Born in to This, Adam Thompson

ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 4-11 July 2021

A number of bloggers have got before me to this short story collection by new (43 year old) Indigenous writer Adam Thompson, a Pakana man from northern Tasmania. Not helped by me leaving it at home on my last trip and so missing Lisa’s ANZLL Indig. Lit. Week.

Brona/This Reading Life aka Brona’s Books writes (here): there are powerful and promising things going on here. Some of his stories pack a serious punch, others creep in quietly under your skin. Either way, it is the diversity of characters, settings and tone that is truly impressive.

Kimbofo/Reading Matters’ take is similar (here): Identity, racism and Aboriginal heritage are key themes, with many of the stories focused on First Nations characters caught between two worlds. All provide a refreshing perspective on Australian life and the ways in which we navigate society and find (or don’t find) our place within it… But despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, the collection is not without humour and pathos.

And what does Sue/Whispering Gums, who thought to send me this book, say? (here): … 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.

I, as Sue knows, am not a short story person. Was giving me this book punishment for something I said or did? Am I going to like all or some of these stories? Am I going to be able to say something different? Great questions. Well done Bill. (That’s an Angus Taylor joke. Angus Taylor is an Angus Taylor joke.).

Ok, the first story, The Old Tin Mine was good. An older Indigenous man taking a group of townie Indigenous boys on a survival camp in country he knows, or thinks he knows, comes unstuck.

The second story is better. What’s going on here? A white guy with a Black employee boasts to him about destroying Aboriginal stone implements, “Hope I’m not offending ya.” And he comes unstuck.

The third is more like it, female protagonist/male author, I’m sure not to like it. Kara is a receptionist with a shitty boss and a shitty job. She goes for a quiet walk in the bush on her afternoon off. Both the people she encounters, and the bush are closely observed

The strangers passed, oblivious to her presence. A middle-aged couple, slim and fit. The man had an odd-shaped but well-clipped beard. The woman wore a designer hiking outfit in retro pastel colours. Kara could tell they weren’t from round here. They held themselves – as did all white mainlanders – with that peculiar, assured air. It made them seem taller and more upright than the locals.

Interestingly, the story harks back to the previous story’s stone tools. As a girl she would go out with her uncle, looking for stone tools, photographing them and recording their location.

The walk turns out to have a destination and a purpose. To take a small revenge on the forestry companies replacing native bush with plantation pines. Oh well, perhaps I’ll dislike the next one.

And I did. Well, I thought it – Invasion Day – an awkward evocation of what it is like to be up the front at a protest march.

We go on .. A man alone on an island off the north coast. His uncle who was staying with him, no longer is. A flash cruiser with five police on board brings him a letter. Which he burns. That’s it.

A very good story, a young couple going camping. Is he her trophy Black boyfriend? He certainly thinks she’s his trophy summer girlfriend

‘I’m so sorry’, you blurt out before I can react…
‘For what?’ …
‘For what my people did to yours.’ Your eyes well up again. ‘You owned all this land and now you have to struggle – like now, just to get a camp on the beach.’ Breaking into a sob, you collapse into me…
If you could see my eyes right now, it would kill you to witness them roll in irritation…
‘It’s not your fault,’ I say.
‘You’re so kind,’ you whisper.

A curate’s egg of a story, Mean Girls, aided by teachers, picking on smart Black girl. An awkward story of a white guy at his black mate’s funeral. Another awkward story, awkward in that the writing is stilted, a man waiting on an island for his mate at sea in a tinny in a storm. A not very convincing story about a man and a gun. A silly story about a doctor being shamed into signing his posh house over to a young Aboriginal woman.

“What’s with these acknowledgement of country speeches that kick off every public event these days? It’s all just words! Where is the action? If you acknowledge that this is Aboriginal land, then bloody well give it back, Don’t just say it, do it!”

Then a clever story about a new (Conservative) government policy – every (white) taxpayer gets a letter from one (Black) person on the dole whom they are “sponsoring”. A touching story about … climate change, fathers and sons, a dead child.

A story that points to a missed opportunity – in my eyes only probably – a Black guy at the beach on Invasion Day, flying an Aboriginal flag kite amongst all the whities in their Australia flag picnic chairs, when the Invasion Day story above has already caused a stir.

And finally, “It all started when I discovered my brother was sleeping with my wife …”

How would I describe Born to This? Not so bitsy as some collections. But still a missed opportunity to write something more cohesive, stories which point back to each other, which are connected not just by a shared geography but by recurring characters and families. With a bit more effort Thompson may have turned out, if not Olive Kitteridge, which revolves around one person, then at least The Turning, which involves an extended community seen from multiple viewpoints (and times).

My other problem is my problem – I don’t like authors who step outside their own POV. But, for all you (strange) readers who don’t mind that, who actually like short stories, what can I say? What they said, ” punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia.

.

Adam Thompson, Born in to This, UQP, Brisbane, 2021. 206pp, Cover painting and artwork between stories, Judith-Rose Thomas

50 thoughts on “Born in to This, Adam Thompson

  1. Haha, Bill, you gave it a shot, and I appreciate that. I knew short stories weren’t your thing, but you can’t blame a girl for trying!

    Interestingly, what you saw as a silly story “about a doctor being shamed into signing his posh house over to a young Aboriginal woman”, my brother (who gave me my copy) and I really liked, because it forces us non-Indigenous people to think about what we really mean when we mouth our support for First Nations peoples. I think it’s just as clever as “Your own Aborigine” which I’m glad you liked. I didn’t mention it in my post but I wanted to.

    A couple of the stories – like the one you call Mean Girls – speak very much to Tasmanian issues (as I understand it, anyhow, though there’s some universality to it too I think.)

    I will leave it there, and just say that I’m glad you liked some of the stories, like Kara’s little subversive action one even if you didn’t want to like it. I’m going to take that as a win (not that it really matters, but I’d like to think that something I gave you didn’t entirely waste your time!)

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    • Of course it didn’t waste my time, and thank you again for sending it to me. The issues Thompson brings up are important. I take your point about what do we mean when we say this is Aboriginal land (and I have written before that I think we should negotiate a treaty with the First Nations from the starting point that ALL crown land is theirs). I don’t think the ‘Mean Girls’ story has much meaning when written by a 40 year old guy. But over all, I would rather have read these or similar stories as a novel – which would have given it more depth.
      And after all that. Why did that guy burn the letter?

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      • Well, I don’t know for a fact, and I think it’s complicated but I think it suggests that Jack is completely withdrawing from the outside world into living on country.

        He used to entertain the police when they visited but he doesn’t anymore, because now “any interaction with outsiders was on his terms, and only through necessity”. Uncle Donnie just talks about his life in the outside world, and he’s heard it all before. Early in the story it talks about Jack’s island being “detached from the modern world”.

        As for the “mean girls” story, what to say. Nothing really, but your implication that it doesn’t work only because it’s written by a 40-year-old guy logically means that the only person who can ring true is a girl the same as Dorothy who has experienced exactly what Dorothy experiences, otherwise anyone else is imagining what that girl might be feeling. Where do you draw the line?

        I’m looking at your post on Kayang and me, and the final quote. I think Scott is saying that when things are “equal” people can write about each other. I don’t think Kim Scott, as a writer, would believe that, in an ideal world, what he can write about should be limited to only what he’s experienced. I agree, and I’ve said this all along, that we should “leave space for Indigenous writers”, while things are so uneven, but I don’t agree that ideally, imagination should be limited, which I think you do seem to believe? Haha, Bill, why do I keep having this banging-my-head-against-a-brick-wall discussion with you!!

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      • I don’t think Mean Girls doesn’t work, I just think it’s meaningless because a 40 year old guy doesn’t know what a schoolgirl is thinking. Ever. Not even if he’s a school teacher. Not even if he’s a father with daughters and teenage granddaughters, which I am.
        As you can see from all my posts, my strength is the history of writing. The meanings of what is written passes right over my head (just like the layers of meaning when people talk to me. I am hopelessly literal).

        Your reading my Kayang & Me, from 5 years ago! But Scott’s point is that white men have all the power, and until that is taken from them they should not be speaking for Indigenous people (nor for women). But yes, even in an ideal world I probably wouldn’t be interested in writers imagining themselves into other people’s situations. Which is not to say that I am not interested in their observations FROM THE OUTSIDE.

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    • I’m glad you pointed out the story about the doctor, because a question I asked recently feels almost like the quote from the book that Bill included: “What’s with these acknowledgement of country speeches that kick off every public event these days? It’s all just words! Where is the action? If you acknowledge that this is Aboriginal land, then bloody well give it back, Don’t just say it, do it!”

      Australian’s acknowledging they are on stolen land happens so often now that it feels ubiquitous, and the fact that you guys are pretty much on the same page historically is mind-blowing to me in the U.S. because we can’t even agree that slavery was a bad thing. However, what does it do? What does acknowledgment do?

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      • Acknowledgment is a step along the way, not an end in itself (or a step too far, or a just a token as some feel). Further steps will include more land rights, treaties and (the word for payment of monies), and maybe one day, a genuine feeling of sharing.

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      • Thank you for ‘reparations’. They are a step we need to take, though proper land rights and a treaty are more important (IMO). The right aren’t arguing against them yet, probably because they don’t see them as a real possibility.

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  2. So many people I know and admire do not like short stories and so I totally understand: “Was giving me this book punishment for something I said or did?” In fact, I can’t stop laughing. However, as someone who writes and loves short stories – especially Australian ones – I had best get me a copy of this one. LOL.

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  3. I went to the launch of this book in Hobart (Fullers book shop) early this year or last year. Time eludes me these days.The author’s enthusiasm was contagious. I have an audible copy of this I believe and each time I go to listen something else distracts me.I think I would enjoy these tales as I don’t usually mind short stories. 🤠🎈🐧🌹

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    • Perhaps next time you’re on a driving holiday around the northern part of your island home (or you duck up to see Hawthorn play at Launceston) you can listen as you go. Though there’s not a big sense of place except maybe for the islands.

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  4. I so enjoyed the idea of Sue sending you this collection as some kind of punishment! And that you still found something to pique your interest. Bravo to you both 🙂
    And thank you for the shout out.

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    • Sue is so unlikely to dish out punishment that you wonder how her children turned out, little angels probably. (I know the hard way that shouting at mine didn’t work, though they do all still talk to me, which is one marker of success. And I’m proud of them, so that’s two).
      Yes the character in these stories were all interesting, I just wanted more of them.
      Re shoutouts, blogging for me (and for most of us probably) is an ongoing conversation and cross-linking is part of that.

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  5. Oh, I was going to comment on this: “Not so bitsy as some collections. But still a missed opportunity to write something more cohesive, stories which point back to each other, which are connected not just by a shared geography but by recurring characters and families.” Short story collections are, by definition I guess, bitsy though some do have some sort of overriding theme. This one does to a degree because it is essentially the experience of Tasmanian First Nations peoples seen from different perspectives – political, personal, historical. From those who are happy with where their lives are going to those who are not, from those who want to actively fight for their rights to those who don’t. From those who engage in quiet little subversions to those who don’t. And so on.

    Also, I think, there’s the potential for Thompson to springboard longer works from many of these characters. This is something Elizabeth Jolley in particular was good at. Some stories are just kernels on their own, while others an author thinks they can further develop it. From memory, Jolley’s My father’s moon and The newspaper of Claremont Street both had their origins in short stories. I love it when authors do this, but it doesn’t make the original story lesser. (The beginning of Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby was published as a short story. She possibly already knew it was going to be a novel, but I wasn’t to know that when I read and enjoyed the story!)

    I’ll stop rambling now.

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    • Thank you for putting so much effort into Comments here. I’m embarrassed I teased you now. I’m afraid I just don’t like learning about a character and then having to give them up. In the last few days at home I’ve read and reviewed a couple of novella length books and I’m still missing those characters and wishing I could pick up another episode in their lives tonight.

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      • I love that you teased me Bill! Partly because it means we have a good online relationship (doesn’t it?), but partly also because it invites (whether you meant to or not) and encourages me to further elaborate my own thoughts.

        I rather like that you feel that way about characters. I can relate to that – there are characters I’m devastated to leave (which is not so say I want to read series books about them ad infinitum!). But, when I pick up a short story I go into a different reading mode. You know, horses for courses?

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  6. I am also not a short story person (except I do quite like some of the Golden Age of Crime short mysteries), but I’ve had two short story collections arrive as part of a second-hand book subscription recently so I am going to have to give them a try! I always feel like I am just starting to enjoy the characters and get into the setting when abruptly the story ends.

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    • That sounds intriguing. At one stage I was accumulating stock for a second hand book shop. Perhaps I could dispose of it by subscription,
      Hey Sue, did you see what Lou says, perhaps I’m not in the minority after all.
      Lou, in my truck I get into series mode. It used to be Sookie Sackhouse, then Eve Dallas, Jack Reacher, oh and I forgot Stephanie Plum. I like being with people I know. Now Melanie has me started on Wayfarers – though there’s not so much continuity of characters.

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    • Because creative writing programs try to teach the craft with as many examples as possible of what a writer can do, we often look at loads of short stories instead of novels. Thus, over the years my bar for what makes a good short story has risen so, so high. If the story abruptly ends, that story is done poorly, in my opinion. I think some folks find short stories easier, perhaps more wieldy, than the novel, but that doesn’t mean the stories don’t require extra care.

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  7. I knew that I knew Stephanie Plum, but I had to Google her to work out how. Mortified when I got the answer, though it’s been a while since I indulged. The debate on this post has been most entertaining 🙂.

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  8. The kids were teenagers 25 years or so ago when One for … began the Stephanie Plum series. One of us would see the next one and we’d all enjoy it, I still listen to one now and again. Glad you’re enjoying comments – you don’t want to enter the fray, for or against the short form?

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    • A good short story is like a good speech (says he, dredging up Rostrum training from eons ago), it has a good start, a good end, and something in the middle. I enjoy reading a good short story. Alas, most short stories don’t qualify. They have a good start, and something in the middle. But they whimper out at the end. But when I first started reading short stories, they were by O’Henry or Saki. Maybe the bar was too high.

      I agree that a short story can leave you wanting more. But that doesn’t bother me. It’s a bit like eating a TimTam, I don’t expect it to satisfy my hunger. For that, I eat a main meal.

      When I started to read science fiction, the short story was it, it was almost shocking to read a lengthy novel (and yes, I know there was Verne and Wells, but the contemporary scene was short stories, and Asimov and Heinlein were a bit of a shock to the system, though they wrote short stories too).

      There, have I sufficiently muddied the waters?

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      • I love your Tim Tam/Main meal analogy, Neil. Both delicious but different purposes.

        I’m interested in your comment about short stories and science fiction. I’ve become aware via the Australian Women Writers challenge of quite a lot of short story writing in the genre, something I hadn’t really realised before.

        As for endings of short stories, I think there are different sorts of short stories, and I think it depends on what you look for in endings? Some endings can be quite elliptical, while other can hit you in the guts, or can make you laugh out loud with their brazenness.

        I should read Saki, perhaps.

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      • Hi Sue, when I started reading science fiction in the mid-60s, a lot of science fiction was published in magazines. I tended to read the hardback anthologies (libraries weren’t very interested in stocking magazines). Then the market changed, and now you are struggling to find anything shorter than a trilogy. I don’t read all that much science fiction nowadays, and I rarely read a science fiction short story.

        You’re right, there are different sorts of short story. But the ending still has to be satisfying, and a lot of the time, it isn’t. Mind you, this is a grumble I have with longer forms as well. I have read full-length novels that have carried me along, kept me happy, then dumped me right at the end. Sherri S Tepper (science fiction) used to do that to me all the time. I loved her stories, but she really struggled to write a satisfactory ending.

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      • Ah yes, magazines …

        Re endings. I usually forget the endings of books I read, so I think they are not overly important to me. I usually wonder vaguely when I’m reading a book about where it is going, but I don’t have preconceived notions of what I’m looking for. I am usually more interested in the tone of a book, and how it made me feel.

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  9. Neil and Sue, I was happy to see you continuing this discussion without me. Let me answer you both in this one comment.
    Leaving aside Jules Verne, my introduction to SF was the novels of John Wyndham in the last two years of high school. At uni the Union library subscribed to SF magazines and I quickly became addicted to mainstream, mostly US, “pulp” SF. Lots of short stories, yes, but what I remember best was the serial novels and especially the Heinlein one where a rich old guy has his mind put into his secretary’s head and they coexist and have lots of sex.
    Neil bringing up O’Henry and Saki reminds me of the formal, mannered quality of that generation of short story writers. And also that the form was created for magazines. That’s one of the reasons collections don’t work for me, the stories were never designed to be read one after the other.
    I do agree with Sue about endings. I read for the experience of being immersed in the story and any ending is arbitrary – life still goes on for the characters, but we stop participating/observing.

    In the end I don’t think we can get around the fact that liking/disliking short stories is a preference not a matter of right and wrong. And for writers I like, I will read anything they wrote, long or short. I have a John Kinsella collection beside my bed at home and I hope I get to it this year.

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  10. Okay, last thought: I know what you mean, Bill, about a short story collection in which the stories speak to each other. One way I’ve seen this done effectively in a couple of collection is to focus on a neighborhood, especially a cul-de-sac. Each story can be written from the perspective of someone in a household, who then runs into other neighbors whom we’ve met or will meet soon. Each character’s home situation is different, but there are echoes.

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    • A book that sounds like this one, Melanie, is now over 2 decades old – Rohinton Mistry’s Tales from Firozsha Baag which is an apartment complex in Mumbai. I never finished it, because I was reading it while visiting someone (which you can do with short stories, can’t you – I mean start reading a book while visiting and leave it when you go!) but it was like your cup-de-sac one. Some books like this force questions about the definition of the novel too, don’t they.

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      • You know, I do wonder why these aren’t just called novels with chapters, though I can see why someone would call it a short story. If the stories have the same recurring characters, but not an overarching plot, readers may feel cheated in some way if it is titled a novel. My hope for book labels is always that readers are not surprised by what they’ve purchased and end up feeling cheated.

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      • I’m a bit the opposite. If the author says this is a novel, this is short stories, this is poetry then I try and see what they were trying to achieve. (I’m not so accommodating with this is not SF).

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  11. I’m not keen on short stories, either – I like longer, more satisfying ones that have an actual story, like Dorothy Whipple and Elizabeth Taylor’s. But when they’re making a serious and interesting point, like these are, I can more see the point of them from a sociological perspective. But then I’d probably prefer a set of linked pieces of memoir, of real-life stories!

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    • I think short stories were designed for magazines. So 100 years ago in the bush you’d get this one paper with a bit of news, news analysis, information (eg. shipping lists), topical ‘poetry’ and a few stories. But even then, I get the impression it was the serials that readers hung out for – there are stories of queues forming at the Bourke railway station to see the next episode of Robbery Under Arms.

      By that reasoning anthologies are a bit unnatural, collections of texts meant to be read on their own, not surrounded by dozens of their fellows. Collections of short stories probably work best when you can dip in and out. And as I say, if you going to settle down for the evening with one collection then you’d at least like them to talk to each other.

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  12. What a great discussion you’ve inspired via the notion of short stories as punishments. LOL
    I’m also very curious about this statement, “I don’t like authors who step outside their own POV.” Isn’t that the point of being a fiction writer? I have a feeling that I’m just missing a piece of information here, or that the conversation’s been had, in various forms over the years here, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about how writers are encouraged and discouraged by/from the art of invention (for instance, lately the furor about the American popular author who was compelled to change a character’s comparison of her life with Anne Frank’s life, which offended a reader in the U.S.) so your comment fit with these musings of mine.

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