Born Into This
“Calm to violent; sweet to salty; alive to dead,” contemplates Ray, a character in “Aboriginal Alcatraz”, reflecting on the dualities of the islands depicted in pakana writer Adam Thompson’s debut short story collection, Born Into This. Some stories are morbidly comic while others cut deep, conveying the absurdity and despair of Indigenous experiences of settler-colonialism across Tasmania.
In the vein of Oscar Zeta Acosta’s 1973 novel of protest, The Revolt of the Cockroach People, Born Into This reads as part documentation and part fiction, written by an author who knows the people, the places and the activist movement he speaks of, because he was there, right in the mix.
Thompson’s characters often struggle against structures they can’t wholly change. In “Invasion Day”, which is as much a protest story as it is a story about protest, the protagonist sets an Australian flag ablaze. It’s a symbolic act, but a moment in which the oppressive “boots of destiny” are defeated by the characters’ old people. His ancestors live on in the fact of Indigenous resistance – against what British theorist Mark Fisher identified as the present condition of “capitalist realism”, where life beyond capitalism is unimaginable. In Born Into This, small acts of agitation and resistance still conceive this sense of the beyond, the knowledge and spirit of the old people living on.
Thompson is at his best when slyly critiquing the commodification of Aboriginal languages and cultural practices. In “Honey”, Nathan deflects requests from his boss, who wants to know the Aboriginal word for honey, hoping it’ll help promote his product to tourists. Thompson comments pertinently on real-life branding trends, whereby Aboriginal languages and place names are plastered on products from bottled water to natural wines, targeting “conscientious” and “culturally curious” consumers.
Other characters, such as the stoic Ben in “The Old Tin Mine”, game the system. He knows the land well, so when an organisation with government funding needs a blackfella to run their “Aboriginal survival camp”, he overcharges them. The question of whether Ben short-changes the gubbas (government) or the young blackfellas who’ve come on the camp is left for the reader to decide.
These stories are familiar, what you might hear when you’re sitting around with your aunties and uncles. Here, your proximity to the tale and care for what’s being told, rather than how meticulously it’s being told, are what make the best of these short stories stick.
UQP, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as "Adam Thompson, Born Into This".
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