Review by Donna Ledbetter
In Born Into This, a short story collection reminiscent of the work of black American author Edward P. Jones, Aboriginal Australian-born writer Adam Thompson presents stories about Aboriginal life as clear as the intimate snapshots of life in black America that Jones delivers so well. A hallmark of Jones’s work is his focus on the black working and middle classes in Washington, DC, which is where he grew up and derives much of his inspiration. While Jones’s stories are colored by American racism, the plots are less about white supremacy and more about how, in spite of the backdrop of systemic racism and bigotry, black people could thrive. But they are not the mythical superhuman strong black women and men. Rather, they are full of emotion and wrought with mistakes. They suffer the good times as well as the bad. Thompson’s stories are similar. His characters are everyday Aboriginal people going about their lives, putting on happy facades in the presence of white people.
The preservation of Aboriginal culture is a major theme in Thompson’s work. Each story features not only people whose ancestry hails from the Aboriginal world, but also the people, some of whom are white, who suffer from memories of a culture bastardized and destroyed.
In “Honey,” a white beekeeper and his Aboriginal partner look for bees. On the trip back, they find artifacts, old tools for fishing and hunting that native people carved from stone. The white man explains how the tools are “not that special.” When he was a boy, he was told by his uncle that Aborigines weren’t smart enough to invent knives. “If Grandad and other farmers ever found stone tools on their land,” he continues, “they would bury ‘em or throw ‘em in the river so that your mob couldn’t come along and claim land rights.” Here Thompson illustrates how a willful disregard for Aboriginal culture and history was passed through generations. The man’s partner is silent, but Thompson gives us the sense that his partner is experiencing a mix of emotions, not the least of which include sorrow, regret, disbelief, and helplessness. This last feeling is another common thread in Thompson’s work, as if the people who realize their past has been trampled on know of no way to change it.
The title story, “Born Into This,” follows an overworked receptionist who likes to go on holiday at the Mount Barrow Preserve, a rainforest, to surreptitiously save the native ecosystem. She breaks into a closed-off section of the forest to steal eucalypt seeds, which she plants in place of the pine that the forestry laid. By planting this way, she believes she is somehow keeping part of the past alive. She compares herself to the plants who, due to no fault of their own, were “born into a hostile world and expected to thrive.” Preservation of the natural environment is akin to the protecting and preserving of native, ancestral culture.
Besides entertaining, Thompson’s stories are cautionary and instructive. He warns us of the trappings of losing our history, whether through conquest or acquiescence. He shows us how empty, angry, and desperate people can be when their past is trampled or lost.
Americans reading these stories can sympathize with Thompson’s characters. People of color—black people, brown people, and everyone in between—have all experienced episodes in life that echo scenes in Thompson’s work. These stories are touching precisely because they are so familiar. That they tell the stories of people from Australia makes no difference. People realize the need to find ways to reclaim their histories—through agriculture, by storytelling, through activism, and most importantly by living free lives. Thompson shows us how artfully.