Every Secret Thing, Marie Munkara

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [NT]


If ever you felt complacent about our decision as whites to live in this country, then read Munkara, who sweeps complacency away by telling familiar stories about ‘good’ settlers and shiftless Blacks from the Black point of view.

Yes we’re here now, but every decision we’ve made – from the early days, during all the Stolen Generations years, through the 1950s and 60s, when I think this linked collection of stories is set, right up to today with the Intervention, the ongoing denial of proper Land Rights, systemic racism in the Police Forces, the diversion of ‘Aboriginal’ monies to bureaucracy and white businesses, policies deliberately aimed at making it impossible for Indigenous communities to be maintained on Country – serves our interests and harms theirs.

Marie Munkara is of Rembarranga, Tiwi and Chinese descent. Born in central Arnhem Land she was sent to Nguiu on the Tiwi Islands at about eighteen months, then down south by Catholic missionaries when she was three. She now lives in Darwin, where she is doing a PhD. Every Secret Thing (2009), which is about a presumably fictional Catholic mission in Arnhem Land, was her first novel.

Munkara doesn’t appear to give out her age, and I haven’t yet read her biographical Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea (2016). But it would be sad if she were the Marigold in these stories, stolen from loving parents, sent away as a baby to be bought up Catholic and trained for service, constantly beaten and raped by her employers, who finally returns to her family only to find she doesn’t fit in.

Over a series of linked and sequential stories we become familiar with the ‘Mission Mob’, the Catholic priests and nuns bringing civilisation and Christianity to ignorant savages; and the Bush Mob, the Indigenous Arnhem Land community who after millennia of relaxed, well fed lives, must be brought to eat flour and sugar instead of fresh meat and bush tucker, to wear clothes in the tropics, and of course to accept the Catholics’ strange pantheon of saints, virgins, spirits and gods instead of their own.

In an allegory for white settlement everywhere, over the lifetime of one generation, the Bush Mob goes from self-sufficiency to despair, disease and dependence. In the end, Pwomiga, one of the senior men, paints himself white and commits suicide to prove there is no life after death –

So began the slow downwards spiral of despair. It wasn’t long before Jerrengkerritirti with his unruly teeth joined Pwomiga because he didn’t want to be in that place any more. And young Seth not long after that. Then the grog came and the winding path of good intentions became a straight bitumen four-laned highway that led even deeper into a world of self-destruction and hopelessness that no-one knew how to fix.

But don’t get me wrong, this is at times a laugh out loud funny book. Munkara is at a loss to explain how these idiots, the Mission Mob, can plonk themselves down in the midst of a happy community, their assertions of superiority accepted or at least tolerated, using their authority to make everyone miserable. But she shows over and over just how ridiculous, how hypocritical they are.

Throughout, there is a surfeit of often good natured sex. The young men and women are at it all the time, two sisters seduce a priest, the priests put the hard word word on the nuns, priests of course take what they want, from girls and from boys, two boys wear their mothers’ dresses and take it wherever they can get it, there is an epidemic of overeating evidenced by the swelling of young womens’ tummies.

In a central series of stories, Caleb seeks a wife. A couple in a nearby mob have an unruly daughter, Juta, pregnant to the boss’s daughter’s fiance. Caleb marries Juta and his family adore their light skinned daughter, Tapalinga.

The mission have responded to the rash of mixed race births by seizing all the babies and sending them to an island mission, the Garden of Eden, to be ‘educated’. Tapalinga, too is taken, reappearing some years later as Marigold, in service since she was seven, flogged and unpaid, “lucky to have the boss fuck her because she was a diseased piece of rubbish that no-one else would want”. The Bishop had told her her mother was “on the streets” and couldn’t support her, but another girl recognizes her and tells her how to find her family. That girl falls into prostitution and dies but Marigold makes her way home only to find that Juta has closed that part of heart to cauterise the pain.

Munkara brings up one or two characters at a time and tells a funny story about them, until you feel you know them all well. But all the time, the Bush Mob is declining, accepting cast off clothes, surrendering their kids to the mission, giving up old ways. It’s a funny book and a sad book, but above all, an essential book.


Marie Munkara, Every Secret Thing, UQP, Brisbane, 2009

see also:
My review of Munkara’s A Most Peculiar Act (here)

On Monday (19/11/2019) Jess White wrote that her work on the Wardandi Massacre (my review) has been included in the updated ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia 1788-1930’ map (here). Research for the map “reveals that at least around 8400 people were killed during 311 massacres that took place between 1788 and 1930. About 97 per cent of those killed were First Nations men, women and children. Stage 3 of the digital map project added 41 massacre sites in WA and 9 more in the NT.”

24 thoughts on “Every Secret Thing, Marie Munkara

  1. Oh my, not sure where to start Bill.
    I’ve just finished Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives where she discussed, amongst other things, white guilt in modern day South Africa. At one point she talks about it being a specific and different beast to the white guilt that white Australians or Amercians might feel, as they are a part of a majority group that dominated a minority group. In South Africa under Apartheid, it was the other way around.
    I only bring this up, because after reading your review I was swamped by a sense of shared guilt.


    • Yes, the more we learn about settler-Indigenous relations in Australia, past and present, the more guilt is uncovered. I like the German model best: lay out all the facts, accept your guilt, make a new beginning. At the moment we’re about halfway through stage 1 and the half arsed efforts by both LNP and Labor to pretend to work on stage 3 are necessarily doomed to failure.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I greatly enjoyed reading your review Bill. I read and reviewed it back in 2011. My review more or less says the same as yours – but I explore it a little differently. I don’t think Marigold is “quite” Marie Munkara, but I have read Of ashes … (since I read Every secret thing) and, not remembering Marigold’s story in detail I’d say she’s close to what Munkara experienced.

    However, I have to say that I think it’s a bit of a cheap shot to say “of course” in “priests of course take what they want, from girls and from boys”! It denies that fact – and I’m not and never have been Catholic so am not apologist – that there are many decent Catholic priests. You don’t say “of course” re the priests and nuns?


  3. Writing/posting a couple of thousand words every week, I worry every time I push Publish that I have committed to print something that I will regret. But, I had two or three goes at the sentence containing ‘of course’, and on reflection, I don’t resile from it.
    My intention was to capture the tone of Munkara’s writing, that there was a fair bit of sex going on, but also that not all of it was consensual, and further, that the Mission Mob, the Catholic priests and nuns, were immoral and self-serving.
    But I am willing to go further – it is undoubtedly the case that Roman Catholic priests and nuns have over and over again assaulted children in their care with sex and violence. You might say ‘not all priests’, but the church as a whole, by choosing to lie about and protect perpetrators, instead of exposing them to justice, has made itself complicit, all of them, from the Pope down to the lowliest clergyman.


  4. This sounds like another important book and I was interested in the discussion of feeling guilty above. I have a distant relative in Honduras with my maiden name as a surname and she was thrilled to find me and spoke of her ancestor in Bristol; I’m filled with guilt about slave-owners!


    • Just to explain that, I fear that her distant ancestor was owned by mine and given their surname, as was common in slave times, I believe. It might have been there was a time and convention busting love affair but …


      • (Phone keypad too small for square fingers)
        … that bad things only happened in the past;
        That we are spending heaps of money and it all goes to waste.

        It’s no good saying it was other whites and not us. If we are one nation and not a random collection of individuals then we must accept responsibility, acknowledge our crimes, apologise.

        But right now we’re not even at the stage of not committing more crimes. At least the Dexters have stopped impregnating their slaves.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I feel honour bound to point out it was a Broomfield doing the impregnating, not a Dexter! My maiden name. As far as I know all Matthew’s family have done was create the Dexter name by being a magician! (Dextrous Dexter).


    • Australians go out of their way not to feel guilty about white settlement –
      We are aggressive about celebrating Australia Day on the day the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Harbour;
      We propagate a myth of peaceful settlement;
      We claim that bad t


    • Yes it is good, Munkara is a talented writer. Race relations in the NT have a long way to go, it’s only a couple of weeks since an unarmed Black teenager was shot dead by a white policeman (who, unprecedently, has been charged with murder). Munkara makes you laugh, and then she makes you cry. Hopefully she’ll keep writing satirical fiction for a long time.


  5. How do you approach names and places that may be difficult to pronounce, such as Jerrengkerritirti? Pronunciation is key for me to remember who a character is, so I end up avoiding books I want to read, especially Russian classics, as I am worried I won’t keep track of everyone.


    • I don’t pronounce them at all, just visualise them – the shape of the word together with a slurred (mis)pronunciation maybe. Which makes me ask: the previous comments in my feed were you and Jackie discussing Owlsight. Surely some pronunciation issues there? But when I looked more closely I could see the ‘odd’ names could all be pronounced phonetically.


      • FULL ! I tallied it up this morning.
        I read more than 9 books…so
        anyone of the ‘leftovers’ can fill the free space.
        Love BINGO cards!
        Looking forward to 2020 in whick I want to
        concentrate my reading on 20% fiction 80& non-fiction
        Perhaps you could gives us a blogpost with some of the AUSSIE books
        on your TBR? It would be an invaluable reference post for my AUS reading!


      • Well done! Not sure about my TBR, I buy boxes of Australian books at Save the Children sales and I had around 300 unread at last count, but I’ll see what I can do. Have you picked a book for Gen 3 week? (Have I already asked you?) You might enjoy Eleanor Dark.


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