that framework of how you perceive sounds. Do you have a favourite sound based on its feel or its taste?


Fiona [00:11:23] I really, really. This is going to sound so trite, but I do quite enjoy the sound of traffic because to me and my ears, it sounds like the ocean. I do find it quite soothing because it's this low white wash of a sound like, you know, when you say a wave and it is that bubble of when the wave hits the sand and it's just like full of air and possibility and it's so fluffy. To be honest, that's what traffic is to me. I'm like, it's a fluffy kind of aring sound, which means real estate wise, I can always live by a busy road and just be quite satisfied.


Peta [00:12:06] In your other work, you're also a music critic. So how does your disability influence your work in that space? Fiona.


Fiona [00:12:15] I have quite an elaborate process for reviewing an album. I will firstly listen to it on a laptop, and I'll be able to see the graphs of the sound going up and down. So I'm essentially reading the architecture and structure of the song by looking at the visuals of it, just getting a sense of that shape of the sound, which is really beautiful, particularly where there are gaps that I cannot hear. I can get a sense of something happening in those spaces. And then I'll listen to an album at least 7 to 8 times over a period of a week, but I'll choose to listen to it at different times of the day, because deafness, is essentially a cognitive experience. It's an experience of problem solving and filling in gaps. So I'll listen to an album when my brain is fresh and well-rested, because it will sound completely different when it's towards the end of the day and the listening fatigue is set in, and the sound might collapse in different ways or muffle and soften. And there's listening to music at different times of the day, really gives me a sense of where my curiosity is sustained and maintained, which I think as an arts critic is where the gristle is, it's like really interesting where you're like, oh, it's this pace of the song or this pace of the album that keeps drawing me back. What is it about it? Is it like the tone, the texture? Is it the spontaneity of it? Like, what is it in the architecture that keeps drawing me in to this song or this piece, or how they bridge together? I very much invite my deafness into that process as well. Which is a great thing of coming to the other side of keeping my deafness a secret of being very upfront and clear that I am a deaf music critic. Interestingly, the feedback that I've gotten from particularly artists whose work I have reviewed, they will often say this is the most detailed analysis of the music they've ever had, that it's quite clear that I've deeply listened to their music. Deaf people are the best listeners in the world, in my opinion. We have to bring our entire bodies to listening, and we do so with rigour and intention, which is not often there when somebody has functioning ears. That doesn't require that level of attentiveness.


Peta [00:15:15] That explanation was so clear that you deserve to be in this space, and you're very good at your job and you're very passionate about this. But obviously, for people who aren't informed, being a deaf critic, I'm presuming, is quite challenging because you constantly have to make sure people understood that you deserve to be in this space. And your perspective, of course, is valued.


Fiona [00:15:46] That's a really good point. And I find it quite interesting that and I'm not sure if it's my, own biases and assumptions, but I do sometimes wonder if I am invited to critique things because of the novelty factor of 'oh let's see what the deaf critic has to say'. And I think it's that low expectations, bias that keeps coming up that non-disabled people are like, we'll give it a go. Like, they're not going to produce anything of like, you know, that's going to blow our socks off. But we'll look like we're really diverse and inclusive. Not so much tokenistic, there is an element of that, but I think it's the gimmick of it of like oh.  I'm doing a lot of work in this space to try and, highlight other disabled arts workers as much as I can. Because we are in the industry, we do have expertise. We bring a level of rigour and intentionality to our work that we're not just here as a gimmick or, for additional publicity, but we are arts workers.


Peta [00:17:07] You've recently written about the importance of mental health and support access for deaf people. Can you talk to me about how that could be improved?


Fiona [00:17:19] The level of barriers is so immense in the mental health space, particularly for deaf people. It's a relatively small community, in terms of population size, who are, everyday users of Auslan. That's not to diminish the incredible might and complexity of the community, but just from a numerical perspective, there is, a proportionally a smaller number of people who are Auslan uses, and there just isn't the infrastructure in Australia of enough therapists equipped with the skills to have, conversations in Auslan of counselling conversations. If you're trying to have a very delicate conversation that includes a lot of disclosure, the degree of safety feels compromised when you know that, the therapist or counsellor may also be a part of the community as well. And whilst I have a code of conduct that they have to abide by and ethical standards, it's just that, lack of perceived safety or if an individual is having counselling and their therapist isn't fluent in Auslan, an interpreter is present, to be an intermediary in that conversation. So that again adds a level of complexity there that you truly don't have that intimate, 1 to 1 safe disclosure. And whilst again, the interpreter does have a code of conduct and ethical standards to abide by, it's just the knowing that your words are being carried through someone else as well. They might be misrepresented and they're also held in that person as you continue to socialise in a very small community. There's some really great work happening, by the organisation SignHow, how they're collecting, all the different signs for mental health, in Auslan that's being used, that, capturing of language hasn't been, properly collated before. So conversations about mental health might essentially defer be lost in translation if people haven't had access to all the variety of signs, particularly for diagnoses like depression or schizophrenia or, whatever else. But on a personal level, where I'm it has impacted me is really around deaf anxiety. I didn't fully understand that that's an experience that I have on a daily basis. And I'll give an example of what deaf anxiety is. It's for me a situational anxiety that happens. Whilst I might feel really confident and capable and have skills, and strategies for 1 to 1 conversations like today. But if when you were down at the pub, we've had maybe a drink or two. It's a busy, bubbling afternoon. There's a lot of information and a lot of sound. I will be in a space  of deaf anxiety because so be significantly fewer strategies that will work for me in that space, and my body will be in a state of hyper vigilance, because I won't know if somebody is coming up behind me or trying to get my attention. My body will be so highly attuned to trying to capture as much information as possible. I will be physically sweating and my blood pressure will be raised, and it's an exhausting state to be in, but it's a state that I'm in most days. You have to mentally have a set of skills of winding down from that and truly resting from that.


Peta [00:21:25] I've always felt really insecure about my inability to learn Auslan. And like to be really frank, my cerebral palsy has affected my right side to the extent that I don't think I would ever be able to effectively communicate in Auslan. I know that the American version of Auslan only uses one hand, so that would be something that I might be able to explore. However, it's not a language that's widely used here, and that's where I think I find it really difficult because I want to connect with deaf people to a better extent. But I just know inherently my own disability stops me from doing that. And it's it's sort of. Yeah, it's hard to not see it as a real loss.


Fiona [00:22:22] I'm really glad that you brought that up. In terms of, it is a commonly held perception that, you require the same dexterity and use of both hands to be an effective communicator in sign languages that involve two hands. And there are a significant number of people, where they're signing is completely adapted to their physical needs. A lot of people have either, arthritis or, changes in their hands or they've maybe had a stroke or they've they've lived a life. And if their bodies reflect their communication as well. But I think that is that perception that Auslan looks a certain way. And it's really interesting that the deaf-ess I have ever felt during the pandemic was also a time where I was for the first time, surrounded by Auslan, and yet my skills and ability felt like they were washing away. And that's really because the translations that there are showing on television are really effective but it's bureaucratic language. It's not like actual conversational Auslan, like nobody speaks like a press conference. That's something I'm really passionate about that we don't have in Australia is actual Auslan conversations on TV. It's all just a translation. It's all a very hearing perspective of it. We're so far behind America and the UK, where there are two deaf people chatting with one another in sign, and it looks completely different to what you will say at a press conference. Yeah, I, I know quite a few people who sign and they have, physical disabilities as well. And it's really wonderful how inclusive the community is.


Peta [00:24:26] I've thoroughly enjoyed talking to you today, Fiona. My last question is a question that's been burning in my brain for a long time, and that is if someone can explain to me and articulate the beauty of deaf culture and what deaf culture means to them.


Fiona [00:24:48] I love this question and, preface it by saying that, this is my perspective of deaf culture. Deaf culture, to me, is. It has utterly transformed my entire life and sense of self. The amount of doors that have opened to me of discovering that there's a deaf world, a world that is so vibrant and diverse. It's honestly, I think some of the most exciting art and, thinking is happening in that space. But at the heart of it is this unflinching pride in that we are deaf. It is in our bodies, it's in our brains, it's in our hands. It's how we move in, how we think and how we experience the world. It is language in four dimensions, and having that language makes me feel so at ease in my body and delighted as well. I think that's a real delight and humour, that is in deaf culture as well. Knowing that there isn't a void in silence. Silence is just a space of possibility.


Peta [00:26:14] Thank you for listening to this week's episode, and thank you to Fiona for your time. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to you. If you did enjoy this episode, could you please leave a rating and review wherever you listen to this podcast or share the episode with a friend? It helps more people find the podcast. You can always follow me over on Instagram. My handle is @petahooke. Okay, thanks again and until next week have a good one guys. Bye. I would like to respectfully acknowledge the Wurundjeri people and Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation, of which I record the podcast today. And I pay my respects to both elders, past and present, along with and especially to those in the First Nations communities who are disabled themselves.



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