Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 4, 2016

Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea, by Marie Munkara

ILW 2016

Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the SeaIndigenous readers please be aware that this page may contain the names of deceased persons.

Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea, by Marie Munkara  is a book that will make readers very thoughtful indeed…

If there were two recent books of non-fiction by indigenous authors that I’d like everyone to read, they are Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country and this one, Munkara’s memoir of discovering her Aboriginal family.  It is raucous and funny, but it is also an unabashed picture of life in contemporary Aboriginal communities.  It’s raw, and earthy, and it flourishes confronting truths…

Of Rembarranga and Tiwi descent, Munkara was born on the banks of the Mainoru River in Arnhemland but like many light-skinned Aborigines in that period she was removed from her family when she was three.  Even though she was very small when she was taken, like most of us she had fragments of memory from her very early life, and these memories both sustained and confused her during her grim childhood as an adoptee.

It is hard to imagine this vivacious personality developing a barrier of silence around her as a survival strategy.  But she had good reason to shut down and suppress her personality.  Adopted into a pious Catholic family in Melbourne, she was burdened with constant abuse both verbal and physical from her dour ‘mother’ and she was sexually abused by her paedophile ‘father’.  Her strategy was to get an education and leave as soon as possible.  But it was not until she was 28 that she discovered by chance the baptismal card which enabled her to find her real family.

The book is written in four parts.  Part I begins with the discovery of that card  and her first confronting visit to her family.

… I am worn out by the passing parade of strange faces who have come and said hello and shaken my hand.  Although Father Fallon wrote in his letter that I had two brothers, it appears I have three brothers and a sister, Louis, Mario, JJ and Lorraine.  JJ and Lorraine are adopted.  In addition to that I have two sisters-in-law, Louis’ wife Gemma and Mario’s wife Theresa Anne, and their baby Casmira, and they all live in mummy’s place.  Aminay has assured me that the woman who is supposed to be my mother actually is and I am to call her mummy.  It is shocking news as I was expecting an older version of myself …

Because my brothers are black and I’m a few shades lighter it’s obvious we don’t have the same father so instead of asking directly about my other parents, I ask mummy where her husband is.  But everything goes silent and everyone looks around awkwardly and fidgets and then Aminay tells me he passed away and we aren’t allowed to talk about people who have died in case their spirit hears us and comes back and hangs around. I bite my tongue and anxiously scan around for ghosts.  (p. 24)

Munkara’s style is often to undercut poignant moments like these with humour, masking her emotion on learning in this way that her father died before ever she could meet him.  But jokes don’t hide her dismay about meeting her mother.  With no understanding of Aboriginal culture or kinship systems, she has barged into community life and is astounded by the chaotic lifestyle, the shambolic housing and the poverty.  And when her mother casually greets her with an offer of a cup of tea, Munkara is outraged by her impertinence because her mum can’t possibly be shoe-polish black like this.  She doesn’t cope well with any of it, and flees back to Melbourne, only to experience what she calls an omen which summons her back to her birth family.

Part 2 reprises life with her adoptive family, and it’s grim.  It was a joyless household, and whatever the old bat’s original intentions may have been, her ‘charity’ in adopting an Aboriginal child soon degenerates into hostility and abuse.  Little Marie was taught nothing of her origins, only to disdain Aboriginal people.  There were no allowances made for a small child experiencing culture shock, and her adoptive parents seemed not to understand that she didn’t speak English and could not understand what was expected of her.  Worse than that was that the Northern Territory Welfare Authorities who were supposed to monitor her welfare failed to notice signs of sexual abuse which are obvious in the archival reports that Munkara quotes.  Her one solace was books, and school was a welcome escape…

Part 3 returns to Bathurst Island.  It is a series of hilarious cross-cultural encounters and Munkara’s attempts to impose a little order within the household.  But while much of this is funny, it’s also confronting as we learn that she is afraid to eat, drink and shower because of the lack of hygiene; she is upset because her things are appropriated by other members of the family and then misused or broken; and she can’t buy fresh fruit and vegetables in the store.  On the other hand she enjoys the company of her extended family, likes learning about the kinship systems that underpin it, and has a great time rampaging about in the bush catching bush tucker.  She comes to appreciate the relaxed lifestyle and lack of overbearing rules.

The sad fact is, however, that she doesn’t belong.  She realises that this family wants to take something out of my heart and make me black, just like the other family wanted to tame me and make me white. She knows that she is a disappointment and she is ashamed that she waltzed back into her mother’s life as a 28-year-old without even asking how her mother felt about it.

And while there are other mixed race people in her community. she is the only one in her family, and she is the only one who has lived an entire life elsewhere.  She comes to the conclusion that there is no stolen and there is no lost, there is no black and there is no white.  It’s just her, and she has learned to accept herself as she is – and so must they.

The death of Munkara’s mother is one of many poignant moments in this memoir, but this is not a mournful book.  There is too much high-spirited humour in it for that.  And while it shows us that reunions of the Stolen Generations are not simply a matter of matching up the records in dusty archives, it also shows us the resilience that has marked this whole sorrowful story in Australia’s history.

Highly recommended.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Marie Munkara
Title: Of Ashes and Rives that Run to the Sea
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin-Random House), 2016
ISBN: 9780857987273
Review copy courtesy of Penguin-Random House

Available from Fishpond: Of Ashes and Rivers That Flow to the Sea and good bookshops everywhere.


  1. Thanks. I will keep looking for that one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s a confronting conclusion and one that appears to go against everything we (whites) have learned over the last few decades. Obviously I’ll have to read the book.


    • I hope you do, Bill. I want everyone to read this one!


  3. I’m currently reading Marie Munkara’s memoir, Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea. Just a few more pages left to read. As you Lisa in your review of the memoir, Munkara offers an honest and humorous perspective on her personal experiences as an child abuse survivor, reuniting with her aboriginal family, and claiming her authentic identity without ethnic, social, and cultural barriers placed upon her life.

    I recently listened to an audio interview with Munkara discussing her memoir. A ‘nugget’ that I took away from the interview is that Munkara doesn’t view herself as a victim nor does she have any regrets about her life choices. I admire her strength.

    The following is a link to the interview with Marie Munkara-


    • Thanks for the link, I’m listening to it now:)


  4. Another great review Lisa. Having been welcomed into an Aboriginal community for a short period of time some years ago, I was confused and dismayed (initially) by the unusual (to me) ideas about ownership. I didn’t understand the concepts that were so different from what I was used to.I also struggled with different attitudes toward time. I can’t even begin to imagine how shattering it must be to be uprooted and thrust into a culture so different from one’s own.
    What seems interesting about this book is the way we would be able to see the nuances of behaviour through different cultural prisms.
    I have not read Stan Grant’s book but I think I will seek out a copy of Marie Munkara’s first.


  5. I really like the sound of this Lisa – it reminds me a little of that other book that I read after seeing a review on your blog – The Heaven I Swallowed. Are they quite similar? This one doesn’t sound as bleak and this one is obviously non-fiction.


    • They’re complementary in a way, because The Heaven I Swallowed is written from the PoV of the Catholic mother who adopts the Aboriginal Child. But yes, it’s definitely not as bleak, Munkara uses humour very effectively to lighten the story.


      • Ah yes, complementary sounds better. I had forgotten it was written from the woman’s point of view.


  6. Thanks for this – it sounds excellent and I’ll look out for it.


    • It should be readily available because it’s published by one of the major publishers.


  7. I would like to read this, and will come back and read your review properly then. I loved her book Every secret thing. She has a wonderful voice. And i remember her telling a bit about the story of her life during interviews at the time of that book. It’s great that she’s written it down.


    • I’ve also borrowed A Most Peculiar Act from the library and I hope I have time to read it before it’s due back.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m waiting for Stan Grant’s book at the library (the list is verrrrrrryyyyyy long) – looks like I should add this one as well.


    • I bet it is…
      Can you nag your library into buying another copy?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m waiting for the e-book – I think there’s rules about how many can be accessing an e-book at any one time?? I reckon my husband would like to read it so I’ll probably just cave and buy it ‘for him’. ;-)


  9. […] Of Ashes and Rivers That Flow to the Sea, by Marie Munkara, of Rembarranga descent, see my review […]


  10. […] “Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea” by Marie Munkara, see my review […]


  11. […] elsewhere.  Although she retains her sense of humour in this book,   Munkara – as I say in my review – shows us that reunions of the Stolen Generations are not simply a matter of matching up the […]


  12. […] more about Marie Munkara in Lisa’s thoughtful review here and in Sue’s post Monday Musings about Australian Literature: about Arnhem […]


  13. […] Lisa (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. […]


  14. So glad I finally found time to read this – and particularly at a time when I was travelling where her family came from. Love her story-telling style. What a survivor, eh? There are so many different ways to write about this book.


  15. Hi Lisa, slowly catching up with ILW. I have been away for a month and was unable to find good reads. Fortunately back at my local library. Just finished Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea, and Too afraid to Cry. These women are strong despite their abuse when young. Both women keep looking forward. Excellent reads.


    • They are indeed. I have been impressed by everything that Munkara has written and Eckermann, well, the Windham-Campbell Prize says it all!


  16. Hello, a great review of Marie Munkara’s brilliant biography. I loved it! I recommend all her books to everyone. I also loved Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Too Afraid to cry’. Both very important books.


    • Hello Bron, thanks for dropping by:)
      Have you had a chance to take a look at the Indigenous Reading List in the top menu? There are reviews there from readers who’ve been participating in #IndigLitWeek since 2012 so there’s lots to choose from:)


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