Robert Hoge is someone who actively embraces the term ‘ugly’, but not for the reasons you would expect.
As lunch hour drew to a close, Byron Bay Writers’ Festival audiences were treated to an in-depth look at why ‘ugly’ shouldn’t be a definer for people with a disability.
Hoge, who released his memoir Ugly in 2013, was born with a facial tumour the size of a baby’s fist. It ran from the top of his head to his nose. His story was featured on the ABC’s Australian Story last year.
The youngest of five children, he was the first in his family to have significant physical issues and it took a great deal for his family to come to terms with the challenges that faced him.
“I remember when I wanted to start writing my memoir, my brother actually asked me not to because he remembered a lot about the time when I was born and the disruption it caused,” said Hoge, in conversation with Chair Sophie Hamley.
For almost a month after Hoge was born, his mother refused to see him and the doctors supporting his family encouraged his parents to place him in a home.
But in choosing to tell his story, Hoge says he wanted to show what it was like for a kid with a facial tumour to grow up in 1970s and ’80s suburban Brisbane.
Hoge explained that, for him, his involvement in weekly lawn bowls events and a strong encouragement to read provided him with enjoyment.
“My parents were encouraged by six to seven doctors to just let me read, anything from sci-fi to the back of the cereal box,” said Hoge.
As Hoge tells it, his reading encouraged him to take up writing and is very much responsible for him becoming both a journalist and author.
Interrupting the conversation for a moment, Hoge asked audience members to participate in a test for him. When asked to place our hands up if we thought he was beautiful, normal or unusual, he says the majority chose the ‘unusual’ category.
In speaking to the audience, Hoge believed that if we worked to disassociate the connotations surrounding the term you would get to know people much better.
Towards the end of the session, chair Hamley brought the conversation around to the work Hoge is now doing following the release of his memoir.
“When I am speaking in schools about appearance and people who might look a bit different, [I find that] it is wonderful because kids are honest.
“They understand that there are hard times and when I share my story they get a lot out of it,” said Hoge.
Hoge reminded us that everywhere we look today, there is pressure to conform to society’s expectations. But after you move beyond the teen years, this becomes less of an issue.
In closing, Hoge shared his thoughts on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and said he thought it was great to finally see people with a disability being treated as an individual.
Hoge also said that society needs to recognise people’s individuality and not seek to create a one size fits all approach.
As a final challenge to writers, Hoge expressed his desire to see more stories naturally include characters with a disability.
Brendan Pearce is a Media and Politics student at Southern Cross University.