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 act 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 is 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.
Author: Marie Munkara
Title: Of Ashes and Rives that Run to the Sea
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin-Random House), 2016
Review copy courtesy of Penguin-Random House
Available from Fishpond: Of Ashes and Rivers That Flow to the Sea and good bookshops everywhere.