NEGS Old Girl Jessica White (Class of 1995), is both an author and an academic. She is the author of A Curious Intimacy (2007), Entitlement (2012) and Hearing Maud (2019). Her short stories, essays and poems have appeared widely in Australian and international literary journals and she has won awards, funding and residencies.
Jessica grew up on a family property outside of Boggabri with her family, uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins. At the age of four Jessica lost most of her hearing due to meningitis, but being part of a large extended family, she never felt out of place until she went to secondary school, and her brother and sister went to boarding school.
Whilst living in Boggabri, Jessica’s parents initially applied to send her to NEGS as a boarder as her sister and female cousins were already boarders, however due to her deafness she was not accepted. At the age of 15 her father became an art teacher at TAS and the new NEGS principal Anna Abbott was happy to have Jessica attend NEGS. Anna made substantial efforts to ensure that Jessica was included.
‘I was always impressed with the poise, grace and intelligence of Anna Abbott. People with disabilities need support and empathy, and I would not have thrived in the way I did without Anna’s support at NEGS’.
As a budding author Jessica was greatly influenced by her English teachers. Her Year 10 teacher introduced her to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca which still remains one of her most favourite novels.
‘Duean Howlett was my English teacher in Year 12 and taught me about Gothic fiction such as The Castle of Otranto (I later visited the actual castle on my travels in Italy) and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and key authors such as Emily Dickinson, Andrew Marvell, Virginia Woolf and Emily Bronte. She also read some of my early writing, which I later submitted with my application to the creative writing programme at the University of Wollongong. Also, Elizabeth Campbell, the librarian, always talked to me about books whenever I was in the library’.
Whilst at NEGS Jessica also took advantage of the chance to continue and improve her love of running.
‘On the farm, because we were so isolated, I didn’t get the chance to learn any sports (though I ran regardless). It was a luxury to come to a place where I could receive advice on how to improve my technique and to participate in sports carnivals (even if I wasn’t particularly good at it!).
After leaving NEGS Jessica enrolled in a Bachelor of Creative Arts to study creative writing at the University of Wollongong. She found that it was not stimulating enough and enrolled in a double degree, majoring in English Literature through a Bachelor of Arts as well.
‘English Literature was in some ways an even more useful way of learning to be a writer than the creative writing degree, because it showed me how to take texts apart and analyse them. In 1999 I went on exchange to the University of California, Berkeley, which was a transformative year – I came home feeling energised and confident’.
Graduating from her degree with First Class Honours and a University Medal, meant Jessica could enrol in a PhD, however she knew she would never finish the novel she had already started writing and instead enrolled in a Master of Arts in Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney. After graduating from that degree Jessica received a scholarship to do her PhD at the University of London, and during this time finished her first novel A Curious Intimacy for which she was named Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist. The novel was also shortlisted for the Dobbie prize, the Western Australia Premier’s Literary award and longlisted for the international IMPAC award.
Jessica’s second novel Entitlement was written after she finished her PhD and had moved to Brisbane whilst also working very hard to build up a profile to become an academic. The hard work paid off and in 2016 she won an Australia Research Council postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Queensland.
‘Since then I’ve been working as an academic and trying to write fiction and non-fiction when I can (it’s not very easy as teaching is hard work for a deaf person)’.
After publishing her first two novels Jessica turned part of her PhD research into a hybrid novel, Hearing Maud.
‘In this book I weave my experiences of deafness together with those of Maud Praed, the deaf daughter of Rosa Praed (on whom my PhD was based). My aim is to show how, even though Maud and I were born one hundred years apart and our lives went in radically different directions, some things, such as the pressure to appear to be and sound ‘normal,’ remain the same, and this has had a massive impact on both of our lives’.
Jessica is currently in Munich, Germany at the Rachel Carson Center for Society and the Environment.
‘Over the past few years I have become increasingly concerned about the terrible pressures on our environment through deforestation, climate change, overpopulation and, recently, the bushfires, and I am compelled to write about this. My current project is an Eco biography of Western Australia’s first female scientist, Georgiana Molloy, who emigrated to south-west Western Australia in 1829. She started collecting seeds and flowers and sent them to a botanical connoisseur in England, and I’m using her story to show the impact that an environment has on ourselves, and that if humans want to survive, we must look after the ecosystems that support us’.
Following on from her time in Munich Jessica will spend two months at the Environmental Humanities Network at the University of Edinburgh, then a month in Virginia in the USA at the Oak Spring Gardens Foundation. By the end of the year her fourth book will be almost finished. We certainly look forward to reading the next book that Jessica writes.
Jessica has delivered keynote presentations on deafness at major conferences such as those hosted by the National Association of Australian Teachers of the Deaf. She also gives talks in schools on disability and deafness. Her website is http://www.jessicawhite.com.au/