Opinion

Find a voice in the silence

By John Lewis

This week it's been all about the voice.

Some people shout while others whisper, some speak in torrents and build collapsing towers of Babel.

Others measure their words like Mayan pyramid stones, which carry vast edifices and last centuries.

This week farmers shouted outside parliament in Canberra to apparently deaf politicians.

Whether you're a windy politician or a sombre poet, a singer, an actor or a market spruiker, a political prisoner or a new mother telling her babe a story in the early morning dark — the voice is the supreme tool.

Silence the voice and you gag the spirit. But not always.

This week I met Brooke Parsons, this year's speaker at Shepparton Access's International Day of People With Disability breakfast.

Brooke, 40, lost her voice after she suffered a stroke at the age of 13. She lost it again at 39 when a throat abscess nearly killed her.

Each time she fought back and learned to speak again. The room was silent as Brooke filled it with her high, paper-thin voice to deliver her message: be gallant, be gracious and be grateful.

There is something peculiarly human in the need to communicate.

I remember reading a memoir called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly written by French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who wrote about his life before and after suffering a massive stroke that left him completely immobilised with locked-in syndrome. The only part of his body he could move was his left eyelid. It took him 200 000 blinks, four hours a day for 10 months to write his book. A helper repeatedly recited the alphabet until Bauby blinked to choose the next letter. A single word took about two minutes.

His blinked words recreated his inner world and told people what it was like to go to the beach with his family, ask for simple things like a bath or some water, and meet strangers while unable to communicate. Two days after his book was published in 1997, Bauby died of pneumonia, but he had told his story.

I was again reminded of the uncrushable human voice in No Friend But the Mountains by Kurdish-Iranian asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani. He laboriously typed out hundreds of thousands of words on a mobile phone in Persian using WhatsApp while incarcerated on Manus Island at the pleasure of Her Majesty's Australian Government.

Boochani's book went on to win the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier's Prize for Nonfiction. His jailers thought they had silenced him — but they didn't bank on his determination to be heard.

What all this shows is that, unlike animals, silenced humans will always eventually find their voice. Finding an audience is another matter.