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)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Jane Austen and the Stolen Generations

Yes, you read right, this very brief Monday Musings post is about what Jane Austen might have said – did say in her way – about the Stolen Generations.

What makes great literature great is its timelessness. By this I mean the fact that what is said in, say 1815, is still relevant in, say, 2018. It is this timelessness, in particular, that makes me love Jane Austen. She is so right, so often, about human nature and human behaviour. So, while the quote I’m planning to share comes from British not Australian literature, and from 1815 not 2018, it relates closely to an issue that is currently very important to Australians, the Stolen Generations.

Here’s the quote:

There is something so shocking in a child’s being taken away from his parents and natural home. (Emma, ch. 11: Mrs John Knightley on Frank Churchill being removed from his home after his mother’s death)

“Something so shocking”. There’s nothing much more to say, is there … except that …

… when I drafted and scheduled this on February 7 for posting on Monday February 12, I hadn’t remembered that the next day, February 13, was the tenth anniversary of the Australian Government’s Apology to the Stolen Generations. How freaky – but how appropriate – is that? It’s also rather concerning because, as Reconciliation Victoria says:

As we approach the anniversary of the historic Apology we know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are still grossly over-represented in our prisons, in out-of-home care, are still dying in custody and are still subjected to racism on a regular basis. There is still much work to do.

It’s a continuing blight on our government, on all of us, that we have achieved (are achieving) so little by most measurable standards.

For those who would like to hear the speech PM Rudd made in the Australian Parliament, here is the YouTube link.

Carmel Bird (ed), The stolen children: Their stories (#BookReview)

Carmel Bird, The stolen childrenCommenting on my post on Telling indigenous Australian stories, Australian author Carmel Bird mentioned her 1998 book The stolen children, describing it as her contribution “to the spreading of indigenous stories through the wider Australian culture”. It contains stories told to, and contained in the report of, the National Enquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (Bringing them home)*. She offered to send me a copy, and of course I accepted (despite having read much about the Report at the time.)

Bird said in her comment that the book is “still regularly used in schools”. This is excellent to hear because it contains a history that needs to be told – forever, alongside all those other histories taught to Australian students. It needs to be as well (if not better) known by our students as the story of The Gold Rush or Our Explorers. We need to know it, we need, as a nation, to know our dark side, our failures, as well as our big adventures and achievements.

What makes this book particularly useful is Carmel Bird’s curation of it – and I would call what she’s done “curation” because of the complexity and variety of the writings she has gathered and organised. Bird has structured the book carefully to tell a story, with introductory front matter (including a preface from Ronald Wilson the National Committee’s prime commissioner); the Stories themselves; Perspectives from people at the time, including Hansard excerpts from politicians at the tabling of the Report; the Report’s Recommendations; and end matter comprising an Afterword from historian Henry Reynolds and a poem titled “Sorry” by Millicent whose story appears in the Stories section. Bird’s curation also  includes providing introductions to each of the stories to draw out important issues or points about that person’s situation, and adding other explanatory notes where appropriate.

This careful curation ensures that the book contains all the content and context it needs to stand alone as a resource for anyone interested in the Stolen Generations.

“It made no sense”

In her story, Donna says “It made no sense”. She’s describing her train trip away from her mother in the company of a white woman, a train trip she’d been initially excited about, thinking it was to be a family trip. However, with her mother staying behind on the platform and her brothers disappearing one by one as the journey went on, it just made no sense to her.

None of the stories make sense. And they are all heart-rending. Some children were given up willingly by their mothers, who believed it would result in better opportunities, and some, most, were stolen, often suddenly, with no explanation. Some were newborn, some pre-school or primary school-age, while others were 12 years old or more. Some found themselves in loving foster homes, but many found themselves in institutions and/or abusive situations. All, though, and this is the important thing, suffered extreme loss. They lost family and they lost language and culture. Fiona, for example, who will not criticise the missionaries who cared for her, says, on reconnecting with her family thirty-two years later:

I couldn’t communicate with my family because I had no way of communicating with them any longer. Once that language was taken away, we lost a part of that very soul. It meant our culture was gone, our family was gone, everything that was dear to us was gone.

Fiona also makes the point, as do several others, about the treatment of the mothers:

We talk about it from the point of view of our trauma but – our mother – to understand what she went through, I don’t think anyone can understand that.

The mothers, she said, “weren’t treated as people having feelings”.

The stories continue, telling of pain, pain and more pain. Murray says “we didn’t deserve life sentences, a sentence I still serve today”, and John talks of being a prisoner from when he was born. “Even today,” he writes, “they have our file number so we’re still prisoners you know. And we’ll always be prisoners while our files are in archives”. This is something that I, as a librarian/archivist, had not considered.

But, there’s more that makes no sense, and that’s the government of the time’s refusal to apologise, to satisfy, in fact, Recommendations 3 and 5a of the Report. This issue is covered in the Perspectives section, with extracts from speeches made by the then Prime Minister John Howard and the Minister for Aboriginal Torres Straight Islander Affairs Senator Herron who argue against making an apology, and from the Opposition Leader Kim Beazley and Labor Senator Rosemary Crowley, who made their own apologies. Crowley also says:

If ever there were a report to break the hearts of people, it is this one.

The Perspectives section also includes other commentary on the Report and the apology. There’s a letter to the editor from the son of a policeman who cried about his role in taking children away from “loving mothers and fathers”, and one from La Trobe Professor of History Marilyn Lake contesting the historical rationale for the practice of forcible removal. She argues that there had never been “consensus [about] the policy of child removal”. There’s also a long two-part article published in newspapers that year, from public intellectual Robert Manne. He picks apart the argument against making an apology, noting in particular Howard’s refusal to accept that present generations should be accountable or responsible for the actions of earlier ones. Manne differentiates between our role as individuals and as members of a nation:

we are all deeply implicated in the history of our nation. It is not as individuals but as members of the nation, the “imagined” community, that the present generation has indeed inherited a responsibility for this country’s past.

In the event, of course, an apology was made, finally, in February 2008, by Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. This, however, does not mitigate the value of Bird’s book. It has value, first, as documenting our history and the voices of those involved – indigenous people, politicians and commentators. And second, it contains thoughts and ideas that we still need to know and think about, not only for historical reasons, but because in the twenty years since the Report we have not made enough progress along the reconciliation path. It is shameful.

I loved Carmel Bird’s introduction. It’s both passionate and considered, and clearly lays out why she wanted to do this book. I’ll conclude with her words:

I think that perhaps imagination is one of the most important and powerful factors in the necessary process of reconciliation. If white Australian can begin to imagine what life has been like for many indigenous Australians over the last two-hundred years, they will have begun to understand and will be compelled to act. If we read these stories how can we not be shocked and moved …

“There can,” she says, “be no disbelief; these are true stories.” This is why the stolen generations should be a compulsory part of Australian history curricula (Recommendation 8a). It’s also why, to progress reconciliation, we should keep reading and listening to indigenous Australians. Only they know what they need.

aww2017 badgeCarmel Bird (ed)
The stolen children: Their stories
North Sydney: Random House, 1998
ISBN: 9780091836894

(Review copy courtesy Carmel Bird)

* For non-Australians who may not know this Enquiry, its first term of reference was to “trace the past laws, practices and policies which resulted in the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families by compulsion, duress or undue influence, and the effects of those laws, practices and policies”. You can read the full Report online.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my mother (#BookReview)

ANZ Lit Lovers Indigenous Literature Week bannerAli Cobby Eckermann, a Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha woman, has featured a few times on this blog, including in my review of her verse novel, Ruby Moonlight, and my Monday Musings post on her winning the valuable Windham-Campbell Prize this year. She is now appearing again as I review her poetry collection, Inside my mother, for Lisa’s ANZlitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 2017.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my motherInside my mother is a challenging read, particularly if you are an occasional reader of poetry like I am, but it’s well worth the effort – for the insights it offers, and for the pure pleasure of reading a skilled wordsmith. As the title suggests, the collection’s focus is mothers – and there’s a reason for this, one all too familiar to indigenous Australians. Cobby Eckermann’s family has a history of children being taken from their mothers – her mother was taken from her mother, Cobby Eckermann was taken from hers, and then Cobby Eckermann had to give up her son for adoption. You can hear and feel the pain of these losses in the collection, but you can hear more too, because while these losses frame the collection, Eckermann doesn’t confine herself to them.

The collection is divided into four parts, which build up in intensity until we reach the last part in which the focus is squarely on grandmothers, mothers and children – and the attendant losses.

The poems, though, are not all grim in tone, they vary in form, and they are held together by recurring motifs or ideas, specifically, mothers (of course), sky, earth and birds, all of which make perfect sense given the author, her culture and themes. The first poem is one of a small number of shape poems. Shaped like a bird’s wing, and titled “Bird song”, it references the power of indigenous spirituality, and ironically comments on how it was so often co-opted by the church. It gets the collection off to a good start. Part 3 starts with another poem about birds, “Tjulpu”. It comprises two-line stanzas, with a separate final last line, and attests to the power of birds for the speaker. “Life is extinct/without bird song”, it starts.

The first indigenous poet I ever read, probably like most Australians around my age, was Oodgeroo Noonuccal (or Kath Walker, as my still loved edition had her). When I started reading Inside my mother, I wasn’t immediately reminded of Noonuccal, but when I got to the devastating poem written in the voice of a woman who drinks too much, “I tell you true”, I immediately thought of Noonuccal’s poems and their effective blend of the personal and the political. The poem is a plea for people to not rush to judge when they see someone “drunk and loud and cursing/Don’t judge too hard ‘cos you don’t know/What sorrows we are nursing”.

This poem looks simple. It uses those traditional rhetorical tools of rhyme and repetition to produce a singsong rhythm which satirically mocks the seriousness of the story it is telling. The effect is mesmerising. The second verse starts:

I can’t stop drinking I tell you true
Since I found my sister dead
She hung herself to stop the rapes
I found her in the shed

Other poems deal with traditional culture (“Vengeance”), political issues (“Hindmarsh Island”, “Kulila”, “Oombulgarri“), love (“Love 22/06/10”), stolen generations (“Severance”, “First born”, “The letter”), to name just a few. The meaning of some of these, particularly those I’ve listed under political issues, depend on knowledge of the politics they reflect. I needed, for example, to look up Oombulgarri.

Some poems are more personal (or, personally political!), such as “Eyes”, to give just one example. “Which eyes will she need today”, the speaker asks? Those of terror, or submission, or of “wonder or contempt”. I won’t tell you which ones she chooses, but they’re appropriate for the overall tone of this collection, reflecting its sorrow and its grit.

And then some, as usually happens with poetry collections, I found a little obscure, although, as I reread many for this review, more of them fell into place. You can’t rush poetry.

While it’s not my favourite poem in the collection, the last poem in Part 1 is appropriate to end on because it addresses the theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week. It’s called “Lament”, and is another poem featuring two-line stanzas, and repetition. Of the six stanzas, three are the same: “I can not stop/must sing my song”. And why can’t he stop? Because he’s the “last speaker/of my mother tongue.” Language. So important.

aww2017 badgeAli Cobby Eckermann
Inside my mother
Artarmon: Giramondo, 2015
ISBN: 9781922146885


Larissa Behrendt, Under skin, in blood (Review)

ANZLitLovers ILW 2016In my last review – that for Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight – I shared the following lines:

Jack knows the remainder of the conversation
before it was spoke ya see any blacks roaming
best ya kill ’em disease spreading pests
(“Visitor”, from Ruby Moonlight)

Quite coincidentally, this point I was making, that it was not “the blacks” who brought disease, turned out to be the subject of my second choice for Lisa’s 2016 Indigenous Literature Week, Larissa Behrendt’s short story, “Under skin, in blood”. I chose it because I wanted to read at least something by Behrendt.

The story is told in first person by an older woman – called Nana Faye by Merindah, the granddaughter she’d raised – and is divided into three parts. The first and third parts are set in the present while the middle part flashes back to Faye’s past as she tells us why she no longer has her husband and son (Merindah’s father).

In the present, Faye (and Merindah) live in Faye’s grandmother’s country, Gadigal land, around Sydney. But Faye spent her married life, the place where Merindah was born, in Baryulgil on the land of the Bunjalung people. Faye’s flashback is inspired by a discussion she has with university student Merindah who is researching the Northern Territory’s Kahlin Compound, a place to which “half-caste children” (members of the Stolen Generations) were taken between 1911 and 1939. It had – and here you’ll start to understand my introductory paragraph – high rates of leprosy. Merindah is researching claims – claims which have indeed been made and researched – that children there were used as guinea pigs for leprosy drugs. Whether or not these claims are true – they may never be fully resolved due to lack of records – the case causes Faye to comment that the most lethal things white settlers brought to Australia were not guns and alcohol but “microbes” which were “flowing through their veins, floating in their blood, under that skin like bark from a ghost gum tree”. Leprosy, in other words, and malaria, small pox, syphilis, influenza. These killed more indigenous people in the first year of white settlement than bullets.

But these microbial-based diseases are not the main focus of Faye’s memories. It’s the mine in Baryulgil, the mine that opened in 1944 and which everyone thought made them lucky. Having lost their land to the pastoralists, but having decided to stay to be close to their country, the people suddenly found they had jobs – but, what were they mining? Asbestos! Faye tells of the tragic impact asbestos had on her husband Henry and son Jack:

… the mine we felt lucky to have, that gave us the benefits of work and kept the community together was slowly but surely killing us.

The scandal is that there was awareness of deleterious health effects of asbestos in the early 20th century, and certainly by the 1960s its relationship to mesothelioma was recognised. Australia’s best known asbestos mine, Wittenoom, was closed in 1966, ostensibly for economic, not safety reasons. It is telling though that Baryulgil was not closed until 1979. Faye says that the official enquiries that came later found

the mine was barely profitable and only continued to operate to prevent permanent unemployment among the Aboriginal workers in the area. Turned out this employment that was supposed to be doing the community a favour was actually a death sentence.

So, Wittenoom was closed more than a decade earlier because it wasn’t profitable, but different decision-making was used for Baryulgil. Now, normally, I’d approve of decision-making that took into account social values but this one is a bit suss.

This is, I have to say, a fairly didactic story. It could almost have been an essay, except that Behrendt has clearly thought, as she in fact says in her interview with Annette Marfording, that telling it as a story, showing the impacts of policy on human beings, would be the more effective way to go. So, while the story imparts a lot of factual information, Faye shares the devastating impact on her of losing her husband and son. She also tells how indigenous cultural practices work to their disadvantage in a white world. She says:

The hardest thing is to trust these people. These people who have the power of life or death over you, and use that power carelessly. These people we are mute to argue against. And our words never seem a match for what they wrote down, even though we have good memories and they make mistakes.

Now, that is probably the most important message in the story.

awwchallenge2016Larissa Behrendt
“Under skin, in blood”
in Overland (203), Winter 2011
Available online

On Howard Goldenberg writing about indigenous matters

Howard Goldenberg, Carrots and Jaffas

Courtesy: Hybrid Publishing

It’s funny how reviews go, at least how mine go anyhow. They sometimes head me off in a direction quite different to the one I started and I feel powerless* to change it. That happened with my recent review of Howard Goldenberg’s novel, Carrots and Jaffas. I started by mentioning the issue of white writers writing on black subjects but ended up focusing on the main issue in the novel that grabbed me – suffering and loss. But this is where it’s great to be a blogger: I can just write another post. I am my own boss after all! Consequently, in this post I plan to return to that opening point and discuss how Goldenberg writes about indigenous issues. I’m a bit anxious about it, however, as here I am, a white blogger writing about a white writer writing about black subjects. How far removed is that? You must read, therefore, what I say from that point of view – a non-expert who thinks the issue needs to be kept on the table.

Goldenberg has tried a tricky thing. He has taken the issue of the stolen generations and spread it out in a few directions. He’s taken the universal issue of traumatic, sudden loss (of children, siblings, parents), which is what I focused on in my review, and used it to provide readers with an entrée into the very particular loss experienced by those affected by the stolen generations policy. He has revolved his plot around the abduction of a white child to provide a parallel with the large-scale abduction of indigenous children. And he has placed the abducted child in an indigenous setting, enabling him to explore different responses to land or country, which is what I want to discuss here.

Three of the book’s characters are significant to this aspect of the novel. Goldenberg takes pains early in the novel to individuate the twins, describing Jaffas as interested in music, dance, beauty, as an “infant aesthete”, while Carrots is active, “exuberantly physical”. It is Jaffas who is abducted, the one more likely to be responsive to what Goldenberg has planned for him! Then there’s the indigenous woman, Greta. Goldenberg introduces us to her before she meets Jaffas, establishing her as a nurturing woman. She has brought a very sick baby, her great-niece, to see Doc, our third character. He observes her with the baby, noticing that she “crooned soft words in language, words to hold her safe”. As for Doc, we meet him just before we meet Greta. He too has suffered a loss, when his loved young sister was taken overseas by his father as the result of divorce. He’s been researching bowel infections for decades and has now gone bush to help prevent Aboriginal babies dying from diseases like dysentery.

Through these three characters, Goldenberg explores different ways of relating to our land, specifically in this case, the rock country of the Flinders Ranges:

The doctor set out early. The sun blessed its morning favourites – western peaks, taller treetops, selected folds of hill. Here and there, narrow beams probed gaps in the ranges and dowered the lower slopes with gold.
Greta shows Jaffas how to make fire, and catch goannas. She teaches him about her Dreaming by telling stories that were passed down to her:
Warraiti, you call him emu, you know? Very strong spirit. Warraiti, he the Law Man. He protect the Law. Plenty mob – blackfella mob, whitefella mob – eat warraiti, but not me. Never me. Warraiti, he my dreaming, my father …

Doc tells Jaffas that he is in the Flinders “to learn the stories of this country”. His perspective is broad. There is, he says, only one story, which is: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” And so, over the two months that Jaffas spends with Greta and Doc, he learns their stories. Greta tells him about her country, about how to live in it and how to relate to it, while Doc tells him his stories. He talks of fossils, telling Jaffas that “it’s a story of ‘Where do we come from?'” He tells him about the geology – about the hills that are older than time – and about the first people, the Adnyamathanha, who lived off the land for thousands of years. And he tells him that the new people, the settlers, have stories too. At times, it verges on the didactic, but then Doc is “teaching” Jaffas, and Goldenberg’s hand is light, so it works.

Jaffas, for his part, absorbs what he is told, and wants to share what he has learnt. He “needs Carrots to understand the important things”. He wants Carrots to hear Greta’s stories, and the Doc’s “many stories that are one great story”.

So, what is Goldenberg doing here? Well, he is writing a story about stories – about sharing stories with each other, about respecting each other’s stories, and, most importantly, about the role stories can play in healing the division between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures in Australia.

Carrots and Jaffas has several themes, but is, essentially, a modern story of abduction that conveys truths about the stolen generations, and about the wrongs, in general, done to indigenous people. It’s not, however, admonitory in tone. Instead, Goldenberg offers a prescription for healing. To do this, he has presumed to “speak” through an indigenous character (not to mention through white children, an immigrant woman and white men). I believe he has done it with respect and on the basis of personal knowledge. I found it honest and effective. I look forward to hearing what others say.

* Of course I have the power, but often I like the way I’m going while mourning the way I’ve left!

Howard Goldenberg, Carrots and Jaffas (Review)

Howard Goldenberg, Carrots and Jaffas

Courtesy: Hybrid Publishers

Howard Goldenberg, we are told in “About the Author” at the back of his debut novel Carrots and Jaffas, is the sole practitioner of a literary genre – the rhyming medical referral letter! Wouldn’t I love to see some of those! Anyhow, you’ve probably guessed now that Goldenberg is a doctor, and you’d be right. But he’s a doctor with some very specific experience. Earlier this year I wrote about white writers writing on indigenous subjects. It resulted in quite a discussion. While the overall opinion was that there should be no taboos in subject matter for writers, we agreed that such writing is most effective when done from a standpoint of knowledge (and, it goes without saying, sensitivity). Howard Goldenberg, whose novel Carrots and Jaffas I’ve just completed, has such knowledge*, as he has and still does practise for part of his time in outback Aboriginal communities. Beats me how he could also find time to write a novel, but like all passionate writers, he has!

I hadn’t heard of Howard Goldenberg before, but apparently he was featured in one of the sessions at this year’s inaugural Melbourne Jewish Writers festival, about which (the festival, not Goldenberg) Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and Jenny (Seraglio) have posted on their blogs. Goldenberg writes on his blog of his session with Martin Flanagan. He says that Flanagan “led a conversation about the book, about my choice to turn from serious non-fiction to the novel, about stolen children – the ultimate wound, about twinness, about the problems and pitfalls of the whitefella writing about blackfellas.” Oh, wouldn’t I have loved to have been there!

This novel, Carrots and Jaffas, is pretty ambitious. It covers a lot of ground, asking us to make the right connections between different experiences of suffering and loss. It uses parallel stories and a frequently shifting narrative perspective to do this. It has the odd awkward moment – a coincidence pushed a little far, an irony that doesn’t quite ring true, an earnestness that gets in the way – but these are minor in a story that totally got me in from the first page. Goldenberg has written two works of non-fiction – a memoir about his father, My father’s compass, and a book of stories about his experiences as a doctor in outback Aboriginal communities, Raft. These non-fiction works have clearly honed his narrative skills.

The main action of the novel occurs around 2004, with the setting split between suburban Melbourne and the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, in Adnyamathanha country. The plot starts with the abduction of 9 year-old Jaffas, one of identical twins, by an ex-drug addict, ex-con, who plans to deliver him to an old indigenous woman, Greta, who had two sons stolen from her in the 1960s. Clean now, but with a brain damaged by PCP, he (Jimmy aka Wilbur) sees himself as Golem or the Redeemer. He is going to right a wrong. He planned to take the two boys but it goes wrong and he ends up with just Jaffas, leaving behind a distraught Carrots. The story then flashes back to the story of how Carrots and Jaffas came to be, to the meeting and subsequent marriage of their parents, Bernard, an IT specialist who had lost his father when young, and Luisa, an immigrant from Buenes Aires who, we gradually learn, had suffered significant trauma and loss in her youth. Later, we meet Doc who works in the Flinders Ranges, but who has experienced a loss of his own, a sibling through divorce.

From here the story alternates between Carrots at home, and Jaffas in the outback in a neighbouring state. As Carrots starts to fall apart, Jaffas, who was threatened with the death of his twin if he tells, is introduced to indigenous culture. He is not happy, is biding his time for an opportunity to go home, but in the meantime, over a period of a couple of months, he starts to hear different stories about life – indigenous ones from Greta and scientific ones from Doc – and learns another way of living. I will leave the story at this point … except to say that there is drama alongside reflection. It’s quite a page turner, in its quiet way!

There is humour here, despite the serious subject matter. I particularly loved the chapter on the kindergarten fancy dress parade. It brought back such memories. Even in this lighthearted scene, though, there’s seriousness. One child is particularly diminutive, and Goldenberg writes:

No one in his class considered him abnormal. But already behind him, forever past, were the years of parity with his classmates. This would be his last year of unselfconsciousness, the last year before he entered the big school, where bigger kids would be free with unkind comparisons. Luisa gazed at him, concerned; she realised the child did not suffer from dwarfism – not yet.

Oh, the power of labels!

The characters are engaging, each clearly individualised – from Luisa’s bible-learnt English and understandable fearfulness to Greta’s confident, nurturing nature, from Bernard’s practical approach to life to the Doc’s passionate if somewhat eccentric one.

There are many losses explored in this novel – parents “lose” children, and children their parents, siblings lose siblings – and they are mostly needless, human-induced. Goldenberg examines what happens to the soul, the spirit, when it experiences such pain. Not everyone responds in the same way – some start to disintegrate, some go into problem-solving mode, others respond with increased generosity of spirit – but all suffer.

Carrots writes letters that he clearly can’t send to the abducted Jaffas. In one of them he writes “I am not me without you”. They are of course twins, but most people, Goldenberg shows, are irrevocably changed when they experience loss. For all this, the novel is redemptive. I’d love to know how indigenous people respond to the novel but, for me, it’s a novel written with love from the heart. I enjoyed it.

Howard Goldenberg
Carrots and Jaffas
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2014
ISBN: 9781925000122

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

* Read, for example, his powerful, heartfelt blog post on the current Budget recommendations regarding co-payment for medical treatment.

Rachel Hennessy, The heaven I swallowed (Review)

Rachel Hennessy, The heaven I swallowed

Cover: Courtesy Wakefield Press

It feels strange to be reviewing a Vogel Literary Award runner up, which Rachel Hennessy’s The heaven I swallowed was in 2008, in a year when the judges decided not to award the prize because they didn’t find ‘that special quality that a winning entry has’. C’est la vie I suppose, but what a shame for this year’s entrants. I hope it doesn’t discourage them. Rejections can be good for you – or so I’ve been told.

The heaven I swallowed is Hennessy’s second novel, though I hadn’t heard of her before. Her first, The Quakers, won the Adelaide Festival Award for an Unfinished Manuscript. She has also had many short stories published, a short play performed, and a short film, Not Waving, Drowning, screened at several festivals. She’s clearly been around.

According to Wakefield Press’s Media Release, The heaven I swallowed was inspired by Hennessy’s grandmother who was a member of the Stolen Generations, and by her paternal great-aunt whose husband fought in the second world war. The novel is set in the 1950s, with flashbacks to the past. It tells the story of Grace (Gracie to her husband Fred) and opens around 1950 when Grace is 40. She’s alone, having lost her husband, Fred, to the war, and childless, having had a miscarriage after Fred enlisted. She decides to take in 12-year-old Aboriginal girl, Mary, who, we later realise, is a stolen child. Grace, though, has been told that Mary’s an orphan. Caring for her, Grace says, represents “the epitome of my goodness”. The novel is divided into two parts, with the second part set 5 years after the first.

My problem is how to talk about it without giving too much away. Telling you what separates the two parts would rather spoil the tale. It’s not a heavily plot-driven story, but there are some significant events that mark its progress, so instead I’ll focus on character and style. And, I’ll start by saying the novel reminded me of Anita Brookner. Grace could have stepped right out of a Brookner novel. She’s an outsider, she’s isolated, she’s lonely. She was an orphan, brought up by nuns – and that seems to have set her off on a path from which she finds it hard to deviate.

This orphan business leads to one of the main themes of the novel – secrets, lies and deception. Grace identifies with orphans. She often reads about them. Jane Eyre, David Copperfield and Tom Jones all make appearances in the novel. Consequently, Grace feels an affinity with Mary – though Mary says she has a mother. When Grace discovers, via her parish priest who had organised Mary’s placement, that Mary’s mother is looking for her, she accepts the priest’s advice and hides this fact from Mary. After all, as Father Benjamin says, “the girl’s much better off with you”. Yep, that’s true! She’s learning a lot about housework! Such was usually the lot of stolen generation girls.

This, though, is not the only lie in Grace’s life. There’s another big one that shadows her – to do with her role as a widow – and there are innumerable small ones. Many are those “little white lies” people tell, but in Grace’s case they are a way of life and serve to isolate her from those people who do reach out to her. Meanwhile, she is doing her best to raise Mary, albeit relying a little too much on the nuns’ methods she experienced, methods that were short on love and high on rules. One of the rules concerns lying: “Don’t lie to me again Mary”, she says. The irony, the hypocrisy, is not lost on the reader.

The heaven I swallowed is a well-plotted novel with lovely links that unite the plot, characters and themes. For example, the opening scene is a flashback to an experience Grace has when she was 12 – a visitation at night from what she believes is the Virgin Mary. Twenty-eight years later, 12-year-old Mary comes to stay with her. She feels Mary as a “presence”, but she also comes to love her, in her own way. Visits, visiting, presence, shadows run through the novel – some physical, some imagined, some spiritual. They provide much of the novel’s tension.

The story is told first person, by Grace. I found her a sympathetic character, but Murray Waldren on the back cover of my edition calls her “a memorable monster”. That’s a little harsh, I think. Grace makes many, many mistakes, but she’s a person in pain, describing herself at one point as “alone and untethered”. She’s not intentionally cruel, she’s not vicious, but she’s defensive and self-centred. In trying to protect herself she hurts both others and herself. It’s a credit to Hennessy that she can write about a “perpetrator” of the Stolen Generations with such compassion – she enables us to empathise with Grace without at all condoning her behaviour.

It would be hard for any book to follow Hilary Mantel‘s Bring up the bodies, and I must say that for the first few pages of this novel I was a little disengaged. Here we go, I was thinking, another girl damaged by her religious upbringing, but Hennessy soon got me in. She has captured the era – the 1950s with its small-mindedness, its gossipy church communities, its racism and sexism – convincingly. She seems to have listened to her family’s stories well!

As for Mary? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens to her. I recommend you do, because this is a quiet but fierce little book about real people and real situations. It’s not always pretty, but it has a heart.

Rachel Hennessy
The heaven I followed
Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2013
ISBN: 9781862549487

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

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”.