The stories keep on coming, the stories, I mean, of indigenous children stolen from their families and what happened to them afterwards. I’ve posted on Carmel Bird’s compilation of stories from the Bringing them home report, The stolen children: Their stories, and also on Ali Cobby Eckermann’s memoir Too afraid to cry. Now it’s Marie Munkara’s turn with her excruciatingly honest, but also frequently laugh-out-loud-funny memoir, Of ashes and rivers that run to the sea.
Late in her memoir, Munkara learns that she was born “under a tree on the banks of the Mainoru River in Western Arnhem Land.” But, what she writes next is shocking
‘Too white,’ my Nanna Clara said as they checked me out by the camp-fire light, and everyone knew what that meant. Back in those days any coloured babies in my family were given to the crocs because dealing with these things right away saved a lot of suffering later on. It was better that we die in our own piece of country than be taken by the authorities and lost to our families forever.
Does that remind you of anything? It did me – of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, and the slave mother’s decision there. Anyhow, knowing what we know now about the lives of many stolen children, we can surely understand her indigenous family’s actions. Luckily, though, for Munkara – and us – Nanna Clara saw something “special” in her, and she was kept. That was in 1960. Three years later, now living on the Tiwi Islands, the inevitable happened and she was taken from home one day when her mother was at work at the mission laundry. Her mother begged for her to be returned, to no avail.
All this, however, we learn near the end of the book. Munkara starts the book when, at the age of 28 and quite by accident, she came across her baptismal card tucked in a book in her parents’ library. It told her that she was born in Mainoru in Arnhem Land. “In the space of an instant,” she writes, “excitement was replaced with mortification as old geography lessons began to resurface” about a “wild and untamed place where Aborigines hunted kangaroos and walked around butt-naked.” However, she decides to find out more, and soon discovers that her mother was still alive and still living in the Tiwi Islands. She decides to go meet her, with no advance notice.
To say that she was shocked by what she found is an understatement. “This is not the tropical island I had imagined,” she writes, “with luscious vegetation and cute little palm-frond houses. It is a dump.” She tries hard to enjoy her time there, but hates it and three days later returns home. However, it’s not long before she realises that she has to return. This ends Part 1 of the four-part book. In Part 2, she goes back in time and tells of her life as the foster child of two unhappy but highly religious people. Her mother was strict, and cruel, but her father was worse. He molested her for many years. A sad, sad upbringing but Munkara, as she admits herself, is a survivor:
But aren’t human beings amazing creatures and even at an early age we can choose to let the bad things in life devour us and we sink or we can make the most of the good bits and swim. … I chose to swim.
Part 2, then, makes for hard reading, but Munkara’s sense of humour, her ability to believe that things will work out, and her independent mind bring her, and us, through. She’s a great story-teller, which makes this section more manageable than you might expect – but it still leaves you angry!
And then we come to Part 3 in which she tells of her return to Bathurst Island. This is where the real interest of the book lies because it is here that Munkara takes us on her journey into another culture. She is us – to a degree. She has been brought up white – albeit “a dusky maiden” version – and her expectations and initial reactions are very much as ours would be. She describes how she tries to apply her whitefella ways to her new life with her Aboriginal family. She expects privacy, cleanliness, order and, most of all, respect for her possessions. None of these sit well with traditional indigenous values as she found them on Tiwi, but she’s determined nonetheless. We can feel her horror and frustration – but she’s telling this story long after the events, and imbues them with a light touch of self-deprecation and a warmth for her family which encourages acceptance rather than judgement (in herself and us).
I spend the day scrubbing the kitchen and neatly place all my things by themselves on a shelf so everyone can see they belong to me, and then I have a well-earnt nap. I sleep soundly and wake up to the smells of cooking. Stretching and yawning I make my way to the kitchen to put on the billy for tea only to stop at the doorway in horror, my mouth still open from the yawn. The room in an absolute shithole of a mess. My stuff is strewn everywhere […] Everyone tiptoes around me now they know I’m in a bad mood and I’m fine with that, maybe they’ll learn not to touch things that they shouldn’t.
They are instantly awake when they see that I’m only dressed in my bra and underpants. Thankfully my underwear is matching…
Haha, as if they’d care! And,
… after going to the footy on the weekend with my family for protection I’ve gotten over my fear of big crowds of black people. I now feel quite foolish for thinking they could be harmful to me and reckon I must have gotten this irrational fear from my white parents.
So much of this section resonated with me because it reflected many of the things Mr Gums and I were learning and experiencing as I was reading it. I’ve already posted on the cars, but there’s also the mess, the confusing kinship (including her having to call various dogs her brother, her son, her uncle and so on), the trust in spirits, the lack of concern for possessions, all of which can result in decisions and behaviours mystifying to us whitefellas.
But Munkara also learnt more seriously confronting things, such as that her mother’s damaged leg was caused by leprosy, something she’d thought only happened in the Bible and poor countries:
I slide my ill-informed thoughts into the rubbish bin and slam the lid down tight, angry that our First World country can live in ignorant bliss of our Third World problems. … I bet there wouldn’t be too many white people afflicted with leprosy in Australia because if there were it would be front-page news.
However, while the memoir is, for us, an eye-opening, necessary journey into another culture, it is, ultimately for Munkara, a journey to her self. By the end of Part 3, she has come to a better understanding of who she is:
But they don’t realise that there is no stolen and there is no lost, there is no black and there is no white. There is just me. And I am perfect the way I am. And I know now that I have to leave this place because I’ve learnt all I can for the time being and this lesson is over now.
She only leaves as far as Darwin, however, so she can remain in contact with her family. And so it is that, late in the book, Munkara writes about her (biological) mother’s dying:
When I asked her if she had any regrets she said there were no words in any of our family languages for regret. To regret something was a waste of time so why make a word for something that you didn’t need.
Munkara’s mother’s comment that her language doesn’t have a word for “regret” encapsulates for me the value of reading this book, which is its chronicling of the meeting of two opposing cultures. I thoroughly recommend the book, because understanding what divides us is critical to reconciliation – and because it is a darned good read. She can tell a story, that one!
Of ashes and rivers that run to the sea
North Sydney: Penguin Random House, 2016
179pp. (print version)
ISBN: 9780857987280 (eBook)