Adam Thompson Born into This

Adam Thompson’s vivid stories encompass resistance, revenge, and hard truths.

The 16 stories that comprise Adam Thompson’s debut collection are all set among Tasmania’s Aboriginal community. Many of them are set on the islands of Bass Strait, and one of the strengths and pleasures of the collection is the evocation of the landscape and climate of the islands. Here is Chappell Island during a storm in the story ‘Aboriginal Alcatraz’:

The rising tide had brought on the rollers, and they dashed the granite sentinels at the mouth of our harbour. White foamy plumes – streaked with ribbon weed – rained across the coastal plains with the aid of the westerly, salinating thin soils and crystallising the blue-grey cobbles above the beach. It was there, within that miracle combination of salt crust and sparse tussock grass, that the kunikung grew. It never failed to surprise me even amid the distress and turmoil of this very moment, how it managed to survive, let alone produce the sweetest and most nourishing bush tucker.

Some islands are places Aboriginal youth can visit to learn about their culture, others are places of punishment, refuge or work (for some families the annual muttonbird season provides a vital income).

But the islands are changing. In the first story, ‘The Old Tin Mine’, Uncle Ben is leading a group of teenagers on a survival camp – ‘Traditional food, yarns, roughing it’ – on Cape Barren Island. ‘Roughing it’ will involve the group finding their own water, and Ben intends to lead them to the old tin mine, where there has always been water. But when a crisis erupts and the group is airlifted out:

I craned my neck to see the waterhole at the old tin mine. … But the light that caught my eye wasn’t the familiar glint of silvery water. It was the glittery sparkle that comes from mica in river sand. There was no water.

‘Time and Tide’, later in the book, explores other changes. Each year Henry and his father have gone across to Big Dog Island for the muttonbirds, sinking all their money into supplies in anticipation of the returns the birds will bring. But this year the rookeries are virtually empty.

The scientists had predicted a poor breeding season and blamed climate change. They said the birds’ food was scarce due to rising ocean temperatures. … Henry didn’t show it to James when he finally returned. His father didn’t believe in climate change – or the internet.

Not all the stories are set on the islands. The title story, ‘Born into This’ is one of the strongest in the collection. Kara, who works at Launceston’s Aboriginal Heath Service, reflects on the exploitation of the landscape:

Forestry had been active on this side [of the ridge], and reaching to the mountains in the distance was a patchwork of tree plantations, at various stages of growth. Here and there, random sections of vegetation had been cleared back to bald earth, making the landscape look like a huge, incomplete jigsaw puzzle

The first time Kara stood at this spot, she’d melted into tears, and the noise of her emotions drifted across the valley. … The vision of the land – her ancestors’ country, so far removed from the cultural landscape it once was – took her over the edge. 

In her own small way, Kara has embarked on a project to resist these changes. She thinks of the native plants that remain as:

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.

A number of stories deal with white characters wanting to claim Aboriginality, or Aboriginal characters denying their heritage. In ‘Born into This’ a white woman arrives at the Aboriginal Heath Centre with her son:

She’d seen a thousand Johnny-come-latelys and had observed there were two main types: the ones who played the sympathy card, and the ones who tried to intimidate you into accepting them. This woman and her son were the latter kind.

‘We want our Aboriginal papers, please. We just found out his father is Indigenous.’ …

With a pudgy hand, the boy pushed a tuft of fringe off his pocked forehead. ‘Yeah, my aunty says we’re Aboriginal,’ he muttered. ‘And that we can get stuff … you know, for free.’

… As unscrupulous as the Johnny-come-latelys were, they were rarely so open about their intention to scam benefits.

This theme is explored in more detail in ‘Descendant’. Here, proud Aboriginal schoolgirl Dorothy (a little too proud for her white teachers and classmates) questions a girl who suddenly announces that she, too, identifies as Aboriginal. As an exasperated Dorothy observes:

 ‘Aboriginal is something that you are. It is something you are born as. It isn’t just something you can choose to be, such as a … teacher. Or an idiot.’

Other characters, such the two brothers in ‘Bleak Conditions’, are at odds over their Aboriginality. Jarrod tells his brother:

‘We’re palawa, whether you like it or not. I hate it that you live like a raytji. It brings shame on me. Shame on our community … At least I’m with my people …’

To which his brother responds:

‘Your people? What people? We’re just descendants, Jarrod. Aborigines were our ancestors. We’re not them. Sure, we’ve got a bit of colour in us but, you know …’

Other stories explore the tensions between black and white. In ‘Honey’, Sharkey, a white beekeeper, asks his Aboriginal offsider:

‘So Nathan, what is the Aboriginal word for honey? … Wanna use the name on me label. Be a good gimmick for selling the honey, I reckon. ’Specially with the tourists.’

At the end of the story Nathan quietly, shockingly, gives his answer.

In ‘The Blackfellas From Here’, Dr James Clifford is a white man who has achieved a considerable amount of publicity by attaching a plaque to the front of his large house overlooking Launceston. The plaque reads: The owners acknowledge that this house stands on Aboriginal land.

Here Thompson has a lot of fun bringing Kat to the doctor’s front door. Posing as a university student ‘doing a paper on Aboriginal land return’, Kat inveigles her way inside and presents him with conveyancing papers:

‘I’m offering you an opportunity to put your money where your mouth is, doc … You get to right the wrongs you speak of, and give your house and your land back to us: the blackfellas from here.’

These stories are by turns fierce, lyrical, suspenseful (‘Aboriginal Alcatraz’), whimsical (‘Morpork’) and poignant (‘Jack’s Island’, ‘Sonny’). They can be unabashedly political (‘Invasion Day’, ‘Kite’), but also explore the complexities of relationships both within the Aboriginal community and between black and white.

Adam Thompson writes with passion and verve, and Born into This brims with insight and hard truths in stories that are vividly drawn and frequently compelling.

Adam Thompson Born into This UQP 2021 PB 256pp $29.99

This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 25 May 2021.