They all nodded, not knowing what the hell curry* was but getting gist of the story all the same.
Marie Munkara leads us a merry dance with Every secret thing, her first book, which won the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander writer. What exactly is this “thing” she presents to us? A novel? A short story collection? Well, I think it’s a bit of both. It looks like stand-alone short stories, and can probably be read that way. But, the same characters keep reappearing in the stories and there is a chronological thrust to it with a conclusion of sorts in the final story, so I’d call it connected short stories.
Form, though, is not the only way in which she leads us a merry dance. This is a genuinely funny book – sometimes slapstick or ribald, sometimes more bitter, satiric and/or ironic, but pretty well always funny. However, her subject matter is desperately serious – the destruction of indigenous culture through contact with white culture, specifically in this book through contact with missions and missionaries.
Marie Munkara was born in Arnhem Land and spent the first few years of her life on Bathurst Island in the Tiwi Islands. She left there when she was 3 years old, and didn’t return until she was 28. These stories, she says, are drawn from those told to her by friends and family, and are set, I think, in the early to mid twentieth century. She explores a wide range of issues reflective of indigenous-white contact at that time, including education and religion, the stolen generation, sexual abuse, the introduction of alcohol and disease, and anthropological research.
Munkara sees humour in everything (more or less) but her more biting humour is reserved for the “mission mob” because, of course, it is they who wield the power over the “bush mob”. The “bush mob” are shown to be intelligent and resourceful but no match for the power of the muruntawi (white people). Her language draws on a wide range of traditions – including indigenous storytelling, biblical, common clichés – and from these she tells stories that are only too believable. Here she tells us about one of the Brothers:
And so time passed and the natural progression of things came to be and the bullied became the bully, and the bully became the misogynist, and the misogynist became a Brother in a Catholic mission in a remote place in the Northern Territory… (“The sound of music”)
A too familiar story, told in a biblical tone. There is a funny story in which the “bush mob” tries to lead an anthropologist astray by feeding him incorrect information (such as obscene or silly names for ordinary objects), but their victory is Pyrrhic, as the end of the story conveys:
And after all, it was difficult sometimes to tell the difference between the missionaries and the madmen and the mercenaries because their eyes all looked the same and their tongues all spoke the same language of greed. If it wasn’t your soul they wanted, it was something else. Until it became an automatic response whenever a strange muruntani appeared to put out your hand for the specimen bottle to piss into or extend your arm for a blood sample to be taken or for the ungracious thought to pass through their mind that here was yet another who had come to take but as always gave nothing in return. (“Wurruwataka”)
Her stories about the stolen generations are particularly bitter, but again she uses humour. She tells the story of Marigold (née Tapalinga) who’d returned “home” after years away, only to find that she no longer fit, but:
Nor did Mrs Jones want the hussy back as their servant having sprung the little slut underneath Mr Jones in the spare room. The poor man was still traumatised by the ordeal. This wasn’t the first time she’d raped him, he claimed. (“Marigold”)
Only an indigenous writer could write something so patently ridiculous on this topic – and so drive the point home!
Munkara neatly tracks the Bishop’s behaviour and impact on his flock by constantly changing her epithet for him. In the first story, “The Bishop”, he is introduced as “his Most Distinguished” but is then referred to by various names including “his Most Garrulous”, “his Most Impatient” and “his Most Impious”. This changing of names for the Bishop is rather unsubtle humour but it carries a sly comment on the “mission mob’s” disrespect for indigenous culture by insisting on naming indigenous people, completely ignoring the fact that they have their own names. And so, in the first story, we are introduced to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, to Epiphany, Lazarus, and John the Baptist, to name just a few of the cast of characters populating the book.
Another technique Munkara uses is to pepper her stories with white culture sayings and clichés, such as, “misery loves company alright”, “looking on the bright side”, “but you just can’t please everyone”, and this one:
And so it came to be that for the first time ever, the mission mob found themselves sitting where they’d never sat before – between a rock called ‘you didn’t see that one coming did you’ and a hard place called ‘bush mob’s indifference’. (“The good doctor”)
Overall, this is deceptively simple but clever writing that sets up and undermines its premises every step of the way. First “the mission mob” seem to be winning, and then “the bush mob”. However, while it could be said that “the bush mob” were “clever individuals who had learnt to sit on the wobbly fence of cultural evolution without falling off”, the real truth is that
They didn’t have to die to go to hell because the mission had happily brought that with them when they’d arrived unasked on the fateful shores of the place that was their heaven all those years ago. (“The movies”)
A spoonful of sugar, they say, makes the medicine go down, and that’s certainly true of this book. The sugar is not so strong though that you miss the medicine. Munkara makes sure of that – and the end result is a very funny but also very sobering book. I suspect and hope that Munkara has more … because the missions are only one facet of the history of contact in Australia. There is plenty for her to sink her teeth into.
Every secret thing
St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009
* Reference to the colloquialism “giving them curry”.