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Dr Jared Thomas: Life and becoming a writer

May 9, 2013

Jared Thomas

Who am I?


I am Dr Jared Thomas, a Nukunu person of the Southern Flinders Ranges and lecturer at the David Unaipon College of Indigenous Education and Research, University of South Australia. My play ‘Flash Red Ford’ toured Uganda and Kenya in 1999 and my play ‘Love, Land and Money’ featured during the 2002 Adelaide Fringe Festival. My young adult novel ‘Sweet Guy’ was shortlisted for the 2009 South Australian People’s Choice Awards for Literature and my children’s novel ‘Dallas Davis, the Scientist and the City Kids’ is published within the Oxford University Press ‘Yarning Strong’ series. My latest novel ‘Calypso Summer’ will be released in 2014.


Here’s a few quick facts about me to kick things off:


Interesting fact: I’ve been held at gunpoint twice (wrong spots, wrong times)


Weakness: sneakers and boots


Favourite reading: ‘Summer Lightning’ Olive Senior, ‘Me, Antman and Fleabag’ Gale Kennedy, ‘Am I Black Enough for You?’ Anita Heiss, ‘Things Fall Apart’ Chinua Achebe, ‘The True History of the Kelly Gang,’ Peter Carey and ‘The absolutely true diary of a Part-Time Indian,’ Alexie Sherman.


Favourite Films: Billy Elliot, Kill Bill, One Night the Moon


Favourite activities: Hanging out with family, reading, running, yoga, surfing, camping and being home on country in the Southern Flinders Ranges.


Favourite Musicians/bands: Linton Kwesi Johnson, Paul Kelly, David Bowie, The Pixies, The Red Hot Chili Peppers,Kev Carmody, The Sleepy Jackson, The Stones and many more


Hates: Gambling, bad manners, racism, pomposity


Growing up and developing interest in writing


I was born and raised in Port Augusta in 1976. Both of my parents are of Aboriginal European background. I grew up on my father’s traditional Nukunu country. Dad is also of Ngadjuri heritage. My Mum’s Aboriginal family (Dodd) are from central Queensland and her European family (Fitzpatrick) are Irish.


Port Augusta was a great place to grow up. I had loads of freedom as a kid, probably too much. I lived directly across from the bush and a salt lake, overlooking the Flinders Ranges. I was always out in the bush mucking about or riding my BMX bike – I loved BMX riding and reading BMX magazines was my first entree into reading. I’d ride everywhere, from one side of town to the other, at least 10kms, and from the time I was about 5 I’d ride to the shop to pick up the milk, eggs and paper on a Sunday morning. I started cooking poached eggs when I was about 5 too.


There were kids in every second house of my street, a long stretch of housing trust homes.Apart from riding my BMX bike, other things I did to pass time was play cricket, run, paint, play music, go to the cinema and Blue Light Disco, and breakdance. I used to watch 60 minutes and Beyond 2000 and thought it great that before too long apartheid would end and the world would be powered by renewable energy. I watched‘Rage’the whole night through while playing cards with my friends and I really tried to listen and learn as much as I could from old people.


I was never really interested in toys but always had a cricket bat, footy, basketball and bike. During the summer I jumped off jetties with my friends and I used to spend a lot of time fishing and swimming in an estuary where thousands of generations of Nukunu people had swam and fished. My parents learned to swim in the estuary too.


My Uncle Lindsay, my Dad’s brother took my sister, cousins and I camping and fishing most weekends. He taught us a lot about looking after country, having respect for people and country – he still teaches us these things. My Dad would teach me a lot about these things too. He’d show me how to track, where to get bush tucker, ways to read the weather and how to stay safe, just as his grandfather taught him. He used to say, “I don’t know a lot but I’ll just teach you what my grandfather taught me”.


I played a lot of music, piano from when I was about 5 and then trumpet, guitar and drums. My Dadplayed in rock and country bands.


Dad and Mum love art, music and painting and watching sport. Dad is always telling me what to watch on NITV and when I became a lecturer it was good to be able to borrow all of his Aboriginal films for teaching.


Mum and Dad, particularly Mum doesn’t look like your stereotyped dark skinned Aboriginal person but many of my family members are very black and growing up in a town where 20% of the population is Aboriginal, with people deriving from at least 27 different language groups, racism was something I experienced and detested from my earliest days.


When thunderstorms were whipping up in the north, that’s when Dad would sit with my sister and me on the porch, we’d look across the bush, lake and ranges and he’d tell us these big stories.


Dad would tell us how his family grew up.They didn’t have much money to buy food or have shelter but everyone helped each other. They relied on fishing and shared their catch with other people who would give them things like fruit in return. When we were little he didn’t tell us any of the very tragic things that happened to him or other generations of our family – these conversations came later, and always gently. But I always wondered, looking around at family members and other Aboriginal people – why is the situation so bleak for most of us?


When I was in year 8 I started playing in a rock band called ‘That’s Us’. We played songs by ‘Midnight Oil’, ‘No fixed Address’ and ‘Coloured Stone’. The songs were about Aboriginal people being ripped off, being proud, standing up for our rights. The fellas in the band were all older Aboriginal fellas and I liked hanging out with them.Some of them were the sons or grandsons of my Dad and grandfather’s friends. I enjoyed challenging racism through the music.


It was about then that I started asking Dad and Mum, my grandparents, my Uncles and Aunties and other Aboriginal people about the events that had taken place in their lives and our history. There have been many tragic circumstances with people removed from country, people placed in missions, people made to work as domestics etc.


My Dad has 5 brothers and 2 sisters and his father came from a family of 13. Family gatherings always included a lot of yarning about the old days. They’d mostly talk about good times and funny stuff too, like how Uncle Lindsay was always getting into trouble. One day I’d like to write a book about how Uncle Lindsay was always getting into trouble.


My family has always encouraged me to be positive but to stand up for what I believe in. Most of Dad’s brothers and sisters work in Aboriginal health, education or corrections.


When I was in year 12 I watched the play ‘Funerals and Circuses’ by Aboriginal playwright Roger Bennet when I was on an excursion to the Adelaide Fringe Festival with my drama class. Singer songwriter Paul Kelly performed in that show. Paul’s song ‘Nukkanya’ which features on the album ‘Wanted Man,’ was written for the show.


The play, about racism in a small country town, absolutely blew my mind. It was the first time I’d seen Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people working together to combat racism. I decided then and there that I was going to write to address racism. I’d discovered a vehicle for my angst.


At the time I made the decision to pursue writing, I wasn’t very academic. My year twelve results were okay but I wasn’t what you’d call a reader. I failed first year English and had to put in a big effort to get my writing up to university study level. A good friend, Mark Muller, who is now the editor of ‘RM Williams – Outback Magazine’ helped me tremendously during my first year of study as my tutor.By second year I was beginning to achieve really good results. I basically kept a dictionary by my side when reading and writing and learned to check and edit my writing. I maintain this habit.


My friendship group as a teenager consisted mostly of white Australian blokes. I pulled them up a lot when they made stupid racist remarks and jokes. I know I drove them crazy. I think they just wanted me to be ‘normal’. They got personal and I persevered in trying to set them straight. Back then I saw racism as something endemic in Australian society and just so ingrained. I thought, ‘it’s not their fault that they’ve got really stupid ideas but on many levels they’re good people and I’m sure they’ll see the light.’


Some of these friends have since read some of my work and watched film projects I’ve been involved in. I remember having a beer with one of them when I was in my mid twenties. The friend raved about the film ‘One Night the Moon’ that I had worked on in a minor capacity. They not only apologised to me for how they’d treated me in the past but their racism in general. I was very heartened by the apology and knowing that their children would grow up not only reading my work but the work of other Aboriginal writers. Things can change so quickly.


As stated in my bio notes, my writing career so far has included the production of four major works. The first was my play Flash Red Ford which was a play produced in Kenya and Uganda in 1999. The play is based on my great grandfather’s experiences. In the 1920s he was gaining permission from the protector of Aborigines to run in different running races. He bet on himself when racing in a significant race and returned to Port Augusta with a good amount of money. The story is about his struggle to purchase land, his traditional land when contending with racist attitudes and policy.


In 2001 my play ‘Love, Land and Money’ was produced by Junction Theatre Company at the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute as part of the Adelaide Fringe Festival. The play drew on Nukunu cultural economic and environment principles and was a response to the Alice Springs to Darwin rail extension.


At this time my unpublished manuscript ‘Sweet Guy’ was shortlisted for the South Australia Premier’s Literary Award. It was released by the Institute of Aboriginal Development Press in 2005 and was shortlisted for the 2006 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, the 2009 South Australian People’s Choice Awards for Literature and the 2010 Deadly Award for Outstanding Contribution to Literature. This work is a departure from my usual writing as it doesn’t feature Aboriginal issues or characters. I wrote it as an opportunity to test myself in another way.


In 2009 I was approached to write the story ‘Dallas Davis the Scientist and the City Kids’ for the Oxford University Press Yarning Strong series. The story was released in 2011. The series features some of Australia’s most prolific Aboriginal writers and I am very honoured that my work is included in this collection.


When briefed for the story, I was asked to illustrate Aboriginal connection to country. The story is about how a young Nukunu boy spends time on country with a scientist working to preserve a eucalypt species and through doing so realises the depth of his cultural knowledge and its applicability in his life.


The accomplishments that are listed above were achieved through hard work, many hours applying myself to reading and writing and the support of friends and family, arts administrators, lecturers, fellow writers and artists. My future accomplishments are largely dependent upon how I continue to apply myself and the support of readers of my work.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 18, 2013 12:29 pm

    An inspirational biography Jared. I’m hoping to share it so teachers and students can learn about Nukunu people today as well as a little about the past as there are so few other resources. If you know of others please let me know.

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