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Posts Tagged ‘Marie Munkara’

I came across both Marie Munkara and her little gem of a book, Every Secret Thing, at last week’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF), where I went to a session with Marie in conversation with Irina Dunn.  I really enjoyed the session and the three-or-so readings that Marie did, all of which were very humorous, and so I bought the book.

Winner of the 2008 David Unaipon Award for unpublished indigenous authors, Every Secret Thing explores the Catholic missionaries’ efforts to educate and ‘civilise’ a mob of aboriginals in the far north of Australia and the hilarious and devastating interaction of cultures and beliefs.

The novel feels like a series of short and highly entertaining stories, but there are recurring characters and a narrative arc that traces a gradual decline in the health and welfare of the ‘bush mob’.  Each story has lavish helpings of energy and wit.  Right from the opening chapter, entitled The Bishop, we know we are in for a fun-filled ride.  The Bishop, having arrived by plane (just!), sits in on a religious instruction class in which Jeremiah asks: “But why did Eve eat the apple?  Wouldn’t the snake have tasted better?” Another chimes in: “And why aren’t there any black angels?  Why are they always white?”  Each of the baptised aboriginal children is given a biblical Christian name, which gives Munkara a lot of scope for further giggles.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John run off and play in the trees as the Sisters try to organise everyone for the Bishop’s arrival.  The Bishop is a fool who answers the question about the black angels thus: “ ‘I’ll leave that for Sister to answer,’ he snorted pompously as he recalled Sister’s humiliating rejection of him when she had been on retreat six months earlier. ‘She knows all about being an angel’.”(!)

But despite the giggles, there are serious themes at work here.  The aboriginal children are referred to as “inmates of the Mission” as if it is a prison, which of course for the bush mob it most certainly is.  We get plenty of scenes that deal with the clash of white and black.  One such instance is the arrival of an anthropologist to study the ways of the natives.  He is called ‘Rat’ by them on account of his mannerisms and physical appearance.  Pwomiga, one of the aboriginal men, tells the misguided Rat all the wrong names for things.  ‘Spear’ becomes ‘penis’ and so on.  Pwomiga and his mates wonder how this ‘learned’ man can be so stupid.  Soon we find Father Macredie inspired to use the many words Rat has translated in his Sunday sermons – much to the amusement of the natives!  Elsewhere, a missionary woman tries to teach the aboriginal women how to cook using the stove, but is aghast when she finds puppies in their unused cooker.

One feels Munkara could have rattled on with endless stories about the ills of religion for the sake of laughs, but despite the very breezy language and atmosphere she created in the first half of the book, she has bigger fish to fry in the second half.  We see a pregnant cat imported to the mission and become the mother to an ever-expanding family of cats which go off hunting in the bush and render species that had been happily living in the area for millennia extinct.

A French couple then arrive on a ship-wrecked yacht and bring marijuana into the camp.  Not only do the mob start to smoke, but soon they are all growing it in their homes.  Odile, the French woman, gives birth to a half-caste child.  Her French husband seems oblivious to the colour of his skin.  But it is not only him, for the Missionaries decide they can’t take this half-caste child from his parents because its mother is white.  The mob see the double standards clearly: “The more erudite had reasoned that if they had to hand over their coloured kids then why shouldn’t Odile.  No matter that the mother wasn’t black, the kid was still coloured, wasn’t he, and everybody knew what happened to them.”

The decline in the wellbeing of the mob continues when one of the Brothers finds a crate of rum washed ashore on a beach.  We witness the horror of what alcohol does to the mob: “by mid morning everyone was roaring drunk except for Dinah’s baby who was busy sucking on an empty bottle and Dinah who was comatose.”  Munkara’s writing is deceivingly breezy even when we are faced with such terrible truths.

Yet it gets worse when Father Voleur replaces the retired Fr Macredie who realises as he’s leaving that he should have “let the bush mob into his heart from the beginning and been their friend.”  Fr Voleur introduces movies to the bush mob which they marvel at, but wonder how it is that a man who dies in one movie can be alive in the next.  Meanwhile, Fr Voleur blackmails the mob by saying that they’ll only get to see the movies if they come to Mass.  Pwomiga and the other men are confused by the resurrection of the actors and begin to ponder whether they are like Jesus.  This sets up the final harrowing scene which I won’t divulge here, but it caps off a wonderful little book, full of laughs yet full of demise too – one that delves into the dark side of the Catholic Missionaries and the devastating effect they and all of the aliens – feline, French or otherwise – have had, bringing hell to the place that was heaven before they laid claim to it.

Every Secret Thing by Marie Munkara

University of Queensland Press (UQP)

ISBN: 9780702237195

179 pages

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Well, day three down and four more interesting sessions to muse on:

1. Marie Munkara: in conversation with Irina Dunn – A very entertaining chat.  Irina had done her homework and Marie was very engaging.  She also read a few sections from her award winning book Every Secret Thing.  The book recently won the Northern Territory Book of the Year Award and also won the David Unaipon (the first published indigenous author and the man on the $50 Australian note) Award for unpublished indigenous authors.  The story centres on the Catholic missionaries in aboriginal communities, and is laced with vibrant humour.  Marie was born on a riverbank of mixed parentage.  She told us how her mother had been “promised” from birth to an aboriginal man (who had multiple wives), but refused to marry her and was sent away with the newborn Marie in shame to Tiwi Islands.  But Marie was separated from her mother when aged three and was raised a Catholic.  Needless to say, the mission clergy don’t get an easy ride in her book!  The book’s second half becomes a lot darker, tracing the demise of the aboriginal community as alcohol is introduced.  Marie talked of how she was then reunited with her mother at the age of 25 – at which point she had to learn all her culture from scratch (and almost re-learn her languages too).  Marie knows many aboriginals who still struggle to find their own place after being raised in the missions.  Fortunately for her, and us, she has found her place, and I went straight to Gleebooks to purchase Every Secret Thing.  Stay tuned for a review. 

2. Peter Carey in Conversation with John Freeman (editor of Granta).  It always interesting hearing Peter Carey talk – as well as read from his novels.  Here he was talking of his recent work Parrot and Olivier in America.  He said he had been asked many times when he was going to write an ‘American’ novel, and had one on the go which he wasn’t enjoying when the idea for True History of the Kelly Gang came to him.  So he dropped the former and went with Kelly – to much success and acclaim of course, winning the Booker Prize for the second time.  It was after this that he began to return to the American theme and what better theme to tackle than Democracy.  The book is based on Alexis De Tocqueville’s travels to America where he wrote Democracy in America amongst two other works.  Carey talked of his horror of the Bush-Chaney Presidency and noted that whilst De Tocqueville’s more affirming viewpoints on democracy are well-known in the US, he was actually quite ambivalent about democracy and saw its ills, noting his worries about the position of the President itself.  Said Carey: “De Tocqueville saw [Sarah] Palin coming.”(!)  There followed a discussion on the relationship between ‘free will’ & ‘free markets’, Carey seeing the ills of the capitalist machine – including its vice-like grip on government.  In writing Parrot and Olivier in America, Carey said he was most concerned with getting the voice of Olivier right – the voice of an aristocratic Frenchman – but in the end he said it was a matter of class, and here he drew on his own experience of the differences between Geelong Grammar – perhaps the finest private school in the country, and certainly home to many of the Australian ‘elite’ (though I shudder to use such a term) – and his upbringing in Bacchus Marsh, an interesting insight into how an author draws on their experience, no matter how oblique, and renders their story from both memory and imagination.  In the end, Carey quite enjoyed writing Olivier.  (The voice of Parrot, he said, was ‘less of a stretch’.)  John Freeman opened the session by stating that he thought the book Carey’s best.  Well, it’s good, but it’s not that good.  Illywhacker, Oscar & Lucinda, and True History are better books in my opinion, and I quite enjoyed Jack Maggs and even his first novel Bliss too.  That said, Parrot and Olivier is a far better book than his recent work, so it was a welcome enjoyment.  Today’s session was interesting, but it lacked something, perhaps John could have done a better job – having enjoyed Irina and Marie’s conversation (see above), this seemed slightly inferior.   

3.  ‘Writing Short’ – Pasha Malla & Steve Amsterdam with Mandy Sayer – a nice session with both authors reading a short story from their collected stories books and discussing with Mandy the short form – though as Pasha noted, it seems difficult to talk about the short story without talking about its big brother – the novel – too!  Mandy made one of the more interesting observations when she posited that people prefer the long stories because they ‘don’t like endings’ – readers love to invest themselves in the company of characters for a time.  That said, with everyone’s attention spans shortening seemingly by the day, perhaps the short story will be the preferred format (until, of course, we can’t cope with that and poetry usurps it!). 

4. ‘A Wombat at My Table’ – Jackie French talking with Geoffrey Lehmann.  Okay, so every now and then I like to go to something completely left-field!  And one thing’s for sure, you cannot come into contact with Jackie French and not be in any doubt as to her passion for wombats.  She has written stories for children, as well as her adult memoir A Year in the Valley.  Geoffrey also read a lovely poem featuring wombats that was published in New Yorker. I came out knowing a lot more about something and had quite a few laughs in the process.  Good fun.

I had wanted to get into ‘Still the Lucky Country’ but you have to line up pretty early for the free events, particularly on the weekend, although I had the same issue on Thursday with one session too.  Oh well, you can’t get to everything.  If anyone was there, let me know how you found it.

What are your SWF highlights?  Let me know!

More to come tomorrow, the final day of SWF2010, including a session on Roberto Bolano which I’m quite looking forward to. 

The D!

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Well, I’ve booked my programme of (ticketed) events for the Sydney Writers’ Festival (Saturday 15th of May – Sunday 23rd), though I still have a few choices to make for some (inevitable) overlaps.  For example: should I go to E32 ‘Who Owns the Story’ – dealing with the rights of authors in the use of aboriginal myth and dreaming stories, or E34: ‘Celebrating the Australian Accent’ with Jack Thompson et al?  For a Libran like myself, such decisions are nigh on impossible!

It’s certainly shaping up to be a busy and interesting week.  I’m not going to give a critical opinion on how the SWF measures up to, say, the recent Adelaide Writer’s Week, which had some pretty big names in Sarah Waters and others… Sydney will have to ‘make-do’ with the likes of Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, Colm Toibin, and Peter Carey amongst a host of local talent too numerous to list.    

Some of the events I’m particularly looking forward to (amongst others) are:

  • E66: ‘Judges & Winners’: John Carey, Thomas Keneally, Colm Tóibín and Su Tong dissect the agony (and fun) of the Booker prize fight.  (This promises to be very intriguing – everyone has an opinion on the Booker Prize!).
  • Reading Muster 5: Alex Miller, Peter Goldsworthy, Rodney Hall and Nada Awar Jarrar pass the word around.
  • E148: ‘Marie Munkara’: The award-winning indigenous writer of ‘Every Secret Thing’ shares her stories.
  • E167: ‘Peter Carey’: Peter Carey talks to ‘Granta’ editor John Freeman about ‘Parrot and Olivier in America’.  (Carey is also delivering the festival’s closing address.) 
  • E192: ‘The Colony & Sydney Harbour’: Grace Karskens and Ian Hoskins retrace the history of Sydney.
  • E236: ‘Reading Roberto Bolano’: A celebration of the work of the late Chilean novelist and poet.  (Okay, so I’ve only read the (slim) Amulet – see my review which I liked a lot, but I am stalking both The Savage Detectives & 2666(!) – which are both on my shelf.  Perhaps I should start one of these before the festival!

Is anyone else going? What are the events you’re most interested in?

The Dilettante!

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