The history of deaf people in Australia is a treasure trove of stories mostly hidden. How do some of these stories emerge?
Imagine this: a policeman attends an assembly hall packed with rowdy deaf people. There are more than 100 of them, and they are furious that the hearing men who run the deaf-and-dumb benevolent society had sacked a popular hearing welfare superintendent. This man, a son of deaf parents, could communicate easily with deaf people. His managers could not. A nervous caretaker had called the police. The hapless constable who attended knows no sign language, and shouts at the gathering, ordering them to leave the premises. Can you imagine his words having any effect?
This actually happened, in Sydney, Australia, in May 1929. We know that it happened because newspaper reporters were there and wrote about it. We know why it happened because Australian Deaf historian Dr Breda Carty researched the incident. It was just one of many extraordinary stories from the first half of the 20th century which she uncovered in her doctoral thesis of how deaf Australians stood up for themselves against paternalistic hearing overlords who ruled the societies and who exerted enormous control over their lives.
But if you stuck to the official accounts, and to the records of the Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of New South Wales, you would learn nothing of the fury and the passions of the time. You would be more likely to die of boredom from the dull-as-dishwater accounts written in the stiff-upper-lip English of the times.
This is how a story emerges from the past by drilling down to a more profound kind of truth. It is the tale of four people: the administrator, the journalist, the historian, and the writer. The administrator, a conservative, middle-aged white man, is long dead. So is the journalist who lived at the same time. But the historian and the writer belong to the present and are very much alive.
How does it play out? The administrator knows there is some discord; perhaps he thinks the natives are restless. But whatever his real feelings and opinions, he writes on behalf of an institution. He must paint the picture that the institution wants the world to see. That picture is one of a kindly organisation, run by wise hearing men who know best how to look after those sadly deprived of hearing and of speech. This is his truth. His language is formal and proper, of a kind in which discord cannot be accommodated, at least not officially. Very, very few people will read it. But his masters will.
Enter the journalist. He also seeks the truth, but his truth is more visceral; his truth is often attracted by conflict and may be driven by investigation. He writes what he sees, and he may investigate why he sees what he sees. His version of the truth is determined by his newspaper. This is likely to be what his editor decides is in the “public interest”. Whatever it is, it is far wider than that of the administrator. The journalist is a better writer, and many, many more people will read what the journalist writes. No wonder the administrator loathes the journalist.
Seven decades later, enter the historian. She reads comprehensively, from a broad and profound perspective. If there are still people alive from those times, she will seek them out. She sifts, weighs, corroborates, and analyses. She establishes some historical facts which have a degree of reliability to them through the weight of evidence. She writes about her findings, in a fluid and logical style. For the first time, we have a trustworthy kind of truth.
Enter the writer. Like the historian he too reads comprehensively. Where the historian seeks a deeper truth, the writer is a teller of stories. He absorbs the same information, but in his mind characters come to life, driven by the facts that have been established. He is attuned to language, to the words used in the administrator’s accounts and in the newspaper reports. He imagines himself there.
Never will I forget the look on the constable’s face! There he was, all dark uniform, brass buttons and helmet, standing on a chair near the back of the assembly hall, of the Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of New South Wales on a cool, crisp May evening in Sydney-town. A rowdy gathering of more than a hundred of the deaf and dumb were before him. Once, twice, thrice, did the hapless constable shout at them, to no avail whatsoever! And on his face, such oscillation between officiousness and bafflement, between the stern and the perplexed! “Ladies and gentlemen,” he cried yet again, drawing himself up straight, standing stiffly but with purpose. “You have been ordered to leave this hall.” None of the deaf appeared to pay him the slightest heed! There was foot stamping, cheering and hooting. All the deaf were making quite a festive air!
Several things attract the writer to this story. Is it unusual? This was an extraordinary show of defiance by a generally powerless group. Is there conflict? Absolutely – this same powerless group was taking such a stand as to attract police attention. And finally, the historian has established some historical facts, and these serve as a framework, to mark and to guide the plot which the writer narrates through his characters.
“In the name of the law I must ask you to leave these premises immediately,” continued the constable. “Please gather your possessions and proceed to the exits in an orderly manner.” But the laughing, hooting and catcalling continued unabated. The deaf stamped their feet and communicated with each other in the most emphatic of gestures. The lone constable might as well have been a King Canute, feebly attempting to calm the roiling waves of a sea of the deaf. One such, certainly a scallywag, wearing a jaunty vest and a felt beret, approached the constable. From his swagger and sly grin, I was sure he had humorous intent! He made exaggerated motions with his hand, indicating the uproar behind him, and then to his ear and mouth, and concluded with a theatrical shrug of his shoulders. The meaning was unmistakeable: what did you say? We’re all deaf and dumb here. The constable stared stiffly at the young man, grimaced, and began to flap his arms at the exits. He looked as if he was attempting to swat a particularly persistent house-fly. I could contain my laughter no longer!
–- extracts from ‘The Stirring Days of May’, part of an untitled novel, © MU 2011
We have no way of knowing whether the exchange between the constable and the “scallywag” as described actually happened. We don’t know just what the hapless constable said. (I am trying to find if there are any archival records of a police report.) What’s important is: what are the characters likely to do? What are they likely to have said? Characters can do or say what they like, but their actions must be consistent for what we know about the event and their times. What is important is not the veracity, but the likelihood of the context. As a writer I’m satisfied that such an exchange was a good fit for what happened on that night. Such detail is critical to the writer who builds a picture for the reader.
Some of my present work is about bringing history to life, in particular, the thousands of untold stories of deaf people from the past. Traditional history is generally written by the winners, the educated, the wealthy, or the elite. And in the case of deaf people, almost always by hearing people. The bloodless reports of officialdom tell a minute fraction of what actually happened. They say nothing about real flesh-and-blood people, who lived and breathed, who felt things, believed things and who were not always polite to each other. And deaf people themselves have rarely written their stories. To a large extent I think something similar applies to other disability categories. There are thousands of untold stories.
How do you find them? Research and read! Read, read and read some more. Read the official accounts by all means, but you cannot afford to stop there. Read any newspaper reports you can find. Read journals, letters, newsletters. The official reports I have maligned can sometimes throw up gems, partly for what they say and partly for how they say it. Soon you learn to read between the lines, and soon you develop a feel for the people, their passions and their motives.
In my story on the infamous Congress of Milan in 1880, one of the characters decried the event as an “in-tarra-national conference”, an excruciating pun on the name of the champion oralist, the Reverend Giulio Tarra. This was actually written by one of those attending, a kindred soul with a love of very bad puns. Anyone capable of a pun like that is someone worth getting to know. The fact that such a pun was written suggests something about that person – his sense of humour, his skill with language, a certain level of education, and so on. Writers love those indirect and implied clues about historical figures.
Soon you develop a feel for the language. You soon learn to understand what it is about the language of one hundred years ago, compared with modern English. It tends to be semi-formal, quite flowery, and uses the passive voice a lot more that today (outside government reports). The passive voice reflects the age and the times – of public proprietary, of decorum, of a belief in the proper ways not only of expression but also of conduct.
Certain stock phrases stay in my mind. You don’t “think” about an idea; you are more likely to “entertain the prospect”. If you hint at something controversial, you “excite comment”. You don’t drink at a bar or a pub; you would enjoy a convivial ale at a “public-house”. There are no cafes as we know them. Rather you enjoy at a tea-rooms or perhaps at a coffee palace – this term may be unique to Australia. After a while this kind of language seeps into your brain like osmosis. And when you know your characters, their language nearly writes itself.
In the end, I don’t believe that people from the past were necessarily all that different from people in the present. There were the same dreams, the same ambitions, and the same politics. The administrator in his own way sets the scene, the journalist captures it, and the historian establishes the wider and deeper truth. And as the writer and the story-teller, it is my enormous privilege to bring this past to life.
This essay was published in Wordgathering Vol 8 Issue 3 in September 2014 http://www.wordgathering.com/past_issues/issue31/essays/uniacke.html and was republished in Deaf History International in July 2015