Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 8, 2016

A Most Peculiar Act, by Marie Munkara #BookReview

ILW 2016
A Most Peculiar Act Thanks to Sonia who posted a comment during Indigenous Literature Week in 2015, I have had Marie Munkara’s novella A Most Peculiar Act on my radar for a while, and I was lucky that with great timing for #IndigLitWeek & #NAIDOC it came into the library this week.  Set during WW2 in the prelude to the Japanese bombing of Darwin, it’s only 169 pages long, but this witty satirical novel certainly packs a punch…

The ‘peculiar act’ referred to in the title is the Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918, and in what amounts to a stroke of political and literary genius, Munkara has structured her novella around clauses from this act at the beginning of each chapter of the book.  So Chapter 1, titled ‘Horrid Hump’ alerts the reader to the provisions of Part 1 of the act, establishing that there will be a Chief Protector appointed by the Administrator of the Northern Territory and that it shall be the duty of the Chief Protector –

(f) to exercise a general supervision and care over all matters affecting the welfare of the aboriginals, and to protect them against immorality, injustice, imposition and fraud.

And then with high farce the reader is introduced to the man who fulfils this role:

Although he never lacked in enthusiasm, Horatio Humphris (Horrid Hump to every one else) was a man with ambitions that far outweighed his capabilities. […] He didn’t get the fact that his appointment had nothing to do with skill or intelligence but everything to do with sticking him in a place where his ineptitude wouldn’t make too much impact on the machinations of the public service. […] everyone knew that if there was one thing you could rely on Horrid Hump to do it was to b—— things up.  So the rationale behind his appointment was that he wouldn’t be able to b—— up a situation that was already b——ed.  (p.9-10)

(Yes, there is a bit of lively language in this book, and since this is a family friendly blog I don’t reproduce language that may offend – but it is very funny!)

Well, to say that Horrid Hump fails miserably to protect the Aborigines in his charge is an understatement.  The duty of his patrol officers is to make these Wards of the State assimilate i.e.

be persuaded by whatever means were at hand to embrace the ways of Europeans who had arrived uninvited in their country a few hundred years before, bringing with them a whole new way of life that the poor blacks were expected to emulate. (p.14)

These patrol officers – whose pastimes were primarily gambling, fornication and binge-drinking – had a grand old time assigning new whitefella names to assist in the assimilation process.  No more jaw-breakers like Arripiatunwangu and Wurrawunapungala to tie their tongues into complicated macramé knots.  No, henceforth the Wards of the State were known as Chisel Teeth and Hammer Toe, Fuel Drum, Shoelace and Rawhide.  Sixteen year old Sugar wanted to keep the name she’d had all her life. Dhurrpu, but she wasn’t allowed to.  It was no comfort that in time Ralphie, the most empathetic of the patrol officers came to realise that to destroy language was to destroy the fabric of an ancient civilisation.

The Ordinance at the beginning of Chapter 2 reminds the reader that the Chief Protector was obliged to provide, as far as practicable, for the supply of food, medical attendance, medicines, and shelter for the sick, aged and infirm aboriginals, but that’s not Sugar’s experience when she gives birth to twins.  Part IV of the Ordinance prohibits giving Aborigines any access to alcohol, but heavy drinking is the norm for whitefellas.  Ralphie, however, isn’t sacked for that, but rather for his conquest of Rosie the Stiff Gin because Horrid Hump abhors the idea of relationships between black and white.  Subsequently an attraction forms between Sugar and Ralphie but their feelings had always been kept safely in the shadows of their hearts where rejection or hurt wouldn’t find them and where regret was now creeping in to twist the knife a little more.  (p79)

Aboriginal culture is not romanticised.  Most readers will flinch when they learn that twins were bad news in Aboriginal culture and it was custom to kill them both.  Sugar solves the problem by leaving one behind in the hospital for further treatment, but inevitably she loses them both to the white culture of taking Aboriginal children from their mothers – in overt defiance of their own Ordinance that makes it an offence for any Aboriginal to be removed from the boundaries of a reserve of aboriginal institution.

How could a baby be taken from right under your nose and given away like a puppy (free to good home, just like that, no please or thank you) by the very ones who could throw you into the clink for stealing a blanket?  Sugar just couldn’t work it out.   (p.110)

A Most Peculiar Act has a similar style to Munkara’s debut novel Every Secret Thing (see my review).  It is a picaresque collection of incidents, each one pitched at satirising the provisions of this ‘most peculiar act’.  It is ribald, mocking, sometimes slapstick and always rich in biting sarcasm.  Occasionally the author’s clear voice can be heard as when Horrid Hump’s view that there was no place for primitive cultures is described as a frighteningly blinkered view shared by many others at the time and a belief that still persists to this day.  

If this novella has a flaw, it’s that there are so many Aboriginal characters who are not fleshed out and made memorable in the way that the white characters are.  Apart from Horrid Hump and Ralphie, there is also Drew Hepplewaite, an appalling racist who tricked her way into being appointed as a patrol officer before it was discovered she was female; and Penelope, the Administrator’s wife,  who is having an affair with Chou Chou, her Chinese personal attendant.  Only Sugar is a fully developed Aboriginal character, learning the hard way that passive resistance is the best way to handle the irrational provisions of that ‘most peculiar act’. 

It is a very satisfying moment when Sugar finds herself on a level playing field with her oppressors.  In a moment of supreme irony, Chou Chou, sheltering from the Japanese bombs, complains that none of them want to have to submit to a strange new culture…

The cover design is by Tracey Gibbs and the cover artwork is by Julie Dowling from the Badimaya language group in Perth.  Yu can see a profile of Marie Munkara at Deadly Vibe.

Author: Marie Munkara, of Rembarranga descent
Title: A Most Peculiar Act
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781921248849
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Magabala Books where there are teacher’s notes and you can also buy it as an eBook, and from Fishpond: A Most Peculiar Act


Responses

  1. She is a great storyteller isn’t she? Such a great sense of humour.

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  2. Hello Lisa and blog readers,
    I’m glad that you decided to read Marie Munkara’s novel, A Most Peculiar Act, for this year’s Indigenous Literature Week. I admire Munkara’s use of humor, satire, and history to explore issues of child abduction, sexual and physical abuse, and political corruption against Aboriginal people. Including excerpts of Aboriginal Ordinances Act for each chapter was an interesting narrative choice but I think that Munkara could have peered down some of the content in each chapter or made a stronger connection between it and the narrative. I enjoyed reading the novel.

    I had the pleasure of reading Munkara’s new memoir, Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea. She shares her experiences of awkwardly adjusting to a mission lifestyle and developing a personal relationship with her birth mother, siblings, and extended family. Munkara’s memoir was an interesting read as well.

    I’m finishing the young adult novel, Grace Beside Me, by Sue McPherson. McPherson’s novel takes place in a dominant aboriginal community and centers on the protagonist name Fuzzy. Fuzzy is an Aboriginal girl who lives with her grandparents and learns about her ancestral history and culture from them. Through Fuzzy’s point of view, readers are able to learn facets of Aboriginal history and customs as well as the value of community and self-empowerment. McPherson’s novel reads like a memoir as opposed to a fictional story. She may have drawn from personal experience and/or the experiences of other Aboriginal people. There is a strong thread of collective responsibility running through Grace Beside Me. I encourage readers to read this novel.

    Sonia

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    • Hi Sonia, thanks for joining in the conversation, and thanks for your recommendation of AMPA.
      Yes, Grace Beside Me is another good one, I think it won the David Unaipon Award….

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  3. […] A Most Peculiar Act, by Marie Munkara, of Rembarranga descent, see my review […]

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  4. Interesting that Kim Scott in Benang uses a similar strategy of including excerpts from the 1905 Aborigines Act and official correspondence from the WA Chief Protector as a counterpoint to Indigenous pov narratives. It’s dreadful that the decrees of (mostly) old white men in government have such a disproportionate effect on Black lives – right up to the ‘Intervention’ currently in place in the NT.
    I’ll definitely give this author a try.

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  5. Yes, but you know, I knew about those dreadful decrees… everyone does. What this book achieves is the detail of the irony. Each quotation from the act is matched to an ironic counterpart and it really brings home afresh just how dreadful, how outrageous it was. I read this in the way that I’ve read books about slavery, the way I read reports about ISIS, and I get overwhelmed by thinking, how could they to that to fellow human beings?
    As for the Intervention, words fail me. It’s not even an issue in the media any more, there’s no reports about its effectiveness, it’s just airbrushed away. And yet the whole thing is predicated on racism – C21st Australia!
    I won’t ever agree that any group should be treated differently to any other group. If there is child abuse, then charge, imprison and rehabilitate the guilty ones, and only the guilty ones, not a whole community.based on the colour of their skin.
    I will never forget seeing on TV an Aboriginal man saying, in a tone of bewilderment and frustration, that he had worked hard all his life to do the right thing by his kids, and yet here was the government telling him he wasn’t even allowed to manage his own money any more.

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    • The legal policies against Aboriginal people were entrenched in racism and cultural intolerance. To take total control over an ethnic group’s lifestyle, culture, family, and means of financial support is unjust and unwarranted.

      I recently became aware of the Aboriginal Journalist and Activist name Stan Grant. He has a new memoir published this year entitled, Talking to My Country. Grant’s memoir has been well received in the media and he’s been featured in the Sydney’s Writers Festival. From a review of the memoir, I’ve learned that Grant offers commentary on the legal policies used against Aboriginal people and the prevalence of racism that still exists within Australian society as well as reflections on his family’s life experiences. Grant’s memoir would be a good selection for readers to gain insight on issues of racism and disenfranchisement.

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      • Yes, I read that earlier this year. What encourages me is that his high public profile might encourage people to read it even if they’re not particularly interested in indigenous issues.

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  6. Many people have so much to learn…so far to go

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] Lisa at ANZLL’s review (here) […]

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  8. […] chose a form of savage but wickedly funny satire to lampoon the hypocrisy of the missionaries in A Most Peculiar Act (2014).  The trouble is, it’s not really funny at […]

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