Marie Munkara, Of ashes and rivers that run to the sea (#BookReview)

Marie Munkara, Of ashes and rivers than run to the seaThe 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).

Some examples:

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!

ANZLitLovers ILW 2018Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has reviewed this book, as has French blogger Emma (Book around the corner) and the Resident Judge. Read for Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) Indigenous Literature Week.

AWW Badge 2018

Marie Munkara
Of ashes and rivers that run to the sea
North Sydney: Penguin Random House, 2016
179pp. (print version)
ISBN: 9780857987280 (eBook)

Delicious descriptions: Marie Munkara on cars

Marie Munkara, Of ashes and rivers than run to the seaI don’t usually post Delicious Descriptions before I review a book but this one seems apposite. Yesterday, we did a tour of the Tiwi Islands – of Bathurst Island in particular. This is where Marie Munkara’s memoir Of ashes and rivers that run to the sea, which I mentioned in my last Monday Musings, is set.

So, the tour … we disembarked from the ferry, wandered up the beach to wait for our local guide, and soon saw a car pull up. One of the other tour members exclaimed, “Look, it’s got no windows!” And no, it hadn’t. Well, that’s not quite true, it had a broken front windscreen. However, it had no side or back windows. Regardless, a horde, seemingly, of locals, climbed in. Now, if you’re an Aussie, particularly if you’ve also seen the TV documentary series Bush Mechanics, you’ll know a bit about indigenous people and their relationship with cars – demonstrating both their resourcefulness and their lack of concern about material things. We saw and heard much evidence of this during our trip.

Anyhow, Marie Munkara certainly learnt about it, the real way – that is, through personal experience. This excerpt comes from the occasion when she agreed to go buffalo shooting …

I can deal with the early start, it’s just the vehicle he’s driving that leaves me dumbfounded. It defies description. I can tell from the rusted skeleton before me that it was once a 4×4 but I wouldn’t have a clue what make it is. A cloud of black smoke billows from the truncated exhaust, and the motor sounds like it’s running on one cylinder. There are no mudguards and the bonnet appears to be borrowed from another car and held in place with fencing wire. There is no tray left on the back anymore –time, salt-water and bad driving have taken care of that. Instead my four brothers are perched on packing crates that have been lashed onto the subframe. They busily light up rollies and shiver in the cool dawn air while early-morning sunlight filters through the bullet-holes in the roof above Colin’s head. My face must be registering concern as I look at the packing crates because Colin laughs and tells me that I have the seat of honour in the cabin. The door is rusted shut so I clamber in through the open window (there’s no glass anyway) and promptly go through the floor. I look down to see myself standing on the road. They were all waiting for that and laugh uproariously as I inspect the gaping hole and wonder where I’m supposed to put my feet. I see that Colin has a similar problem, both floors are totally rusted out.

‘Look there,’ says Colin and I see the rope tied from the window-winder to the steering column that I can rest my feet on as we drive along. Feeling a breeze on my neck I turn to see a gaping hole behind me: the rear window is also missing. Colin explains that this happened when he pulled up and Danny’s arse went through the window and got stuck. How Danny managed to get jammed in that space is beyond my powers of comprehension so maybe Colin’s pulling my leg. I test my foot-rest and it holds, though the thought of what might happen if one or both of my feet come off it as we are driving along almost makes me climb back out again. But I think of what I might miss if I did so I stay. I pretend I haven’t noticed there isn’t a seatbelt and off we go.

I have no idea how fast we’re going because none of the gauges are working, but I can tell it’s fast as we glide over the corrugations in the dirt road like it was smooth bitumen. Colin hoons around the corners like a racing-car driver and I hang onto the seat for dear life and push my feet hard against the rope. I manage to screw my head around without falling down the hole in the floor and look out the rear window. Despite the clouds of dust that enshroud them and Colin’s crazy driving, my brothers are still there, no one has fallen off their packing crate yet.

And that was only the start of an adventure which saw them all limping home, in the rain, after the car ran out of fuel, an event which didn’t surprise Munkara and which our Arnhem Land tour driver seemed to suggest is a common occurrence.

The thing about Munkara is that she’s laugh-out-loud funny. She’s also willing to giving things a go (mostly, anyhow!), and most of all she writes with respect and affection. All being well, I’ll post my review next week.

Marie Munkara, Every secret thing

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.

Bathurst Island (Tiwi Islands)

Approaching beautiful Bathurst Island (Tiwi Islands)

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.

Musings of a Literary Dilettante and Resident Judge have also reviewed this book.

Marie Munkara
Every secret thing
St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009
ISBN: 9780702237195

* Reference to the colloquialism “giving them curry”.