A Most Peculiar Act, Marie Munkara

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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.

13 thoughts on “A Most Peculiar Act, Marie Munkara

  1. I’ve only read one Marie Munkara but loved it – she has such a great voice. You make a good point about our paradoxical relationship with outback Australia in particular – the sense of adventure and romance (as you put it) versus the reality of indigenous experience and lives there.

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    • I was reading today this year’s Calibre Essay (Jun-Jul 2016 ABR) where the author suggests we’ll never be home in Australia. I disagree – I feel totally at home, but I need to be reminded to feel guilty about it.

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      • Yep I agree Bill, I feel completely at home too… I’m not sure I need to feel guilty about that exactly but I do feel uncertain about how to manage what it means, the implications of it.

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  2. It sounds both funny and frightening. Was the mother truly relieved to leave one baby and then have the other stolen? This is a narrative that I think people in the U.S. believe — that black mothers are relived to be rid of some children — because there is the assumption that black women have too many children, children they cannot care for and shouldn’t have had in the first place, and that they are happy when those “needy” babies are gone. The foster care system, which is often run by for-profit companies, benefits from broken families.

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    • The author’s voice is so deadpan that it is hard to tell how Sugar feels. The force of the writing comes from the contrast between what is being said and what is actually happening. That said, the adoption agencies in Australia didn’t have a financial motive for taking Indigenous children from their mothers, but instead believed that children with pale skins would benefit from being brought up ‘White’. This is set in the Northern Territory, but the Western Australian Chief Protector in the first half of the C20th whom we were discussing elsewhere had an overt policy of genocide – dark skinned Aborigines were to be left to die out, and light skinned Aboriginal children were to be brought up White, and the Black was to be bred out of them..

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      • Interesting. I know Malcolm X talks about how the Nation of Islam believes that a devil scientist slowly bred black skin out of an island of people, thus creating the evil white race. Granted, Eastern Muslims thought the Nation of Islam was a load of hooey. I simply bring this up as your last sentence made me think of it.

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