Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 2, 2013

Every Secret Thing (2009), by Marie Munkara

Aust Lit Month logo

Read during Australian Literature Month at Reading Matters

Every Secret ThingI feel as if I am late to the party with this review of Marie Munkara’s  Every Secret Thing: almost all the Aussie bloggers I know have reviewed it already:

and a blog called Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye reviewed it way back in 2009 too.

But late to the party or not, I still want to share my experience of reading this remarkable book so that perhaps by the time I again host Indigenous Literature Week in NAIDOC Week (7-14 July), more people will seek it out and read it.

Every Secret Thing is a collection of tales of the Bush Mob and the Mission Mob in Arnhemland, beginning in the early days of missionary activity when the indigenous people did not recognise the threat to their culture.  As Munkara tells it, based on the recollection of her friends and family, the Bush Mob initially found the Mission Mob comic, and they thought that they could continue to evade any impact on their way of life by taking only what they wanted from the interlopers.  In one ribald, mocking tale after another, the author shows the Bush Mob trading minor irritations for what then looked like advantage to them, and making fun of the pompous intruders who come off worst time after time.  The reader is lured into this early part of their story with hilarious slapstick humour, heavy with irony, and laced with biting sarcasm when revealing the extent to which the missionaries sexually abused indigenous women or trampled on cultural practices of which they were profoundly ignorant.

None of the nuns quite knew what to say as they looked at the newborn baby cradled in Mary Magdalene’s arms.  The baby, a chubby-cheeked little girl, had been born two days previously in the beach camp and bore a striking resemblance to her mother, except for one thing: the baby was very pale and Mary Magdalene, who was now referred to as Wuninga because she was living back at the camp, was very black.  Wuninga had lived her entire fifteen years at the camp and the mission except for regular forays out bush with her family, so that meant that any one of the white men living at the mission was a possible candidate for paternity.  That’s if you didn’t count his Most Fecund the Bishop, and his two minders who had visited twice in the last year. (p. 35)

But as time goes by the tales introduce the removal of the children of these predatory relationships and there is the heartbreaking story of Tapalinga who becomes an emblem of the Stolen Generations.  Munkara’s tone becomes bitter as she recounts Tapalinga’s return to her people only to find that she doesn’t fit in any more, and that, worst of all, her mother is alienated by Tapalinga’s white ways – because that is the only way she can deal with the pain of her loss.

…it was in the shower, washing off the mud and the hurt, Marigold realised that she didn’t want to be among these people anymore.  She didn’t want to be different or alone or laughed at.  She didn’t want to be awkward or out of place.  But she didn’t understand that the time between when the child Tapalinga left and the stranger named Marigold had returned had been too long for her mother and other people to bear.

The pain of losing her had solidified and turned into a mountain of indifference.  Marigold’s coming back had threatened to open a door to the past that had taken Judy all her energy to close. (p.170)

The book culminates in the rise of another awful phenomenon, Black Suicides, which arose from the despair and hopelessness that the Bush Mob felt when at last they realised that their way of life had been taken from them forever.

So began the slow downwards spiral of despair…Then the grog came and the winding path of good intentions became a straight bitumen four-laned highway that led even deeper into a world of self-destruction and hopelessness that no-one knew how to fix.  And then more and more people began to leave unexpectedly without goodbyes or explanations and a sorrow so deep that no-one could see an end to the despair descended upon them and they’d be found hanging  from trees or electrocuted by the power lines and the cemetery had to be made bigger to accommodate the unexpected influx of new residents.  But there was one thing they were certain of.  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 before. (p. 179)

I will do what Sally from Oz did in her review and quote from Munkara’s short essay at Overland:

… although many people have said that my book Every Secret Thing is profoundly political, I still have difficulty seeing it that way because the issues in the book, like the removal of children, or clergy molesting children in their care, are everyday things for me. As ugly as they are, these things have happened to me and they have happened to members of my family so they fit more within the realms of the personal. But even though it wasn’t my intent to create a political work I can appreciate that others might see it that way.

Every Secret Thing won the 2008 David Unaipon Award and the 2010 NT Book of the Year.  It is a powerful work, which uses humour to expose confronting truths about Australian’s Black History.

Marie Munkara was born on the banks of the Mainoru River in Arnhemland and now lives in Darwin.

Author: Marie Munkara
Title: Every Secret Thing
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 2009
ISBN: 9780702237195
Source: Personal library, purchased from Dymocks, $24.95


Fishpond: Every Secret Thing


  1. Glad you’ve read it too Lisa … I love the storytelling approach of writers like Munkara and the humour with which they tell tales that are serious at their core. I guess her comment, that you quoted, gets to the essence of the idea that the personal is the political.


    • It took me too long to get to it. *blush* I have a not-so-secret project this year, and that is to tackle the M shelf of the TBR because there are so many books on it I can’t find anything. (Last year it was the As and Bs that were overflowing, but the Ms are totally out of control!)


      • Oh, I love it … Sounds as good an approach as any. I shall look out for more Ms!


  2. I don’t even recall hearing about this book before! I might add it to my list of possible reads for this year.


  3. Hi Lisa, I reviewed ‘Every Secret Thing’ for ABR. It remains my favourite book of debut Aussie fiction I’ve read in the last several years. I’m think I”m right in saying that she has a new book out this year.


    • Hi Patrick, great to hear from you, I hope you are also slaving away on a new novel for me to read soon? It must be four years since I reviewed Figurehead! (
      Now that I am an online subscriber to ABR (free plug for them LOL) I can hunt out your review of Every Secret Thing easily. I am still learning to find my way around the site, but it is so much better than having to search through old volumes of the ABR in pamphlet boxes in my library!


      • Hi Lisa, Yeah, I’m writing a novel and some other stuff. I keep telling myself ‘start less, finish more’ but that fact that I have to keep telling myself …


        • I’m sure it will be worth the wait…


  4. […] because the last book I read by an indigenous author was Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing (see my review), I am starting to see a divergence in the indigenous literature that I’ve read.  I would be […]


  5. […] Every Secret Thing, by Marie Munkara (2008) […]


  6. […] see my ANZ LitLovers review […]


  7. […] see my ANZ LitLovers review […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: