For all their differences in approach, A Most Peculiar Act and Two Sisters (review here), both from Magabala Books in Broome, may be read as two sides of the same coin. They are written by confident, Indigenous women; they are set in the north, in respectively Darwin and the Kimberley; and they deal with the displacement of traditional peoples onto the periphery of white communities.
The principal difference is that whereas the Walmajarri people moved to an area where they could gain employment, the peoples portrayed in Munkara’s satire are herded into camps, in conditions of poverty and dependency, their every action governed by the NT Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918 (the ‘Most Peculiar Act’ of the title) and by the ways the police and the officers of the Chief Protector’s department chose to enforce it.
We know from the writings of Kim Scott and Doris Pilkington, for instance, that the situation, especially for women and children of mixed parentage, was no better in Western Australia, but that is not an aspect highlighted in Two Sisters, whereas it is the whole point of A Most Peculiar Act.
Resident Judge writes in her perceptive review of Munkara’s memoir, Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea (2016): “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.” Munkara’s voice is simple, direct and street-smart, and to my mind reminiscent of another indigenous* author, Mudrooroo/Colin Johnson.
A Most Peculiar Act is set in 1942-3, but the war plays no part except that the (re-imagined) bombing of Darwin by the Japanese on 19 Feb. 1943 brings the book to a close. The principal characters are all caricatures: Horrid Hump the incompetent doctor/medical administrator made Chief Protector of Aboriginals where “he wouldn’t be able to bugger up a situation that was already buggered”; Ralphie, a patrol officer subject to “ailments brought on by drinking and whoring”; 16 yo Sugar, presumably the young woman pictured on the cover, whose “features were perpetually scrunched up in a scowl that left you wondering if she were in pain or if she were about to commit an act of extreme danger or lunacy”; Drew, a buxom woman, mistakenly employed as a patrol officer, whose “demeanour belied the right-wing red-necked racist that lurked within”.
To the extent there is a plot, and not just a series of funny situations whose subversive intent is to highlight the ongoing racism of the administration of indigenous affairs in the NT, Sugar gets pregnant (to Ralphie), has twins, leaves one of them behind in the hospital, returns to live in the Camp with her community, is segregated off into the Pound (for ‘coloured’ girls) and has her remaining baby stolen, becomes a servant for the lesbian wife of NT’s most senior public servant, the Administrator, and in the final pages, leads the wife and some of her friends to the relative safety of caves in the beachside cliffs when a party is broken up by Japanese bombing.
Ralphie loses his job, attempts to live with the indigenous communities in the Camp, gets leprosy and observes the bombing from the safety of the leper colony on the other side of Darwin Harbour; while Drew initiates a series of disasters and becomes the, willing, object of the Administrator’s affections.
Just one quote. Munkara was apparently herself one of the stolen generation and this is how she describes it:
‘I know the mothers are really grateful to us for finding homes for their children but as primitives they just can’t express it like we do’, said the Superintendent [of the Pound] recalling the traumatic scenes that he’d witnessed of native mothers being relieved of their offspring.
All my life I have regarded the Territory as a place of adventure and romance, but at every turn in this book Munkara rubs our noses in the indignities, the humiliations, the deprivations that indigenous people have endured under what was and in many ways remains, apartheid in all but name. If ever we needed a reminder of why indigenous stories should be written by indigenous writers then this was it.
Marie Munkara, A Most Peculiar Act, Magabala Books, Broome, 2014
Lisa at ANZLL’s review (here)
*Colin Johnson’s heritage as an indigenous person is contested, but he was brought up as dark-skinned person in an indigenous community in WA’s south-west and is accepted, by Kim Scott for instance, as a contributor to modern indigenous literature.