Fiona Murphy’s book ‘The Shape of Sound’

Fiona Murphy hid her Deafness for most of her life. In her new book, The Shape of Sound, Fiona blends memoir with observations on the healthcare industry, creating a story about the corrosive power of secrets, stigma and shame, and how deaf experiences and disability are shaped by economics, social policy, medicine and societal expectations.

Inform spoke with Fiona about The Shape of Sound, keeping secrets, Deaf culture and the power of stories.

What is your new book, The Shape of Sound about?

The shape of sound is a memoir about my experiences with hearing loss. It’s really about how I hid my hearing loss for almost 25 years. And it’s kind of a coming-of-age story of coming into a Deaf identity and being open and proud of being Deaf.

You write throughout the book about ‘passing as normal’, following rigid rules like never asking anyone to speak up or repeat themselves, about ‘hiding any difference or discomfort’ at work. And also, about the effort involved in doing all that and about how exhausting it was to keep your deafness a secret. What was it like to write about those experiences but also, how do you reflect on them now?

I didn’t realise how much effort I was continuously putting in to passing as hearing because it became quite an innate and reflexive way of being in the world. So, when I did finally sit down to write about being deaf, firstly, it was tremendously difficult even to think about it openly within myself. Because I had kept it that much of a secret and I had locked it away within myself that I didn’t even like to think about it just in case I revealed it accidentally to someone in a conversation.

And when I finally got enough courage to start exploring deafness on the page, and in writing, and listing down everything that I, kind of all the rules that I had created. I was actually quite shocked with how much my thinking and behaviour was shaped by secrecy and wanting to keep my deafness as hidden as possible. And it was almost like an audit of going, Oh, I do this, and I never say pardon, or I never say can you repeat that and all these, like, really hardcore rules that I had created because I felt like it would give other people clues or hints about my hearing loss. And I was extremely strict about it. So, it was only in retrospect, that I was like, wow, this is immense. It’s a lot of work that I’ve been doing to make other people’s lives easier.

Where do you think that desire to—desire is probably the wrong word, but where do you think that need to keep your hearing loss a secret came from?

For the longest time, it didn’t even really feel like a choice, it felt like the only option. Growing up, I didn’t really see any deaf people on TV, or in media or in books. And when they were on the rare occasion present in popular culture, they were often the butt of jokes. And that was certainly something that I didn’t want to be the butt of anyone’s joke at all. And deaf people were really associated with the stigma of being deaf and dumb. And because I had so much trouble learning how to read, I felt incredibly limited with my intellect and ability to learn and understand. And I certainly didn’t want anyone to know about that. So, it felt like the only way to kind of navigate the world safely and comfortably was to hide my hearing loss as much as possible.

I want to talk to you about Deaf culture. In the book, you write about choosing to identify as Deaf, but also about how fraught a decision that was for you. How did you come to embrace that identity and Deaf culture more broadly?

It was really through Twitter, of all places. I really grappled with how to identify. I didn’t know if I was half-hearing or half-deaf or not enough to be either hearing or deaf. And it was very confusing to know if it was cultural appropriation to openly identify as being capital D Deaf, Deaf as in seeing deafness as a cultural identity rather than a diagnosis.

So, I spent a long time grappling between how to label myself in a way that was respectful to the Deaf culture, but also in a way that I felt comfortable with as well. And because I wasn’t fluent in sign language, and I hadn’t grown up amongst other deaf people, I spent a long time trying to figure out, was I allowed to call myself deaf? Or did I have to keep calling myself half-hearing or half-deaf.

And it was really through Twitter, that I found other people with hearing loss who were having the same issues and struggles, and it was so many conversations with other deaf people that I realised that this is my identity. And it’s something that because it’s been oppressed for so many hundreds of years, that of course, I’m not fluent in sign language because I didn’t have access to it through school at all. And that’s really a reflection of social policy rather than kind of an individual failing on my own behalf.

And it’s been so exciting to kind of come into a community where it’s normal and fine and completely accepted to not have full hearing. And it feels really joyous to be kind of accepted wholly and completely.

What has engaging with the Deaf community brought into your world?

It’s opened up so many opportunities. For the longest time, I thought hearing loss meant a chipping away and a lessening and lessening and kind of almost like a depletion of joy and fun and opportunities and kind of almost a narrowing of my world. But through Deaf culture and learning sign language, it’s opened so much up, and it feels expansive, and exciting and incredibly joyous to be a part of a community and to have people understand the same kind of frustrations and obstacles that exist in society. And it becomes a point of humour that we all kind of engage in, and we can comfort one another, but we can also laugh about how ridiculous it is that there’s so many ongoing misconceptions of what it is to have hearing loss in society.

In The Shape of Sound, you write about reading academic papers and research and finding stories of other Deaf people in them and finding some companionships in those stories, a sense of kin. In many ways, your book is now a story like that for others?

I hope so. And I’m really excited that disability literature is gaining a tremendous amount of momentum in Australia with more and more stories about disabled bodies being published year after year. And I have so much optimism and hope and just pure joy of books and stories being released from disabled perspectives. I, I honestly think it’s some of the most exciting work that’s happening in Australia at the moment.

I just want to return to what we first discussed at the start of this conversation, about how for so long your hearing loss was something that you kept a secret. What does it feel like for you now, it’s definitely not a secret anymore there’s a whole very excellent book out there, how do you reflect on that?

It’s incredible how much energy and joy I’ve gotten from being openly proud about being deaf. I hadn’t recognised how much energy it required to keep a secret and that it is physical burden that was weighing me down and really keeping me closed off from other people and quite reserved and shy about revealing myself for fear that somebody would guess that I had, guess that I had a disability. It’s been exciting and invigorating.

And I’m so hopeful for how much more I’m going to learn about deafness and disability. And I feel very much just at the beginning of this wonderful journey of writing more about deafness and disability and discovering more artists who are also working in the same area. And it’s, it’s thrilling, I couldn’t have imagined it at all when I, I couldn’t even foresee revealing my deafness. So, to be openly talking about it, I think my younger self would be shocked.

This is an edited version of Episode 18 of the Inform podcast: Fiona Murphy and The Shape of Sound. (link to podcast episode)

The Shape of Sound is published by Text Publishing. You can find it at all good bookstores and it’s also available digitally.

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