Experience What We Experience: A Conversation with Adam Thompson
Adam Thompson’s debut story collection Born into This presents a masterful delineation of culture and identity. In its opening story, an Aboriginal ranger appointed to lead “survival camp” for urban teenagers remarks that “culture isn’t something we try to learn or reclaim. It’s what we are immersed in from the moment we are born.” Cultural identity, whether learned, assimilated, or appropriated, is investigated in each of the collection’s sixteen stories. From a tenth-grade student sent to the principal’s office for steering class discussions toward Aboriginal issues, to box-ticking white upstarts who try to intimidate the community for Aboriginal papers, Thompson interrogates the irrevocable and ongoing impact of colonization on his community with charm, wit, and humor.
Thompson has garnered many writing awards, including a Varuna First Nations Fellowship at The National Writers’ House. One of ten recipients of The Next Chapter initiative through the Wheeler Centre, his writing appears in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Kill Your Darlings, and Griffith Review. Adam has worked for the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre for almost two decades, campaigning to protect Aboriginal land and heritage, and preserving community history.
I spoke with Adam shortly after he returned from promoting his book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and just a few days before several scheduled appearances at other festivals and bookshops. We discussed his path to publication; the fictional representation of Launceston, Tasmania; and writing as a call to action.
The Rumpus: How did Born into This come to being?
Adam Thompson: I guess with the writing of the story, “Honey,” which won a competition at a local writers’ festival. It was also the first story I eventually had published, in 2018, in the magazine Kill Your Darlings. At the time, though, I didn’t really have the intention to publish a book. I was just writing short fiction and honing my craft with the aid of a mentor. In 2018, I submitted some work to a new scheme called The Next Chapter, which aimed to assist emerging authors from marginalized communities to get published. It was run by the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne with financial assistance from the Aesop Foundation. I was one of ten successful applicants and we were given a year to work with a mentor and finalize our manuscripts. I paired up with the author Cate Kennedy, and came out the other end with Born into This. The first publisher that looked at it, University of Queensland Press, offered me a deal.
Rumpus: Could you tell us the story behind “Honey”? What inspired you to write it?
Thompson: I have an interest in beekeeping. The idea for “Honey” came from a thought I had when moving some beehives a few years ago. What would happen if we had a car accident transporting a load of beehives? With all those bees on the back, it would be a nightmare. From that question, I found a way to weave a story together. Part of the work I do in my day job is campaigning to protect Aboriginal heritage. It is always on my mind and it carried into this story. And the casual racism experienced by the protagonist gelled perfectly.
Rumpus: I read elsewhere that you used to like sitting around with your great-grandmother, listening to stories about the islands. How did the accounts of your family and community influence your storytelling?
Thompson: A lot. To be any sort of storyteller, you have to be a good listener. Growing up, I was immersed in the stories of my great-grandmother, and others in my family. I was the sort of kid—and even now as an adult—who wants every detail. And I often interrupt people to extract that detail, which is a bad habit, I know. But my mind craves the full picture. And there are so many amazing stories in my community. So many unique experiences. Not all good, I should add. The characters in my stories are all flawed. That makes them real, relatable. We are critical of ourselves as people.
Rumpus: Did any version of these stories make it into the collection?
Thompson: The stories are all fictional. It’s more the delivery of the stories and the characters’ idiosyncrasies that were influenced by my family and the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. One story, “Morpork,” is loosely based on a tale my great-grandmother used to recount to me as a child at bedtime. Used to scare the hell out of me.
Rumpus: After spending a significant amount of time writing alone, how does it feel to interact with readers at festivals and bookshops, people with great interest in your work?
Thompson: It’s a strange ride that I am on at the moment. The guts of the work was a solo effort, with input from mentors and editors, but still largely a solitary task. Then comes the publicity, reviews, appearances, podcasts, interviews, writers’ festivals. One minute you have your writer’s hat on, put up on a pedestal, signing books. Then you are home again, putting out the garbage and mowing the lawn. It’s a rollercoaster of highs and lows. Family levels me out, though. And my community, being on country. It’s important to find balance and I struggle with that sometimes.
I love interacting with readers. It’s a beautiful moment when you are approached or contacted by someone who has read your work and wants to engage in a conversation about it. Signing books at events and festivals is a lot of fun.
Rumpus: In the past, you’ve referred to yourself as a “low-output closet writer.” What was your relationship to writing before winning the inaugural Tamar Valley Writers Festival in 2016?
Thompson: In the few years leading up to 2016, I wrote a chapter of a novel (that will never see the light of day), some poetry, and the beginnings of a few short stories. So, not a lot. My relationship with writing was that it was out of my league. I was a reader and I admired writers, but comparing my work to the authors I was reading was disheartening. It still is, I guess, but I try not to do that anymore. I’m beginning to value my voice. Submitting work to competitions and having some success was a huge confidence booster.
Rumpus: You credit Denise Robinson, the Aboriginal Arts Officer at Arts Tasmania, for encouraging you to write. Could you tell us a little bit about her role in your path to publication?
Thompson: I have known Denise since I was a kid, through my mother, but had lost touch over the years. A friend and fellow writer suggested I ask Denise to help secure an arts grant through the state government, as she had been helpful to him. Denise was working as an Aboriginal Arts Officer at the time. She encouraged me to undertake a mentorship with an established writer. I won the grant and paired with the Hobart-based YA writer Kate Gordon, who remains my unofficial mentor to this day. Denise stayed in my corner, encouraging me, looking out for opportunities. I secured more grants and residencies with her help. She has now left the Arts Officer role but we still work together and are friends.
Rumpus: The publishing industry is notorious for being dominated by predominantly white voices. The few minority voices in the room are often tokenized. What has your experience been, so far, existing in these spaces?
Thompson: I am new to the publishing industry, so I don’t have a very informed view. My Australian publisher (University of Queensland Press) has the most extensive list of Aboriginal authors I have seen in Australia, and my experience working with them has been fantastic. They are genuinely committed to boosting the voices of First Nations people and people of color. My US publisher (Two Dollar Radio) has been extremely supportive of my work. I have witnessed no tokenism or trend capitalizing in any of my dealings with them. And they are such lovely people, with strong moral and ethical values.
Rumpus: Born into This features a wide range of voices, from the elder leading “survival camp” in “The Old Tin Mine” to tenth-grader Dorothy, who is chairperson of the Aboriginal Students and Parents Association. How deliberate was this scope of ages and voices?
Thompson: As a relatively new author, I enjoyed playing with different perspectives when I wrote these stories. But the range was also very deliberate. I write what I like to read, and in short story collections, I like a diversity of voices. Also, it was my intention in Born into This to capture what it is like to be a Tasmanian Aboriginal person. One age group, one gender, one perspective, isn’t going to achieve that.
Rumpus: I especially connected with the title story “Born into This,” as well as the story “Descendent,” both of which center around women who are disenfranchised. Kara and Dorothy feel so real to me as people. Did you come across any challenges writing women?
Thompson: As a man, I found it a challenge to write from a woman’s perspective. I didn’t find it difficult in the short form (where I didn’t have to provide too much depth of character), but I had some reluctance. I am conscious of appropriating other people’s voices. I am not a woman and it’s not my role to speak for women. But I also wanted to have a variety of perspectives in my collection. Having only male voices wouldn’t have served the collection. It wouldn’t be authentic or representative of my community. I’m happy with how it turned out, how it has been received. And I stand by my choices.
Rumpus: Your stories are often confrontational. I’m thinking of “The Blackfellas from Here,” in which Kat, the protagonist, sees a brass plaque on a mansion that reads: “The owners acknowledge that this house stands on Aboriginal land,” and asks the owner to sign conveyancing papers that would transfer the property back to the Aboriginal community of Tasmania. Do you see writing as a call to action?
Thompson: Absolutely. Much of what I do, and what others in my community do, are calls to action. There are two stories in Born into This that relate to Australia Day, which is Australia’s national day. It is celebrated on January 26—a date that marks the invasion of Aboriginal people’s country by the British. It is racist to celebrate on such a day, yet the government refuses to change the date. Australia-wide, Aborigines protest and rally for this date to be changed, and slowly, the general public are supporting us. It has taken many years to get the level of support we have now. Soon, we will have enough support that politicians will see political gains in siding with us. Then we will have change. Until then, we will keep chipping away. I see fiction as a powerful medium to get messages out. People become sensitized to media. They are bombarded with it. But they pick up a book in their own time, in their own space. Their minds are open to the messages within.
Rumpus: Over the course of the collection, the city of Launceston becomes a multifaceted character in its own right, with its own distinct identity, evolving with the trajectory of each character protective of it. How does the fictional representation of the city compare to its reality for you?
Thompson: In Born into This, I think it is a pretty close resemblance. There are a few differences. I am laughing to myself as I write this because the novel I am working on now changes Launceston up quite a bit. I am having fun twisting the characteristics of my hometown. It may annoy some people, but it will entertain a lot more.
Rumpus: Could you tell us about the novel you’re working on currently? How different is the process of writing now, with a book under your belt? Do the stakes feel higher?
Thompson: I had a similar question at a writers’ festival I just attended. Now that I have a published book, there is an expectation of the style and quality of my next work. I wouldn’t say the stakes are higher, though. I write for myself, not for popularity. I write what I like to read, and I will continue to do that. If people don’t like my novel, that’s fine. But I think they will. Part of what appeals to people about Born into This is my voice, and the authenticity of my writing. That isn’t going to change. My novel is set in lutruwita, Tasmania, but I am reluctant to share much more than that. [Laughs] I’m paranoid people will steal my ideas.
Rumpus: The stories in Born into This center around themes of identity, racism, heritage destruction, and woke tokenism. Often, these themes are introduced by real events such as the Sponsorship Bill or a specific protest. How do you blend these real experiences into the realms of a fictional narrative?
Thompson: I like to tell a good story. That is my motivation. But these themes just creep in. How can they not? It’s my life, my work, my struggle. And writing about what you know makes writing easy. It makes it authentic, too, and people pick up on that. It’s not a chore or a task to blend theme and experience into story. It just happens.
Rumpus: Did you have an international audience in mind while writing these stories?
Thompson: The only audience I had in mind when I wrote most of these stories was myself and my mentor, Kate Gordon—who was the only person to read them for a while. I didn’t intend to publish initially. I was just writing because I enjoyed the storytelling. The last few stories I wrote were specifically to round off the collection.
Rumpus: Did you have a specific intention or vision in mind when writing the last few stories?
Thompson: Yes. When I chose the stories for the collection, there were some topics/themes that I felt were missing or underrepresented. The main story that comes to mind is “Time and Tide,” which is one of my favorites. I wanted to explore the effects of climate change on the cultural activity of muttonbirding. I posed the question, What would a family who put it all on the line to go birding do, if there were no birds to catch?
I didn’t have an international audience in mind when writing, but I knew that the stories and themes were universal. And if your writing is relatable and can conjure an emotional response in people, you have a winner.
Rumpus: Did your relationship to the Tasmanian landscape evolve as you wrote the stories in Born into This?
Thompson: Not so much the general Tasmanian landscape, which seems to be the place to write about at the moment, but the islands, certainly. I feel compelled to write about the islands. They are very unique places. I spent years in these places, working and living. They are remote. Some rarely visited. But they have such an important history to Tasmanian Aboriginal people and to my own family. You can still see the traces of the old people’s lives: granite building foundations (some barely discernible), remnant garden vegetation, rock walls, collapsed muttonbird sheds. It’s all so interesting. When you leave, part of you remains there. I often find myself wondering what is going on over there, what is the weather doing, who has been there. Writing helps me revisit these places. And it gives me a thrill to take others there through my work.
I want readers who find this book to know that at the bottom of the world is a unique place, a unique people. Experience what we experience. See our country and explore the little crevices most people don’t even know exist.
Photograph of Adam Thompson by Ness Vanderburgh.