Q&A for Readers, Teachers, Writers

#LoveOzYA Q&A with Asphyxia

  • · 3 weeks ago
#LoveOzYA Q&A with Asphyxia

Asphyxia is an artist, writer and public speaker. Author of the much-loved junior fiction series the Grimstones, Asphyxia has also been a circus performer and puppeteer. An avid art-journal creator, she loves to share her process and help others benefit from this amazing tool for self-expression, problem-solving, planning, goal-tracking and self-esteem.

Deaf since the age of three, Asphyxia learnt to sign when she was eighteen, which changed her life. She is now a Deaf activist, sharing details of Deaf experience. She raises awareness of oppression of Deaf people and what we can do to change this. Her free online Auslan course has had over 15,000 students.

Asphyixa's latest book, Future Girl (Allen & Unwin) is out now! She kindly answered questions from #LoveOzYA's Alex Patrikios for this Q&A.

Why did you want to write this story?

For a long time I have believed it wouldn’t take much for the world as we know it to change dramatically in the face of a crisis, and part of what I wanted to do with Future Girl was highlight how very possible this is and the need for us to develop resilience and to prepare for such scenarios. At the time, my publishers actually asked me to pull back as the world I had created went too far, they thought. We were putting the final touches on the book when coronavirus hit, and we all looked at each other and said how utterly spooky it was that the book reflected so very closely what is going on now, today. I think the truth is that scientists have known this kind of crisis is heading our way, for a long time, but it’s hard for the public to wake up and see how precarious our world is. I hope that now we all have first-hand experience of how dramatically a crisis will change our world, reading Future Girl will help people see how easily another crisis could tip things over as well. Resilience and preparation will help us be ready for all kinds of potential future scenarios.

In addition I wanted to write about Deafness, to give an insight into what it is really like to be Deaf. I want people to know about Deaf culture, that it exists. Most people have no idea. Parents whose baby is diagnosed as deaf by medical professionals do not realise that there is a Deaf community out there. If they knew, it could transform their grief about their child’s ‘defectiveness’ into delight that their child will receive an automatic passport to this wonderful community.

The most striking difference between the Deaf community and the hearing world is that we celebrate Deafness, while the hearing world tends to view it as a ‘defect’. We love our language, as it is expressive and poetic and delightful. We are so direct - there is no need for the euphemisms and careful politeness that is needed to navigate hearing culture - we just say it like it is and that’s ok. While in the hearing world, people feel sorry for me when they realise I am Deaf, in the Deaf community I have a high status and no-one would dream of feeling sorry for me - instead people want some of what I have. I wanted to convey all of that in a mainstream book so that people could understand it on a visceral level through experiencing it themselves as they read.

If Future Girl was a question, what would that question be?

I guess the ultimate question in Future Girl is, 'How should I live? How can I have an existence that is rich and meaningful in the face of current limitations?' For Piper, her deafness poses a limitation and also an opportunity. The chaos of Melbourne presents another limitation, which Piper responds to creatively, and manages to find very positive outcomes as a result. I hope that people will use the book to ask themselves the same questions - especially relevant right now during the pandemic.

Piper, the 16-year-old main character of Future Girl, learns Auslan in the book, leading her world to open up ‘magically’. What did you want to capture and communicate about the process of learning to sign, through Piper’s experience of it in the story?

I grew up oral, which meant that I did not learn to sign (in fact I never even saw sign language until I was sixteen!), but instead focused on lipreading and speech. This is very common as usually deafness is diagnosed by doctors, who have a medical approach of trying to ‘fix’ us to help us fit into the hearing world and be as ’normal’ as possible. However, in their late teens and early twenties, many deaf people discover the Deaf community, and that that stage everything changes as they dive into a new culture where their Deafness is celebrated, and embrace Auslan (sign language), which means they can socialise without the headaches and stress associated with lipreading. This is exactly what happened to me.

My story is very common and I wanted to reflect that in Future Girl. For me and other Deaf people in the same situation, the magical opening up occurred as I embraced my Deafness with zeal and stopped trying to hide it and pass as hearing. I stopped making phone calls, I added a flashing light to my home to tell me when people arrived, I stopped going to movies that have no captions, and I started communicating visually with others. This meant that others communicated with me visually too, and suddenly it was easier to understand what was going on around me. By demonstrating visually to others that I am Deaf I was able to remind them that I was different and thus that they could not just talk at full speed with blank faces and expect me to understand them. When I took the pressure off myself and stopped trying to pass as hearing, the world became a pleasanter place for me to be in. When I met the Deaf community and found my passport, I suddenly had friends all over the world, I had status and a beautiful language to play with. It was so different to my upbringing where I was so low on confidence. This is what I wanted to capture in Future Girl with Piper's experience - that learning sign language is like stepping through a door into another world, a world where you are included and valued and appreciated instead of sidelined.

The teachers’ resource for Future Girl is excellent, including the list of microaggressions that Piper regularly encounters. I also note in your YouTube video about Future Girl that you describe the process of writing about Deaf experience as challenging, because it was such an ‘ordinary part’ of your existence that you rarely thought about it. With that in mind, what was it like to consider the frequency and impact of these microaggressions as part of your work on this story?

Before I wrote Future Girl, I hadn't really examined the microaggressions I experience on a daily basis, but their impact on me was significant. For example, growing up, I felt inherently defective. I assumed no-one would want to marry me because I am deaf. This was the cumulative effect of tiny comments that praised me for 'passing as hearing' and thus implied that deafness was undesirable and so much more. When I examined the microaggressions closely, I began to see how they influenced my behaviour and responses to the world. For example, I thought I didn't like socialising. But when I looked closely at it, I realised it was the exclusion I experienced when attempting to socialise with hearing people that was the problem.

In the book, Piper experiences a reluctance to go to Northcote High School, but she is not able to articulate to her mum why she just can't face it. Hopefully the reader, who has been at her side during previous school experiences, will understand on a visceral level what a challenge a change of school poses for Piper, especially with no assistance to help her transition nor accommodation for her deafness. Piper has not been taught to fight back against microaggressions, nor to ask for her needs to be met. If she had received more education about this, perhaps she could have more clearly articulated what she needed in order to make a successful transition to Northcote High. My closer examination of the microaggressions I face and how they impact me have led me to be more articulate in terms of fighting for change and increased accommodation. I hope that readers of Future Girl will be similar galvanised.

Future Girl itself, featuring your artwork, is visually stunning. What inspired these visual elements? Did you have a set vision for the ‘look’, or did it emerge spontaneously?

The artwork for Future Girl arose from my own art journals. I have been passionate about art journaling for years and used my art journals as a mechanism to get down the story of my own life, both in writing and expressed visually through textures, colours and images.

I have loved writing fictional stories since I was a child and it seemed natural to me to combine these two passions by creating a novel that was also an art journal. Initially when I made the proposal to my publisher, I picked a particular sub-set of pages from my journal to show them, which I felt had a suitable look and feel for the book.

By the time I completed the artwork, eight years later, I had that many more years under my belt of art experience, having sold hundreds of paintings and filled many more art journals. My increased skill, technique and experience meant I was inspired to revisit my initial vision and expand upon it. I didn't so much have a 'look' in mind for the book as draw on my own past experiences of painting specific emotions. For example, to express Piper's growing joy in her connection with nature, I recreated the background of a painting I did some years ago that was rich with flowers and vibrant colours. I suppose you could say that over the years I have developed my own set of symbols and styles and techniques to express specific feelings, and that I drew upon that library in order to create Future Girl.

Broadly – in writing, in life – who or what inspires you?

I am inspired by activists. Stella Young, a disability activist and feminist who died in 2014, inspired me to become a Deaf activist. I love the current efforts of people like Carly Findlay and Jax Brown. I also love the work of environmental activists, especially Sharon Astyk and those involved in the Transition Towns movement. These people have galvanised me to make changes in my own life and to make an effort to get these ideas out there so others can benefit from them too.

Do you have any favourite LoveOzYA stories? If so, what are they?

I have long been a fan of John Marsden's Tomorrow series - I did a lot of fan writing in response to that one! Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park is a classic that really captured my imagination as a child. More recently I enjoyed Highway Bodies by Alison Evans - so refreshing to read about queer and gender diverse characters. I loved Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley as I enjoyed immersing myself into a world filled with spray paint and street artists.

On a similar theme: has a book changed your life? If so, which one?

Lots of books have changed my life! Probably one of the most striking, and the one that eventually led to me writing Future Girl, was Depletion and Abundance by Sharon Astyk. She gave me a model for confronting chaos such as that which could be created by peak oil with community spirit and resilience efforts - different from the 'survivalist' attitudes I had previously seen which are have a focus on each-to-their-own. Years ago I began incorporating the ideas put forward by Sharon Astyk into my own life and it led to a much richer, happier life which simultaneously felt ethically right and good. After I read her book, I thought that everything she had written was obvious and had been touched on in something else I had read, and yet I had been unable to SEE it clearly. She laid it all out for me in such a compelling vision, that I was sold immediately and inspired to change my life on the spot. I made pages in my journal detailing all the changes I wanted to make, and then worked towards them steadily over the coming months.

After a year, my life was unrecognisably different and fantastically so. For example, I had built a rocket stove and could cook using twigs as fuel, I had a pet rabbit whose fur I used to make sustainable textiles - yes, clothes I actually wore! - and I had learnt to make shoes and grow food and raise my own meat and use cloth instead of toilet paper (handy once we hit the pandemic!) and to live locally using sustainable transport instead of driving everywhere, and had an incredible community on my street. You'll see much of this is reflected in Future Girl.

What advice would you give to emerging writers who are seeking practical tips to find the time, creative energy or inspiration to write?

I believe that instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, the best structure is to plan specific times for writing into your week, and at those times you sit down and do it, no matter how hard or uninspired it is. I believe in the 10,000 hour theory - that if you do something, anything, for 10,000 hours, you will become an expert at it. Simply put in the hours and you'll get better at it. When I started out writing Future Girl, my rule was that I would not get out of bed until I had written 1000 words on my laptop. I might find the first 800 words incredibly hard to write but usually by the time I hit the 1000 mark, I was on a roll and could easily write more.

To find out more about Asphyxia and her writing, visit her website and follow her Instagram or Facebook.

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