Review: Born Into This by Adam Thompson

Born Into This, pakana author Adam Thompson’s debut collection of 16 short stories, is set in northern Tasmania. I grew up in the region, so many of the places were familiar to me, but to read Thompson’s writing is to get a feel of a landscape and history “smoothed over like warm butter on a crusty scone”, as one character notes, by Tasmania’s foundational history of genocide and dispossession.

Many of these stories centre on men and boys going out birding on the Bass Strait islands. These are the islands where European sealers and whalers abducted Tasmanian women, where today Aboriginal Tasmanians harvest muttonbird chicks. It is a timeless tradition, but times are changing. In the first story, The Old Tin Mine, Ben leads a “survival camp” for young Aboriginal Tasmanians on Clarke Island, only to find the local water source dry. Later, in Time and Tide, James Beeton and his teenage son Henry find the birds gone. Harry finds a story about dead muttonbirds washed up near Sydney, a sign of climate change. But James doesn’t “believe in climate change. Or the internet”. There’s a wonderful sense of place in these stories, not just the harshness and beauty of the environment (what a character in Aboriginal Alcatraz calls the “duality of the islands”) but the restorative power of cultural traditions.

Other stories are of a more satirical nature. In Descendant, a school becomes the site of a battleground over Aboriginal identity, mirroring conversation in society more broadly. Dorothy founds the school’s Aboriginal Students and Parent’s Group, but her “passion for heritage” is seen as disruptive, and her group comes under threat from another student with a “sloppy” claim to Aboriginality. In Honey Nathan helps his white friend move bees hives to the coast, where they find stone tools. Although he mocks the tools, the friend exhibits an anxiety that they’ll lead to a heritage claim (“It doesn’t work like that,” Nathan tells him), echoing conversations I used to have with farmers’ kids in high school. And in Kite, the narrator takes the titular gift from his nephew to the beach on Australia Day, with bleakly humorous results. Perhaps most effective is Summer Girl, in which an Aboriginal man takes his white girlfriend – addressed in second person as “you” – camping on the east coast. She’s an apologetic type, crying over her boyfriend’s struggle to find a campsite:

You owned all the land and now you have to struggle – like now, just to get a camp at the beach.

But there’s something more sinister going on. “Parts of me wants to squash you in my fist for being so naive as to land upon my hand,” he says. He raises the spectre of the abduction and rape of Aboriginal women during Tasmania’s colonisation. It is a disconcertingly misogynist, unsettling way of flipping history.

That masculine anger so evident in Summer Girl is present throughout Born Into This. Typical of it is the very bleak Black Eye, in which a 50-year-old alcoholic thinks back to the “worst thing I’ve ever done”. But although his first reaction to this event is “sadness and regret”, later there is only fury, as he contemplates revenge. It is a claustrophobic perspective, to be trapped in the minds of these men with their anger. Sometimes it turns outwards – to family and friends, or to acts of political resistance – and other times inwards, to alcoholism, substance abuse and suicide. So it’s a relief to have a rare woman’s voice, as in the titular story when Kara, receptionist at an Aboriginal Housing Co-op, spends her downtime walking the hills at Mount Barrow and plotting acts of civil disobedience.

Throughout Born Into This are the compromises that Aboriginal people have to make to live in the colonial state. In the very first story Ben seeks respite on the islands, but enjoys the creature comforts of consumerism: a designer sleeping bag, mattress and weed. Other compromises are more sticky, like the bureaucratic loops the characters have to jump through to get funding for work on country. Or the family divisions in Bleak Conditions, in which a middle-class Aboriginal man married to a white woman rescues his brother Jarrod from sleeping rough in the park. Jarrod’s “world view is that when Aboriginal people digressed from social norms it was a form of protest against colonisation. He called it “cultural deviance””. He sees his brother as “living like a white man”. There’s no solution on offer here, but the relief the character’s feel on country must be part of it.

Thompson’s writing is economical throughout, with an emphasis on action, but there are still some lovely turns of phrase, such as the granite boulders at the entrance to one the islands’ ports, “ancient lithic structures, protruding from the mirrored sea”.

One of the most pernicious myths about Aboriginal Tasmanians is that of extinction. This collection is an effective rebuttal and a demand to be heard. As Dorothy realises when watching relatives at a protest, “Their banners said Land Rights, but what they really marched for was something unspoken: recognition”.

Gay rating: not gay

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