Review: Merinda Duttonon Adam Thompson

The Tyranny of Tokenism

In the public imagining, many equate Tasmania (Trouwunna/ Lutruwita) with Truganini – the ‘last Tasmanian Aboriginal’. This narrative of the last Tasmanian is a deliberate one, engineered by the colonial project, to lay claim to the truth. The undeniable and true history of genocide in Trouwunna/ Lutruwita is not to be conflated with the total extinction of its first peoples. To do so erases First Nations existence and survival in Trouwunna/ Lutruwita – literally.

In a sharp and biting rebuttal, Adam Thompson, a Pakana author from Launceston, offers an account of First Nations survival in his debut collection Born Into This. His short stories are a searing depiction of the continuing multiverse of Aboriginal sovereignty and sovereignties. In Thompson’s telling of Trouwunna/ Lutruwita, he disrupts the fragile foundation upon which the white narrative of extinction is built. His writing is itself an act of resistance and as a sovereign writer, Thompson positions First Nations people within a narrative about Trouwunna/ Lutruwita that shatters the gothic façade. Story by story, what emerges is a belonging to Country, one which is grounded in knowing and in knowledge. Through a diverse array of characters, Thompson centres First Nations voices within a space assumed to be settled.

Alexis Wright reckons with this kind of battle over narrative:

The stories that have sprung from the original and ongoing land theft create fear and resentment, because whoever tells the Aboriginal story basically tells the story of who they believe own the land – us, or them.

The myth of Truganini as the last Tasmanian Aboriginal relegates First Nations people to the past. It presupposes that there are no Aboriginal people left in Trouwunna/ Lutruwita, people to whom all manner of things may be owed – including land. Born into This confronts this erasure head-on and says: we are still here, and we are self-determining.

Sovereignty is at the heart of the book’s namesake story, ‘Born Into This’. Kara, a receptionist at the Aboriginal Housing Co-Op is using her Fridays to enact her own kind of justice through caring for country. Her acts of care and sovereignty are in propagating, growing and planting eucalypts in pine forests (the pine being a non-native species to the area). Kara’s knowledge of and kinship to country is evident through her actions. In many ways the eucalypts are symbolic of the existence of First Nations peoples in colonised Australia while the pine trees depict the process of colonisation. Defying colonial laws which would prohibit her actions, Kara is intentional and nurturing in fulfilling her cultural obligations to the land. In doing so, she simultaneously rejects the colonial state while embodying First Nations philosophy. This is precisely what is enunciated by Tracey Bunda on the topic of the sovereign Aboriginal woman:

Our sovereignty is embodied and is tied to particular tracts of country, thus our bodies signify ownership and we perform sovereign acts in our every day living.

In reflecting on Kara’s imperative, it is striking how familiar her unease is. Her boldness conceals an underlying despair, one that mirrors the collective anxiety we all feel:

the first time Kara stood at this spot, she’d melted into tears… the vision of the land – her ancestors’ country, so far removed from the cultural landscape it once was – took her over the edge.

In fact, this current of unease surfaces across the collection, like a dossier of witness statements. Many of Thompson’s stories evidence the ways that First Nations peoples have borne certain responsibilities as spectators to the devastation of land and sea. Our kinship to country often demands this of us. In The Old Tin Mine’, Uncle Ben observes the changing landscape when he realises that waterholes he always knew to be rich with water, had run dry.

As the trees opened up, I craned my neck to see the waterhole at the old tin mine. I wanted to point it out to the boys… to show them what they had missed out on. But the light that caught my eye wasn’t the familiar glint of silvery water. It was the glittery sparkle that comes from mica in river sand. There was no water. Not a fucking drop.

Similarly in ‘Time and Tide’, Henry and his father make their annual trip to Big Dog Island for the mutton-bird season, but are confronted with the question: ‘Why were there no birds?’

There are other sovereignties here too. Collective endeavours in autonomy. Manifestations of belonging and kinship. The individual is invariably informed by this belonging and kinship. There is power and strength in that which resists colonial attempts to define us. A sovereignty in existing. And yet the effects of genocide have been destructive when it comes to this sense of self, for some. Born Into This displaces the colonial narrative which would understand us as no more than ‘full-bloods’ or ‘half-castes’.

And what of those who cannot find a place to belong? Thompson speaks to the complex space between belonging and being lost. Here, in this in-between place, is a window for his characters to make sovereign choices about their own identity.

In ‘Descendant’, Thompson unpacks the trouble that ensues when white people assert themselves in our affairs, enabling a conversation about the conflation of Aboriginal heritage (descendance) with cultural authority. In this story, Dorothy, who is proudly First Nations, is faced with a cultural dilemma when another girl at her school unexpectedly decides to start identifying as Aboriginal, taking up space and speaking on issues for which she has no lived experience. Dorothy enacts a communal sovereignty in the ways she enforces First Nations cultural protocol around belonging:

Aboriginal is something that you are. It is something you are born as. It isn’t just something you can choose to be, such as a … teacher. Or an idiot.

Meanwhile, ‘Sonny’ surveys the complexities of belonging and identity – showing that there is a privilege in being able to choose whether and how to identify. It’s a privilege which enables those who hold it to avoid racial vilification. But there’s an inevitable trade-off, a personal cost. This kind of self-rejection is itself a product and intention of the colonial project. Both ‘Sonny’ and ‘Bleak Conditions’ hint that healing may come from returning – in remembering not only oneself, but the belonging that goes with it. However, Thompson does not present this return in a neat, morally contained box. He masterfully intimates the personal, moral, and cultural entanglement that such characters navigate in their acceptance of themselves.

The complexity of embodied sovereignty and living in the colonised space of Australia, unravels in ‘Invasion Day’:

Holding my lighter against the dripping rag of red, white and blue, I thought of the fat businessman who’d told us to get a job, and the car that honked at the lights. I thought of the angry bogans, and the police who looked at us as though we were ants and they were the boots of destiny. But most of all I thought of the old people. My old people.

There’s an exacting cadence in ‘Invasion Day’ that echoes the celebratory highs and the sombre lows that often infiltrate 26 January. The chink-chink of the clapsticks propel the story along. The Invasion Day highs are there in the communal kinship of continued survival:

‘Stand out brother’ he said in the melodious yet gravelled tones of his natural voice… people around noticed he had singled me out, and a hand patted my shoulder. I felt important.

The lows are there in the many racisms endured by the protagonist, so unoriginal in content as to almost be a stereotype. Here, Thompson enunciates taunts that many First Nations readers will be well-versed in:

A fat man with slick hair and a business shirt leaned against a traffic pole, shaking his head and clapping his hands slowly. He yelled at us to ‘get a job’.

And in the same vein: ‘Go home, ya fucking wankers!’ The pace and familiarity of ‘Invasion Day’ almost lulls the reader into a false sense of calm. Almost.

I suspect that white readers will experience shock or may even take offense at the kind of sovereign action executed by the protagonist, who burns the Australian flag. Such is its sanctity. Similarly, I wonder whether the multitude of microaggressions and racisms will be perceived as exaggerated or unrealistic?

These worries speak to the concerns that First Nations writers grapple with in deciding what to tell and how much of it to tell. There’s a braveness in the way that Thompson has presented an undiluted version of First Nations existence, not tempered by the need to make it more palatable for the white reader. His writing honours and holds space for First Nations realities and ways of knowing, of being. Of sovereignty.

Settler colonialism concerns itself with duality and individuality. The colonial project forgets easily that the individual cannot be separated from the group, the community or from the land. This commitment to duality begets a communal amnesia which fails to recognise the nuance of the whole. Such forgetfulness lends itself to a sort of essentialising. Within this framework, words have the capacity to become hollow caricatures of themselves, mere tokens in lieu of honest action or deep understanding.

Thompson explores the tyranny of tokenism, effecting a sharp and refined critique of symbolism without action and bureaucracy without truth. In doing so, Born Into This urges its audience to see the whole again. And more than that, Thompson enunciates the urgent need for conscious action.

The book’s opening story ‘The Old Tin Mine’ illuminates the manner in which governments sometimes miss the point. A government-funded cultural revival program is exposed for its tokenism through the sharp and oftentimes hilarious musings of the tour guide, Uncle Ben:

These camps weren’t so hardcore that we couldn’t have a few non-traditional items, like a frying pan and some condiments. It was a condition of the funding… Couldn’t be too traditional. Survival camps sounds great on paper, but the survival of the kids can never be at stake.

Conscious action may in fact require inaction from settlers, by not taking up space or not making judgments about what is in the best interests of First Nations people. In my reading of the ‘Old Tin Mine’ I was struck by how the survival camp appeared to have been designed to address some sort of ‘Aboriginal problem’. Presumably without input from, or investment in, the local First Nations community. The imposition of funding cycles and grant applications into matters which transcend time (or even definition), is one of the absurdities of living in colonised Australia. It is clear from this story, that if it is not First Nations-led, it runs the risk of creating totalities where none exist.

Cultural revival without the embodiment of practice, obligation, or relationship, is in fact, just performative. A mere puff.

We call these trips ‘survival camps’ because they are all about learning some of the old ways. Living off the land. To the old fellas, the tribal people – and even us mob who group up on the islands – culture isn’t something we try to learn or reclaim. It’s what we are immersed in from the moment we are born.

In ‘The Blackfellas from here’, a white landowner’s hollow land acknowledgement plaque reveals the emptiness of words without action, and a fundamental reluctance to relinquish power. Thompson explores the idea of Land Back in its most literal sense. The ritual of the ‘acknowledgement of country’ is thus brought in for interrogation:

‘They are conveyancing papers, doc. They’ve been drawn up by a lawyer.’ She paused. ‘this is how you sign your house over to the Aboriginal community of Tasmania.’

When the white landowner is presented with a real opportunity to return ‘his’ property to its rightful custodians, he baulks:

‘There’s no way on earth I’m signing this place over to you, or anybody!’ …. ‘and you don’t even really look that Aboriginal by the way.’

Thompson deftly and with a dark sense of humour unveils settler commitment to the idea of his or her own benevolence. The white landowner places himself as the apparent victim in the crusade for First Nations land rights. It’s all reminiscent of the hysteria surrounding Mabo and the passing of the Native Title Act. But this kind of benevolence is more insidious because it masks itself in a cloak of wokeness and allyship:

‘Many years ago, I did some work in a remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory.’

This tokenistic pilgrimage to the Northern Territory is one so familiar as to be a cliché. Because… are you really an ally if you haven’t done a stint in a remote community? The pilgrim affords themselves the presumption of fundamental goodness and morality. Conveniently, the settler can shift the onus of critical thought and analysis away from themselves and in doing so transcends racism. By avoiding introspection or critique, they can be acquitted of all colonial violence. Any privilege that might have been bestowed upon them (including that of land) by virtue of that violence can easily be explained away. The status quo is thus maintained.

Throughout his collection, Thompson signposts the symbols and manifestations of tokenism. It sometimes hides in talismans worn (and even destroyed) in public displays by those who believe in their power and meaning. Stare long enough, and you might see the truth behind the veneer. Desires, thoughts and intentions that the bearers of such tokens wish to disguise.

Born Into This details the knowledge accumulated by First Nations peoples over generations and gifted across time. Thompson writes of Country with tenderness that comes from belonging; it’s there in the kinship between humans and our non-human relations, in the quiet reverence for the ocean, in the draw of the beach – ‘that fuzzy boundary at the edge of our world’, in the continued practise of mutton-birding, in the heartache of waterholes run dry, and in the observations of a country changed by human activities.

Country is changing, catastrophically. Born Into This is a reminder that the time for hollow words is over. Reading Thompson’s collection, it’s hard not to feel inspired by the sovereign actions of his characters or the mantras of embodiment that they imbue. More than once I found myself wanting to put his book down in order to do something (anything) in countenancing the climate catastrophe which is upon us. The real challenge is in sustaining that sense of urgency and in undertaking practical and impactful change, that is not just tokenistic, and which centres the knowledges of first peoples to this country.

Works Cited

Tracey Bunda, ‘The Sovereign Woman’ in Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Rachel Fensham and Jon Stratton, eds., Sovereign Subjects. Routledge: 2007.

Alexis Wright, ‘A Self-Governing Literature’, Meanjin, 16 June 2020.