Skip to main content

Between Cultures: Jessica Kirkness On Growing Up with Deaf Grandparents

Interview of Jessica Kirkness by Freya Bennett

Jessica Kirkness has traversed the boundary between deaf and hearing cultures all her life. Her memoir tells the story of her grandparents who grew up deaf in a hearing world—one where sign language was banned for much of the twentieth century—and weaves in her own experience as a hearing child in a family that often struggled to navigate their elders’ difference.

This journey takes her from the family home to the workplaces of research audiologists, and back to England where she visits her grandparents’ old schools and other family landmarks—discovering along the way how terribly their deafness has been misunderstood.

The House With All The Lights On captures the universal experience of navigating complex family relationships and beautifully explores the nuances of identity in what is both a memoir and a love letter to those closest to her heart.

How did your family respond after reading your book?

My family are all really excited about the book. I think it’s had the biggest impact on my Mum given the book is about her parents. She called me the minute she finished reading and was so moved she couldn’t speak. There were tears (happy ones, I’d like to think) but it’s also a poignant read. Mum did say that she felt I’d captured the essence of our family’s experience, and that I’d managed to articulate things she’d felt intuitively but had never said aloud.

Before he died, my grandfather read excerpts of an early draft of the book. Both my grandparents were so encouraging and enthusiastic throughout the process of researching. They were my collaborators and assistants in many ways. I often wonder what Grandpa would think of the final product, but I hope he’d be proud. I know my grandmother is very flattered to be memorialised in this way.

You are in such a unique position to share this story, and I loved hearing about CODAs (and GODAs to some extent) living partially in the d/Deaf world. How can society, as a larger entity, connect with the Deaf community and make the world more accessible?

Thank you! It’s a complicated position to be in, but I think we all find ourselves on the fringes of worlds in some ways, and I hoped that would resonate with others.

I think that’s such a good (and tricky) question. Accessibility is so vital and some of the changes needed are at the macro/institutional level. I think most d/Deaf people would say that greater accessibility is needed in all aspects of public life, especially in relation to access to information and entertainment. Outside of emergency broadcasts, very little news and media is Auslan interpreted. There are also ongoing issues with captioning too. We really need changes to laws and a meaningful commitment from media platforms to make access more widespread.

At the micro level, I think that learning to sign or reading about d/Deaf history can go a long way. Being able to understand and produce even a few basic signs can make such a difference to the everyday lives of d/Deaf people.

Do you think schools should be teaching Auslan?

Definitely. It’s such a rich language and there’s so much scope for it to be taught in Australian schools, especially now that we have a national curriculum for Auslan.  I’d love to see the language be treated like a national treasure – something that has originated here and endured and survived so much.

I also think it’s so important that d/Deaf people are involved in implementing and teaching these programs.

As someone who lost her hearing in her left ear due to medical negligence, I found this insight into the d/Deaf community so fascinating. In learning more about the community, I realised there are so many people out there with hearing loss who feel isolated and alone, can people who have partial hearing loss connect with the d/Deaf community? How can we get involved?

I have always found the d/Deaf community to be incredibly diverse and inclusive. It’s such a shame that so few people with partial hearing loss have the opportunity to meet other deaf or hard of hearing peers.

One of the best ways to get involved is to take an Auslan course. Learning to sign often gives you the opportunity to meet community members because most of your teachers will be d/Deaf.

In New South Wales (where I’m from), there are courses run by Deaf Connect and TAFE where you can learn to sign and meet many d/Deaf people along the way. Many of the beginner courses are subsidised by the government and end up being free — so that’s another great incentive to learn.

There’s also plenty of community and social events you can participate in. Each major city has plenty of Deaf social groups and clubs. There’s also The Deaf Festival, held each year in Sydney. This year it’s on in November in Homebush.

We’ve come a long way since your grandparents were young and discouraged from using sign language, how would you like to see the world change even more for the Deaf community?

I’d love to see the world become more accessible and to see more awareness about Deaf culture and history. It’s a seldom discussed history and I think it’s an important one to reflect upon. Deafness seems such a misunderstood ‘condition’ and is often pathologised and seen as a tragedy. I hope this will change.

I’d also love to see Auslan be legally recognised as a national language. The Australian government recognised it as a “community language” in 1987, but full status for Auslan as an official language — like in New Zealand—would provide both legal safeguards and important recognition for Deaf Australians.

What was something you learnt while writing your book that surprised you?

There were many things! I think confronting my hearing privilege and how deeply it informed my identity was quite upending at times. It shouldn’t have been surprising, but I realised how much of an audiophile I am — how much I rely on audiocentric ideas about the world despite my upbringing.

Finally, what’s next for you?

I’m working on another book — another memoir. This one is about caretaking within romantic relationships after a life-threatening event.  In my early adolescence I was in a relationship with someone who had a heart attack in his sleep as I lay next to him and was given a slim chance of survival. He pulled through, and I ended up being his carer for the remaining years of our relationship. It’s another deeply personal book, but one I’m looking forward to writing.

You can purchase The House With all the Lights On at all good bookstores or online here.

Freya Bennett

Freya Bennett is the Co-Founder and Director of Ramona Magazine. She is a writer and editor from Dja Dja Wurrung Country who loves grey days, libraries and dandelion tea. You can follow her on Instagram @freya___bennett

Leave a Reply