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


2016, 274 p.

For me, the day that then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the Stolen Generations is a day lodged in my memory, along with moon walks, assassinations, bushfires and planes crashing into buildings. I was on a train to Bendigo for a history conference, and it seemed rather appropriate to sit with other historians, heads bent over a small transistor radio, listening to Rudd give a historic speech that was much better than I expected it to be.  But although as white Australians the speech may have made us feel a bit better about ourselves, it was always an apology to indigenous Australians.  They sat in the parliament and on the lawns outside, many in tears.  This was their apology. As a white Australian, I know the policies and justifications that led to the removal of indigenous children from their parents, but I can only imagine, incompletely, the emotional toll of this government-encouraged policy.

Marie Munkara’s book takes us into the heart of it because the author is one of those stolen children.  Born on the banks of the Mainoru River in Arnhem Land in  the Northern Territory, she was taken from her mother at three years of age. Her white foster father sexually abused her for years, and her white foster mother was bitter and harsh. Nothing was said about her birth family, although her religious family did meet with other families who had likewise adopted Aboriginal children under the aegis of the Catholic Church. Twenty-eight years later she found a baptismal certificate, and after some enquiries, she found out that her mother was still alive and that she had siblings at Nguiu on Bathurst Island.  Within weeks, she was aboard a plane to meet her family.  It is a troubled, awkward reunion.  Months after returning for a second stay, she confronts her birth mother:

‘Did you want me to come and stay here with you?’ I say petulantly. ‘You’re always so grumpy.’

‘You nebber ask me,’ she says tetchily like I’ve struck a raw nerve.

And mummy is right, I didn’t ask her. And I have never asked her about how she felt about her three-year-old child being taken from her life and a twenty-eight-year-old stranger waltzing back into it again.  I assumed that we would take up where we left off but I realise now that the years have been too long and the differences between us too many for that to occur. (p 232)

Certainly Munkara crashes back into her family’s life full of justifiable anger at her foster-parents.  But her perspective on her new family is steeped in urban, white values. She is appalled by the squalor, poverty and community violence and frightened by the snakes, rogue cattle, crocodiles and lice.  Repulsed by the barely-cooked meat served up to her, she decides to become a vegetarian: an urban affectation not easily catered for in a remote area. She is torn between judgment and an aching need to be accepted and folded back into her family.

If you’ve read Munkara’s Every Secret Thing (my review here) you’ll recognize the humour in this book with it’s ‘up-yours’ insouciance.  Many of the book’s small chapters are short vignettes where Munkara tells of meeting family members, nights at the alcohol-sodden club house, hunting trips and bush-bashing in completely unroadworthy cars.  Much of the time the humour is at her own expense.

The narrative voice is simple and feels to me as if it belongs to a younger writer. Munkara is fifty-six, but sounds almost adolescent.  This is not high literature by any means.

The crispy sauvignon blanc that I had bought to help pass the time left a subtle lingering citrus taste on my palate… (p. 4)

Nonetheless, particularly in the last forty pages of the book, there is an honesty and poignancy that transcends the rather pedestrian prose.

…there’s a little piece of something in my heart that no one can reach because it lives deep down inside me. I think this family wants to take the something out of my heart and make me black, just like the other family wanted to tame me and make me white.  I know that nobody is interested in the parts of me that don’t concern them.  The white parents aren’t interested in the pre-assimilation black bits because they wanted a white girl with black skin. And my real family don’t want to know about the post-assimilation white bits because they think I’m a black girl with a white heart. I know that I’ve disappointed them all. The anger from the white parents.  The pitiful looks from the black. The fretful and all-consuming silences from them both.  I wish I could open the doors to my mind and let them in, so they could see the world from my eyes and forgive me for not being able to fit their expectations. (p. 234)

Despite the raucous auntys and cousins surrounding her in her black family and the sterile figures in her white family, this is a lonely journey with higher emotional stakes than, say, Sally Morgan in My Place.  Its authenticity transcends its unsophisticated prose and structure. I haven’t read a book quite like it.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7/10

I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge website. aww2016

11 responses to “‘Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea’ by Marie Munkara

  1. I read this one too, and I found the passage that you quoted very moving indeed. The damage that’s been done to our indigenous people is enormous…

  2. I’ve just recently read Munkara’s A Most Peculiar Act (following Lisa’s review) and I agree with you, the anger and vitality is the writing of someone 30 years younger

  3. Pingback: A Most Peculiar Act, Marie Munkara | theaustralianlegend

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  7. Enjoyed your post Janine. I would say just one thing, and that is that I saw that Sav Blanc comment as her sending herself up. As you say, she’s writing this now, about her experience when she was 28. I think she’s specifically chosen to write in the voice of the person she was then to convey just what it was like for her, rather than to write it as a 50-something year old reflecting back on the experience. For me, this was an important part of the book.

  8. I just read this one and, like you, enjoyed the clash of culture and the humour that Marie Munkara brought to her story. It was a harrowing tale, but somehow also a fun read, with some great stories. Enjoyed your review!

  9. Pingback: ‘Her Mother’s Daughter’ by Nadia Wheatley | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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