Meet Dr Jared Thomas, author, research fellow and multiple award-winner

Jared Thomas (centre) with Eunice Aston and Klynton Wanganeen, both NAIDOC SA Ambassadors

Jared Thomas (centre) with NAIDOC SA Ambassadors Eunice Aston and Klynton Wanganeen. Image: Ben Searcy

Dr Jared Thomas is a multiple award-winning author and the Research Fellow, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Material Culture and Arts at the South Australian Museum and UniSA. 

He graduated from the University of Adelaide with a BA, Grad Dip, MA and Ph D (Creative Writing). A Nukunu man from the Southern Flinders Ranges, he continues to promote Aboriginal representation in literature, film and media and communicate the Aboriginal experience and knowledge to the public. He was recently awarded NAIDOC SA Person of the Year 2023.


What is memorable about your time at the University of Adelaide and how did it assist you in your career?

Firstly, I really appreciate that I commenced my degree at a time prior to personal computers becoming commonplace. For at least the first year of my degree, I had to handwrite assignments and there was great expectation from tutors and peers to complete weekly set readings. This helped to produce academic rigour and personal standards relating to my work.

I was lucky to form relationships with a couple of my best friends who pushed me academically and to have fun. We’ve continued to be of great support to each other personally and professionally, and I am always inspired by their achievements.

I had to work hard to get up to speed as an undergraduate, but I also really enjoyed the social aspects of uni such as seeing bands at the uni bar and especially meeting the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students that came to the University of Adelaide’s Centre of Aboriginal Studies in Music.

The most important thing that I learned through my undergraduate degree was that the sharing of Aboriginal knowledge was appreciated by many, and that if I worked hard, I could improve my academic and creative writing and have fun striving toward excellence.


You are an author and you work as the Research Fellow, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Material Culture and Arts at the South Australian Museum and UniSA. What was your career journey to reach this point? What are the highlights to date and the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of your work?

I left Port Augusta when I was almost seventeen to enrol at Adelaide University because I was adamant that I wanted to become a writer. What I didn’t realise was the other career options that my studies would present. My undergraduate studies provided me a sense of the importance of Aboriginal representation in literature, film and media, and the general importance of communicating Aboriginal experience and knowledge in public life. I therefore commenced a career in arts administration, becoming a lecturer for over a decade before moving back to arts administration and curation. I find myself doing all of these things on a weekly basis whilst contributing to the work of my Nukunu community in the Southern Flinders Ranges.

My creative writing is a constant. It’s been a great vehicle for me to share my ideas and frustrations and to connect with local and international audiences. My readership is growing, particularly through the success of my junior fiction titles ‘Game Day,’ and ‘Uncle Xbox.’

There’s been so many remarkable highlights including working with people like film director Rachel Perkins, and musician Paul Kelly, having one of my plays produced in Kenya and Uganda in 1999, undertaking a mentorship in Jamaica with my favourite writer Olive Senior, cowriting the ‘Game Day’ Series with NBA and Olympian Basketballer Patty Mills, and recently undertaking a Churchill Fellowship exploring first nations people’s interpretative strategies in museums and galleries in Canada, Finland, Norway, the US and New Zealand.

The most important aspects of my work are engaging with Aboriginal and other first nations people and facilitating the telling of their remarkable stories.


What and who inspired you to become a writer?

Storytelling amongst members of my family and then seeing the play ‘Funerals and Circuses’ by Roger Bennett as part of the 1992 Adelaide Festival inspired me to become a writer. Having grown up experiencing racism and constantly being aware of it playing out around me motivated me to address racism and writing was the vehicle that I identified as the tool for doing this.


The over of Dr Jared Thomas's book Songs That Sound Like Blood.

You have said, “Success for me is bringing change for other people. It’s not so much about what I can accomplish individually, it’s really about seeing that people have a better understanding of Aboriginal life, culture and aspirations.” What are the key things you want people to understand?

I’d like people to understand the great sophistication of Aboriginal people and culture, and the health and wealth of Aboriginal Australia prior to colonisation, and that the huge disadvantage that many Aboriginal people experience isn’t due to our deficit but rather inequity that has come through colonisation. I’d also like people to understand that Aboriginal cultural heritage is Australian cultural heritage, and that social justice and human rights afforded to people in Australia is only as strong as what is afforded to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

"The most important aspects of my work are engaging with Aboriginal and other first nations people and facilitating the telling of their remarkable stories."Dr Jared Thomas


You have written short stories, poetry and scripts but most of your writing has focussed on fiction for children and young people. Why is this your passion and what is important about making this work?

Most of my writing has been young adult fiction focussed because I believe it to be such a transformational time in people’s lives and I have always focussed on writing the book that appeals to the disengaged learner that has much potential, maybe because that’s who I was during my early teens. For non-Indigenous readers, young adult years are a time when people are questioning societal norms and ideologies and I also like to present these people with an insight into Aboriginal life and aspiration to consider.


What’s next?

My focus for the foreseeable future will be working to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are better represented through the South Australian Museum and other South Australia cultural institutions, with the hope that the proposed Tarrkarri Centre for First Nations Cultures will come to fruition. As I’ve experienced through engagement with international global iconic cultural centres, they can be truly nation building and will dramatically improve the relationships between first nations people and others, resulting in a much-improved cultural landscape.

I will also focus on writing junior fiction works, particularly completing and promoting my six book junior fiction series ‘Uncle Xbox’.

My unfulfilled goal continues to be the adaptation of my young adult fiction and junior fiction titles to screen so I will continue to push in this direction.

Being at home on country and contributing to the revitalisation of country and my community is my greatest aspiration so I hope to increase this work, hopefully partnering with others to assist in telling Nukunu stories, increase restoration of country, and develop economic streams such as native food production.


What advice do you have for your 20-year-old self?

It’s the same advice I need to give myself today and that is to focus on gaining support from those who want to give it, block out the negative, especially negative self-talk, and celebrate and have gratitude for achievement.


What is your favourite book? Why?

My favourite book is ‘Summer Lightning and Other Stories,’ by Olive Senior. I read the work in first year English and it was mind blowing because it felt to me that through Olive’s exploration of the good, bad and the ugly of Jamaica, it was almost like she was writing about the rural Aboriginal cultural landscapes that I understood. Olive is now in her 80s and the current poet Laureate of Jamaica. Her work won the Commonwealth Writers prize when she was an undergraduate and it indicated to me the potential for my role in developing Aboriginal fiction, of which there wasn’t a lot of in the 90s. In 2008 I was mentored in Jamaica by Olive as I developed the novel ‘Calypso Summer,’ which went on to win the White Raven Award, one of if not the highest international award for young adult fiction. Over the years I have continued to spend time with Olive, mostly in Toronto, and I plan to spend time with her in Jamaica early next year.


Dr Jared Thomas accepting his University of Adelaide Distinguished Alumni Award in 2021

Dr Jared Thomas accepting his University of Adelaide Distinguished Alumni Award from Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Høj AC in 2021

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