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Born Into This by Adam Thompson review – witty, versatile and thrumming with voice | Short stories

“What’s with these acknowledgement to 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!” So retorts a character in The Blackfellas From Here, one of the 16 short stories in Adam Thompson’s collection Born Into This. Punchy and uncompromising, it’s a good representation of the tales to be found in the Indigenous Tasmanian’s first book.

This particular story is about a white man, a prominent Launceston psychiatrist who had put up a brass plaque in front of his home that baldly states: “The owners acknowledge that this house stands on Aboriginal land.”

The quoted reprimand comes from a university student who’s determined to challenge this woke, tokenistic gesture of faux-solidarity. Born Into This may be fictional, but there’s no doubting the emotional truth and grit at the core of these stories. It’s a potent collection by an author who mined the richness of both his ancestry, his work within the Aboriginal community and his island home for tales about black and white relations, colonialism, class friction, racism and the despoilment of heritage and environment.

The stories are contemporary, but the past is never far from the present. Indeed there’s a collusion of time in the poignant and affecting title story, whereupon Kara leaves her city day job as a receptionist at the Aboriginal Health Service to spend her half-day off trekking in the rainforest, parts of which have been sectioned off for the forestry industry. There she does her best to fulfil her cultural obligations by ensuring regrowth, tending to the natives. With a bit of gentle coaxing, their determination to survive will be “unshaken by the destruction of their environment”.

The book often melds city and bush. The opening story, The Old Tin Mine, features a cantankerous, weed-smoking elder, a ranger who is responsible for running a “survival camp” for town-raised lads who have lost their connection to Country. The program is loosely set up for “traditional food, yarns, roughing it”: so for the boys to snare a roo or two and to gather some low-tide limpets among other tribal wisdoms. Here and all throughout the book, Thompson displays a fine calibration of characterisation and voice. “Uncle Ben” (not an honorific he’d chosen) is gruff and sardonic, and like a number of the other stories, there’s humour and a twist in the end too.

“You boys wanna remember this is about survival. We’re blackfellas. We’ve survived for thousands of bloody years in the bush – without the need for any of this shit,” he says as he points accusingly at bags of supplies that the white government rep, Chris, brought along.

Thompson skips nimbly from sea to land: from muttonbird spearing, salting and roasting on Badger Island and a detention program for young offenders on an another isle dubbed “Aboriginal Alcatraz”(where the juvies are kept in not by security gates but by the sea), to the dusty trails, fern-lined gorge and sharp ravines in Honey, a wonderfully dark comeuppance tale.

Indigenous culture and politics – all the blurry nuances of categorisation and identity – are explored with forensic delicacy that belies the power behind the hand. Descendant is about the fraught policing of genealogical claims of Aboriginal ancestry, and Bleak Conditions is about the inverse: the cost of denying that “we’ve got a bit of colour in us”. Sonny, meanwhile, is narrated by a white man who attends the funeral of his childhood best friend – a mate that in a moment of sporting frustration and to later chagrin he inadvertently called a “darky”.

Tonally, Born Into This moves with fluid versatility, from righteous anger in Invasion Day, with the protest march gathering before Parliament House, which “[looms] above like a love sonnet to colonialism”, to sly satire in Your Own Aborigine, named after a (fictional) scheme passed through federal parliament that mandates compulsory sponsorship of Aboriginal welfare recipients by the Australian taxpayer, so they know exactly who their money goes to and how it will be spent.

With its wit, intelligence and restless exploration of the parameters of race and place, Thompson’s debut collection is a welcome addition to the canon of Indigenous Australian writers of the calibre of Tony Birch, Melissa Lucashenko, Tara June Winch and Ellen van Neerven.

It serves as a salient reminder that there is no monolithic Aboriginal Australian; the book thrums with a cacophony of voices and experiences. Some of his characters hide their vulnerability and loss amid fronts of machismo, others are more like tinnies bobbing in a raging ocean beyond their control. Like the native trees being razed, they were “born into a hostile world and expected to thrive”. This book bears witness to their struggles.

• Born Into This by Adam Thompson is out now through UQP

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