Dave Clark reviews Born Into This by Adam Thompson
Born Into This
by Adam Thompson
Reviewed by DAVE CLARK
As a technique pioneered and refined over the past hundred years, keyhole surgery involves a surgeon making small incisions in the skin, so tiny that at times it is hard to tell afterwards that something significant has taken place beneath the surface of the patient. It is a method used to diagnose health conditions, as well as to begin treating them.
From the first short story in Born Into This by Adam Thompson[i], I felt that I was in seasoned, steady hands. As the stories unfolded, each one was a penned incision, surgical and precise, cutting beneath the surface, diagnosing the ongoing impacts of colonisation/invasion. The writing within these sixteen short stories deftly slides beyond the synapses and impacts the heart.
I was surprised to learn that this was Thompson’s debut book. I was not surprised to see that this collection was shortlisted for multiple awards, including the Queensland Literary Awards 2021, the Age Fiction Book of the Year 2021 and the USQ Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection. If his name isn’t familiar in your writing and reading circles, that will change once you get hold of his work.
Adam Thompson is an Aboriginal (pakana) writer from Launceston. He has worked for almost twenty years in roles caring for Lutruwita (Tasmania) Country and preserving culture and heritage. His passion for these endeavours clearly influences his writing and themes. His writing career has been gathering momentum over the last five years, with some of his short stories being recognised with writers’ festival awards. Born Into This is his first full collection of short fiction.
The sixteen stories in this book traverse across Tasmania, taking place on tiny islands, beaches, the streets of Launceston, in forests, at a funeral, in a school and a pub and suburban houses. Tasmania is a part of Australia not often captured in contemporary fiction. It is a refreshing insight into an often-overlooked region.
The characters within his book are blistering and humorous, compassionately created. Many of the characters are engaging enough to justify an entire book. The stories are fierce and political, leading to a collection that sizzles. It confronts. It takes tropes and myths and shreds them in an accomplished manner. It mixes world-class writing with his unique take on each character’s inner world. This is contemporary Australian fiction at its most impacting, sitting comfortably alongside the works of Tara June Winch, Melissa Lucashenko and the poetry of Evelyn Araluen.
Thematically, Thompson looks intently into the ongoing impacts of colonisation in current day Tasmania. As Noongar author Claire G. Coleman writes about in her recent book, Lies Damned Lies, colonisation/invasion in Australia was not an event. It’s ongoing.[ii] Any current writing about it needs to acknowledge this and challenge the power, privilege, and the very Anglo understandings of history. Thompson doesn’t tiptoe around this. The elephants in the room are pointed at and prodded. He does it with clever turns of narrative that lead the reader to see the world in personal ways that whiter parts of Australia can often turn a blind eye to.
For example, the second story, ‘Honey,’ looks at the commodification of language and how Aboriginal culture matters only to some when it can generate them a buck. The fourth story ‘Invasion Day’ takes places during a protest and has the line,
‘Looming above, like a love sonnet to colonisation, stood the sandstone monstrosity of Parliament House’ (p49).
Stories like ‘Jack’s Island,’ ‘Black Eye’ and ‘Time and Tide’ stride into the devastating, way-of-life-altering impact that climate change is having on the characters’ connection to Country. ‘Descendent’ wrestles with who gets to decide Indigenous identity and the persistent myth that Indigenous people in Tasmania died out with Truganini. The story seems to be saying that we were invaded, but not erased. Still here.
The experience of characters as minorities in their region often see them facing racism. As someone who has lived in Alice Springs (Mparntwe) for twelve years, I see and hear many acts of racism towards Arrernte people most days. Some of the acts are personal. Some are in way they are policed and treated in court or in the local shops, the societal structures that continue to try to kick them down to the bottom rung. It’s horrible to witness people and their families being targeted, based solely on their skin colour and culture. Those of us who are privileged will never fully understand what it is like and just how resilient people are living in the face of such ongoing injustice.
Acts of racism – the ‘in your face’ versions, the far-reaching political decisions, the removal of agency and the subtler, pervasive microaggressions – are shown and felt in many of the characters’ stories of Thompson’s book. The story ‘Sonny,’ about a white man who yells out ‘Run, Darky, run,’ (p101) to his friend on the footy field, sat heavy in my gut for days, sounding all-too familiar to instances around town.
It is deeply confronting – and necessarily so – to see how explicit and implicit forms of racism are still so prevalent. If, as a white reader of this book, we don’t feel sick and embarrassed and angry by Australia’s past and present, then we aren’t hearing the beating heart of this collection.
Tokenistic and paternalistic responses to colonisation/invasion are on display in these stories. ‘The Blackfellas From Here’ bitingly looks at the shallowness of acknowledgement of whose land it is, with Kat challenging James to hand over the deed to his house. It asks the question of what a deep acknowledgement of the past and present would look like. It shows that current political responses are still largely like acknowledging that someone has a flat tyre, but then just walking on by and doing nothing about it. Acknowledgement must be more than a cursory nod towards someone’s experience.
As a whole collection, there are many standout stories, including ‘Kite’ and ‘Born Into This’ to go with the ones already mentioned. On both the first and second readings of the collection, I felt however that the power of the book drops away in two of the final stories. As their own entities, ‘Time and Tide’ and ‘Morpork’ would find happy homes in many publications. In contributing to the overall theme though, it felt that these lingered in comparison to the crackling nature of the rest of it.
One subject that crops up regularly in the book is around survival. An example of this is the character Kara, secretly planting young eucalypt trees in areas that have been hacked away by forestry and mining companies. She contemplates this as she tends to the trees,
‘Natural survivors, like her own family, born into a hostile world and expected to thrive’ (p40).
Plants survive Tasmania’s climate as well as the brutality and the upheaval of exploitative human damage. These delicate pictures of flora and fauna are placed in many of Thompson’s stories, alongside their human equivalents. They are beautiful and telling reminders of people and culture that are deep-rooted, living and breathing in the present. Finding ways to survive, and thrive, even amidst significant change, Thompson weaves in his theme of hope. The reader is not left depressed, but more so, impressed upon: that there is horror in this country. And there is hope.
Several websites and interviews refer to Adam Thompson as an emerging writer. With a book this good, with prose and dialogue this splendid, ’emerging’ seems to be a misguided stamp. With Born Into This, he has well-and-truly added his works to the strongest writers in Australian contemporary fiction. To tackle content as heavy as the themes of racism and survival, and to do so elegantly and originally, is a remarkable achievement.
[i] Thompson, Adam 2021, Born Into This, University of Queensland Press, Australia.
[ii] Coleman, Claire G 2021, Lies Damned Lies, Ultimo Press, NSW.
DAVE CLARK is a writer-poet with CFS who lives in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). He works as a counsellor and enjoys reading, photography and giving voice to quieter stories. His works have been published in Mascara, Imprint, Pure Slush Books, Adelaide Lit, Quillopia, Slippage Lit, Melbourne Culture Corner and Right Now. Twitter @DaveClarkWriter