When my brother gave me Tasmanian author Adam Thompson’s Born into this earlier this year, I told him I’d save it for Lisa’s ILW 2021, which I did – and which means I can now thank him properly for a yet another well-chosen gift, because this is a strong, absorbing and relevant read. If you haven’t heard of Thompson, as I hadn’t, he is, says publisher UQP, “an emerging Aboriginal (pakana) writer from Tasmania”.
Born into this is a debut collection of sixteen short stories about the state’s Palawa/Pakana people, and based primarily in Launceston and islands in the Bass Straight. It reminds me a little of Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Too much lip (my review) because, like it, these stories are punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia. I say contemporary Australia, because most of the stories deal with recognisably First Nations Australia concerns. However, the collection is also particularly Tasmanian – in setting and in dealing with issues and conditions specific to that place.
They may live in two worlds, but they are still mob (“The old tin mine”)
I like to think about the order in which stories in a collection are presented, although I can never be confident of the assumptions I make about the reasoning. How can I, I suppose, as I’m not in the heads of the authors and their editors. The first story here, “The old tin mine”, is an interesting choice: it introduces various issues and ideas which are picked up through the collection and it sets a sort of resigned tone. The issues include the relationship between black and white in Australia, the introduction of city Indigenous kids to country and culture, the clumsy conscientiousness of white people who want to do the right thing, the politics involved, and the world-weariness of older Indigenous people in dealing with all of this. The story is told first person through the eyes of “Uncle Ben”, the Indigenous leader on an “Aboriginal survival camp”. He is tired, and cynical, and not particularly interested in dealing with these
Aboriginal teens. City boys. Three from Launceston, three from Hobart. “Fair split, north and south”, according to the organisation that had won the black money.
But it’s a job, and these jobs are becoming less frequent, so he takes it on.
The second story, “Honey”, is told third person, and concerns the interactions between white man Sharkey, who has a honey business, and his Palawa employee, Nathan. Sharkey is arrogant, condescending and oblivious of how his behaviour might affect Nathan. He asks Nathan for the “Aboriginal word for honey” because he thinks using it to brand his honey would “be a good gimmick for selling honey … ‘specially with the tourists”. Not all stories work out this way, but in this one, Nathan has the last laugh.
“Honey” also introduces another idea that peppers the collection, which is land rights, and non-indigenous Australians’ fear of losing land. The collection, in fact, references many of the issues confronting contemporary Australia’s relationship with its First Nations peoples: land rights; Invasion Day (or “change the date”); dispossession, the loss of Indigenous culture and attempts to reclaim it; social issues like incarceration, alcoholism and suicide among Indigenous people; and the Stolen Generations, to name some of them.
Some stories, however, respond to a particular Tasmanian issue, that regarding the definition of indigenity. As I wrote in my post on Kathy Marks’ Channelling Mannalargenna, Tasmania’s history has resulted in a specific set of circumstances regarding loss of identity, which has caused, and is still causing, complications and conflict over Indigenous identification in the state. One of the stories on this subject is “Descendant” about a bright, politicised but ostracised young schoolgirl who runs her school’s ASPA (Aboriginal Students and Parents) committee. Dorothy is assiduous about who is and is not “P-A-L-A-W-A”, and has family-tree records to prove it. Aboriginality, she says, is about “being”, not “choosing”. The story provides an excellent example of Thompson’s use of imagery to underpin his themes: Dorothy’s prized mug is accidentally broken, and Cooper, the supportive (of course!) librarian, tries to repair it, but
Bold, white cracks now intersected the Aboriginal colours like a tattered spider web.
Thompson’s writing in this collection is accessible but evocative. His dialogue varies appropriately from speaker to speaker, and the imagery, particularly that regarding colour – red, blue and white, representing white Australia, versus the red, black and orange of First Nations Australia’s flag – is pointed but not overdone. Thompson clearly knows his country. His descriptions of the islands, and the plants and birdlife endemic to them, take you there (or, at the very least, teach you about them.)
I would love to write about more of the collection’s stories, but I should leave you some surprises. I will say, though, that Thompson’s wide cast of characters – from young, disaffected palawa to smart activists, from genuine white people, who want to understand, to the smug and/or rich ones (as in the incisive “The black fellas from here“) – ensures that this collection hits home. No reader, really, can hide from the truths here because they touch us all.
White makes you wary (“Aboriginal Alcatraz”)
Born into this, then, is clearly political, but it is not all bleak. Some stories end with a bang or a twist, which skewer their points home, while others are more gentle. The title story, “Born into this“, is one of the more poignant ones. It tells of Kara, who works as a receptionist at an Aboriginal housing co-op. She’s jaded. Her boss is “a tick-a-box Aboriginal” who “could never prove his identity”, and she is tired of the struggle to survive. So, deep in the forest, where she had learnt about country from her uncle, she spends her spare time working away on her own quiet, little subversive project, a project that involves
Natural survivors, like her own family, born into a hostile world and expected to thrive. She took in the surrounding devastation and thought again about her own life.
“Born into this”.
She knows she won’t make a difference, but “fulfilling some cultural obligations in her own small, secret way” keeps her sane.
It would be great to think that books like Born into this could make a difference – and I think they could, if we all not only listened to Indigenous writers like Thompson, but also took on board, really took on board, what they tell us about ourselves.
For more reviews of this novel, please click Lisa’s ILW 2021 link in this post’s opening paragraph.
Born into this
St Lucia: UQP, 2021