Future Girl by Asphyxia

“I accept being deaf. I know it’s my lot in life. It doesn’t bother me. I’d rather be deaf than perpetually ill or academically slow or … whatever. So … why the hell am I sniffing like mad, tears snaking down my cheeks?” (Future Girl)

Future Girl is Asphyxia’s debut YA novel. It is an insightful, in fact, revolutionary #OwnVoices work and is a CBCA 2021 Notable book. It is published by Allen & Unwin.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Asphyxia.

You have diverse interests and talents. Please tell us about yourself and how you spend your time.

I am an artist, writer, public speaker and consultant. I do sensitivity checks for books and films with diverse characters, and I sell my art online and at exhibitions too. Since I have a chronic illness, I spend most of my time in bed, but I get a lot done there! I paint, write, talk on zoom and work via email.

When and where is your novel Future Girl set and what impact is environment decline having?

Future Girl is set in Melbourne in the near future, in a time where peak oil is creating havoc, in a similar way to how the pandemic has turned all of our lives on end. Melbourne faces food and goods shortages caused by the sudden dramatic increase in cost of oil, petrol and electricity.

Could you please introduce your protagonist Piper and her new friend Marley?

Piper is a Deaf sixteen year old who is struggling with communication now that her best friend, who used to be the interface between her and the hearing world, has vanished from her life. She now needs to figure out how to get by as a Deaf person in a hearing world, without that assistance. When she meets Marley, a CODA (child of Deaf adult), her world opens up. He doesn’t just introduce her to his Deaf mother and teach her to sign, but he shows her a whole world where food can be grown yourself instead of delivered on a truck.  

How is their friendship both strong and fragile?

Piper and Marley develop a strong friendship because they are both open and vulnerable with each other, instead of trying to ‘play it cool’. Marley has insights about Deafness which Piper hasn’t yet had about herself, and views her Deafness in a positive light, which is a shocking change for Piper, who has always perceived it as a defect. But their relationship is fragile because neither of them have found themselves nor worked out how they fit into the world. Marley has grown up in the Deaf community and yet is not Deaf – he has a passport to the Deaf community and yet he doesn’t because he is hearing. He is uncertain about the extent to which he wants to embrace the Deaf community and to which he wants to step away and be a part of the mainstream hearing world. Piper also doesn’t know to what extent she wants to embrace the Deaf community, largely because she doesn’t know of its existence, and she hasn’t figured out how to be Deaf in a hearing world. Their lack of inner certainty and identity leads to much confusion in their relationship with each other.

Future Girl is presented as Piper’s art journal. You have used acrylic and watercolour paint, ink, collage, encaustic, plaster, spray-paint, rubber stamp, Photoshop and Procreate to create the art. Which media did you find the most innovative to use and how/where did you use it?

I have worked with acrylic and water colour paint, ink, collage, encaustic, plaster, spray paints and rubber stamps for many years and feel really comfortable moving between these materials. However, working digitally was not something I had done much of before Future Girl.

The physical pieces I’d created were scanned and my plan was then to work digitally to create multiple versions of these original artworks, through changing colours and adding varied collage elements and doodles. In my own art journals, there are symbols, textures, patterns and motifs that I use repeatedly – these help to give the books a feeling of being an integrated coherent whole. I wanted to do the same for Piper’s journal, by reusing motifs in a variety of forms.

Since I was not highly proficient in Photoshop, I was fortunate to work with my friend and mentor, Jenine Davidson, who was the lead designer and illustrator for my Grimstones book series. Over the 8 years I worked on the book, Jenine was incredible, sending me tutorials explaining the specific Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign techniques I needed to master, and lifting individual layers from scranned artworks I sent her so I could recombine them with others. 

I compiled a huge library of backgrounds, images and artworks ready to use in Future Girl. My plan was to hand this library to Jenine, who was going to do the intensive digital work of laying out each page (page design) and adding the text (typesetting/text design).

However, just as the time came to pull the whole book together and lay it out with the text and final artworks, Jenine had a family crisis and had to pull out. My publishers promptly called in a replacement for the text design, but since I had such a specific vision for the page design of the book, which Jenine understood but no-one else did, I realised that unless the book was going to veer substantially off the path I had in mind for it, I would need to do the page designs myself. 

Enter several months of frantic work as I barely surfaced to gulp for air, as I raced the clock to learn everything I needed to know about page design and master the technical side of Photoshop sufficiently to pull it off.

Future Girl by Asphyxia (A&U)

Although I am confident as an artist and know how to create a pleasing composition on a canvas, I found it extremely difficult to get elements to look ‘right’ on the page. Take page 95 as an example. I had drawn some persimmons, as the text referred to them. But how to put my persimmon drawings on the page and make them look good? I spent hours and hours on this. No matter where I put the persimmons – half on and half off the page? Large? Small? – they just looked terrible. I tried so many different angles before I had the idea of putting them on an envelope. Even then, they were underwhelming. I tried adding white behind them. That helped, but still … something was missing. Eventually I had the idea to add a spoon, and suddenly it all came together. The page had that magical balance I was searching for.

I found page after page an extreme struggle, as I added pre-prepared elements that just didn’t look right. How did Jenine do this? I used to give her components and she would arrange them in a way that came up as delightful, quirky and visually harmonious. But as I slogged onward, page after page, sometimes giving one a rest and revisiting it later with a fresh mind, something started to gel. By the last hundred or so pages, I was working faster. I had my keyboard shortcuts for Photoshop down pat. I knew, more intuitively, how to aim for something that might work. I also knew what had failed visually and which avenues not to go down.

While those months were breathtakingly pressured, they were also immensely satisfying, as I slowly saw page designs emerge that were actually lovely, and took delight in my newly honed digital skills. Would I do it any other way? No. Although I was so disappointed not to work with Jenine, whose energy and artistic vision I adore, I am thrilled to have developed my design skills to this extent. I now feel confident to create a visual design for a page that has balance and appeal. I am fast and proficient in many Photoshop features that had eluded me before – a skill that will be highly useful for the future.

What awareness do you hope your story generates in your readers?

I hope my readers will develop an awareness about Deafness that is not commonly known. For Deaf readers I hope they will use the book to springboard questions about how they respond to the hearing world and to reconsider whether their responses are the most helpful ones for them. For hearing readers I hope it will give an insight into the often-invisible challenges that Deaf people face, and inspire compassion to go the extra mile in terms of being inclusive, sharing the burden of communication, and dismantling the barriers we face when it comes to participating in a hearing world. I hope the book will also break down the stereotype that people often subconsciously hold, that Deaf people are stupid and that they should be defined by their Deafness. Piper is so much more than her Deafness and her capacity for creative problem solving is a far more important aspect of her personality.

What are you writing now or next?

I’m tossing up writing a book about a female prime minister. I’m not sure if I will be able to pull it off yet but that’s my dream!

I loved reading about the guerrilla garden, thwarting tree vandals and Robbie’s (Marley’s mother) garden in Future Girl. I was enlightened by your insights into Deaf people, even how a capital letter is used for Deaf, and that hearing aids may not be as effective as expected.

Thank you for your responses Asphyxia. Future Girl is a stunning work of ideas and form.

Future Girl by Asphyxia at Allen & Unwin

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