Home > 2010, 21st Century, Australian Literature, AWW Challenge, Colonialism, Indigenous Literature, Memoirs, Munkara Marie, Récit > Of Ashes and Rivers that Runs to the Sea by Marie Munkara – Indigenous Literature Week

Of Ashes and Rivers that Runs to the Sea by Marie Munkara – Indigenous Literature Week

Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea by Marie Munkara. (2016) Not available in French

Lisa has organized an Indigenous Literature Week from July 8 to July 15th and I picked one of her suggested read, Marie Munkara’s memoirs, Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea. Marie Munkara is an Aborigine of Rembarranga and Tiwi descent. She was born on the banks of the River Mainoru in 1960 and lived her first three years with her family on Melville Island, an island part of the Tiwi Islands. For non-Australians like me, let’s look at maps to see where all these places are located. First a map of Australia showing where the Northern Territory is and where the Tiwi Islands are in said Northern Territory:

Now that we all have our geography in mind, let’s go back to Marie Munkara. Marie Munkara was 28 when she found her birth card at her adoptive parents’ place in Melbourne. She knew they weren’t her birth parents but she was shocked to discover her Aborigine background. When she was three and a half years old and like many Aborigines of her generation, she was taken from her birth parents to be raised by white parents. She belongs to the Stolen Generations. She was sent to a white family in Melbourne.

They chose me from a photograph, so she said. One of the many that had been shown to them in the welfare office as they sipped their cups of tea. Each of those photographs represented a kid who had been removed from their family while strangers organised their fate and then sent them on to other strangers. They call it child-trafficking nowadays but back then it was the government’s attempt at turning Australia into another Britain. By assimilating the black minority into the white population they hoped that the pesky problem of the blacks would eventually take care of itself by them either dying out or doing as they were told and relinquishing their culture and ways forever.

On top of the horror of being taken away from her parents, she was also given to a couple with an abusive mother and a pedophile father. Three layers of abuse were piled upon her little being. Munkara describe her difficult life with her white parents. She had to learn how to speak English and live in a world that didn’t really want her. She survived and tried to make the best of her circumstances.

After the joys of playgroup came school, which was even better. Here I learnt how words were put together, and the crazy rules of the English language, and after that reading just happened. I opened up a book one day and realised that I could read, and after that the world became a bigger and better place.

Her ability to survive abuse from both white parents is admirable. When she learns about her origins, she decides to fly to Darwin and visit her birth mother. A good part of her memoirs relates her living in Tiwi Islands with her birth mother, her siblings and her extended family. She has trouble adjusting to the Aborigines’ way of life which I found was between their traditional world and the Western ways.  Everything is a challenge for her. She was raised by prude Catholic white people in a town that’s probably one of the most British in all Australia. Shock of culture barely covers what she was confronted to.

She engaged in all her family’s activities, embracing their everyday life with gumption, totally out of her comfort zone. She has to learn everything about hunting, fishing, choosing a proper dress code, cooking. It’s not easy but she doesn’t give up. Her family welcomes her in their homes and in their lives as if she was expected. And yet, it must have been difficult for them too. Her personal journey to reconcile her two identities is long and heartbreaking at times. I wondered what she would end up doing since she didn’t fully belong to any of her two worlds.

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. But I can’t because this journey is all mine. I don’t want the days when they brush me aside because I can’t get it right. I want there always to be beautiful days when the space between us is full of light and love.

Most of her journey consists in reacquainting herself with Aborigine’s vision of life, rituals, traditions and customs. She never sugarcoats what she lives and she also uncovers a side of Australia she never knew of before. For example, she sees that her birth mother limps and she’s horrified to learn she has leprosy.

Leprosy. I am shocked because I thought lepers only existed in the Bible and lived in poor countries like India and Africa. I thought they walked with bells around their necks warning people to keep clear and lived in colonies where they couldn’t infect anyone and where their limbs and appendages dropped off. I slide my ill-informed thoughts into the rubbish bin and slam the lid down tight, angry that our First World country can live in ignorant bliss of our Third World problems.

Her adaptation to her mother’s way-of-life isn’t smooth. Life in Tiwi Islands is very far from what she’s always known and her mother has reactions she can’t expect and can’t understand. The whole environment is a challenge for her and sometimes it’s hard on her.

I am disheartened by the brutality of life in this place. It’s everywhere. Dogs with broken legs that have never been set limping down the road, birds trying to fly with wings shattered by a kid’s slingshot, big green turtles turned onto their backs and carved up alive, their hearts still beating, joeys tortured. For a few minutes I long for white middle-class suburbia where ugly crap is hidden behind doors and white picket fences where I don’t have to see it.

What she describes reminded me of Kim Scott’s novel, True Country. The setting is fictional but similar: an Aborigine who lives in white Australia goes to live among Aborigines in the Northern Territory. Munkara pictures the same scenes in a hostile but beautiful nature, the poverty and rampant violence. In both books, I was shocked about how much alcohol is consumed. And I guess Scott is also disheartened by Indigenous people’s living conditions. There seem to be little progress there. Thanks to Scott’s book, I wasn’t surprised by what I read about her new living conditions.

I was mostly angry for her. I can wrap my head around colonizing a place for economic reasons. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying there’s a logic behind it, greed. What I can’t fathom is this arrogance of Christianism. In this case, the Catholics decided to found a mission in this Tiwi island for no other reason than bringing “superior civilization” to these poor blackfellas. And these Catholics were so sure of their worth, of their superiority and of their evangelization duties that they found normal and even desirable to retrieve children from their families. And we’re in the 1960s, not in the 16th century. This is something I can’t understand. How could they? How could the Australian government encourage it and make it legal? And to top it off, they placed her in an abusive family, proving there was no proper screening of the foster/adoptive families. This institutionalized child trafficking is appalling.

We had that kind of institutionalized child deportation in France too with the Enfants de la Creuse scandal where 2163 children were sent to mainland France from La Réunion island from 1963 to 1982. The idea was to bring fresh blood in rural departments with low natality and high rural exodus.

In Canada, 150 000 Indigenous children were sent to the Canadian Residential School system.

We, white people really have a lot to apologize for.

Despite all the misery in Munkara’s life, this is not bleak book. She’s often quite funny in describing her experiences with her family and the confrontation of life as she knew it and life as she gets to live it with her mum. It’s challenging but rewarding. While she struggles with their different views on hygiene, personal property and modesty, she learns to enjoy the nature in her surroundings and a more relaxed approach to life.

Read more about Marie Munkara in Lisa’s thoughtful review here and in Sue’s post Monday Musings about Australian Literature: about Arnhem Land.

This read also qualifies for Australian Women Writers challenge.

  1. July 14, 2018 at 4:50 pm

    Thanks Emma for your fascinating review since my knowledge of Australia is quite week and especially its literature thanks to you i added a new book to my list of books to read about Australia
    we both are lucky since we are multilingual person and we could read books in different languages


    • July 14, 2018 at 9:19 pm

      You’re welcome. I don’t know much about Australia either, so it’s a good opportunity to learn something new.

      I can only read in French and in English, I’m hardly multilingual compared to other bloggers who can read in three or four languages.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. July 14, 2018 at 8:38 pm

    A fascinating review Emma. I’m sure there are many more stories from the Stolen Generations that are waiting to be told, and it’s so important that they are heard.


    • July 14, 2018 at 9:20 pm

      There are certainly other books about this and Lisa’s even contributes to raise awareness.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. July 15, 2018 at 3:05 am

    Hello Emma, thanks for contributing this, I’ll add it to the Indigenous Reading List on my blog:)
    I didn’t know that France and Canada did this child removal too, and so recently. It beggars belief really…


    • July 15, 2018 at 8:36 pm

      Thanks for pointing this book out. It’s a poignant story.

      What happened in France and Canada isn’t exactly the same but it has the same ground, a crazy belief that whites know better and that Western civilization is superior to any other. Disheartening.


  4. July 15, 2018 at 7:00 am

    We white people really do have a lot to apologize for! And then otherwise good people say we should act ‘colorblind’ as though black people here and in many other countries don’t have to start racing from a long way behind the starting blocks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 21, 2018 at 7:50 am

      That’s true. (also true for women, btw)
      I like what Andrew said in a comment below, how reading this book is also a way of contributing. It helps raise awareness, in a tiny way.


  5. July 16, 2018 at 3:41 pm

    Wonderful billet, Emma. You really convey the power of the story, and I shared your anger at what the Australian government did to the Stolen Generations in the name of “civilisation”. It’s great that you linked it to other endeavours in France and Canada too. The myth of white supremacy has led to a lot of ugliness. These are important things for us to learn about and learn from.


    • July 16, 2018 at 10:11 pm

      Thanks Andrew. I hope it made you want to read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

      The problem is white supremacy combined with Christianism and this deep conviction of being the depository of some superior truth.


      • July 18, 2018 at 8:44 am

        You definitely made me want to read it, Emma! When I do, I’ll let you know my reaction. I completely agree about the problem, and I think that the solution takes many forms, but reading books like this is definitely part of it.


        • July 21, 2018 at 7:42 am

          If I miss your post about it, give me a virtual nudge.


          • August 15, 2018 at 3:17 pm

            Just read it and reviewed it, Emma: https://andrewblackman.net/2018/08/marie-munkara-book-review/. Thanks so much for the recommendation—it was a very good read!


            • August 16, 2018 at 11:52 pm

              I’m glad you liked it. It’s an incredible way to see the damage done by this policy with the eyes of someone who lived through it.
              It’s also a good book to put in the hands of people who think you are what your genes are: Marie Munkara shows well that your upbringing is what matters.


  6. July 28, 2018 at 3:11 pm

    Good point about feeling angry for Munkara Emma. That’s one point I didn’t make. She’s a survivor she says, but she wouldn’t have had to be a person who needed to survive if she’d not been stolen and then given to such unloving people.

    Great write up Emma. It’s always special to see posts on Aussie books by non-Aussies, particularly because we don’t see it very often. (You’ll probably be better read in Aussie lit than many of the people you meet while travelling here.)


    • July 29, 2018 at 1:28 pm

      Thanks for the link to my billet.

      Her life was so unfair. For her, the Australian government is guilty because of this atrocious process to steal babies but also to have placed her with a family that was abusive. It’s incredible.

      It’s also special for me to read billets about French literature written by foreigners. I love them. It gives another perspective to the books and the authors. I don’t know if I’m better read than other travelers but reading Kim Scott, Marie Munkara and Marcus Clarke proved useful while visiting museums.
      Following your blog, Lisa’s and Bill’s helped a lot and also my billet asking for recommendations. I’ve got a great list.

      Liked by 1 person

      • July 30, 2018 at 12:11 am

        That’s great that you were aware that your reading helped in museums, Emma.


  1. July 15, 2018 at 4:49 am
  2. July 16, 2018 at 9:01 am
  3. July 28, 2018 at 10:44 pm
  4. August 26, 2018 at 9:24 am
  5. January 3, 2019 at 6:31 pm
  6. December 15, 2019 at 1:08 pm
  7. July 11, 2021 at 10:18 pm

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