Tag Archives: Marie Munkara

Overland 205

Jeff Sparrow, editor Overland 205, Summer 2011

Someone in the offline world told me recently he was reading a book called The Left Isn’t Always Right. It must be one of the least controversial book titles of all time: how could ‘the Left’ be always right when lefties are forever fiercely, even violently disagreeing with each other? I mean, hadn’t the author heard of Trotsky? This issue of Overland continues in that fine tradition (of debate, I mean, not of violence). And although recent comments on this blog have described it as increasingly right wing, I think it does a nice job of bringing to bear a perspective that challenges the view that all can be well in a capitalist society.

It kicks off with Swedish scholar Mattias Gardell’s ‘Terror in the Norwegian woods‘, which places the recent killing spree in Norway in the context of the return of fascism to Europe. He moves well beyond the easy but still telling point that when the news of the killings broke, many pundits pronounced that it was the work of Muslim terrorists, but when the identity and beliefs of the killer were discovered, the same pundits said it was clearly the work of a lone madman, and not in any way connected to their hate speech – he moves beyond that point to a chilling account of the increasingly vocal and co-ordinated anti-Muslim movement in Europe and in the US, which would be an oddity if it weren’t for their influence on political leaders.

Next, Robert Bollard’s ‘ Who was Bet B?‘, tells the story of his own discovery of Aboriginal ancestry, and explores its implications. Among other things it provides a multidimensional, nuanced context to the brutish attacks on ‘light skinned Aborigines’ we’ve been hearing a bit about recently.

Xavier Rizos’s ‘Will the market save us?‘ could well be subtitled ‘The carbon tax for dummies’, and I mean that in a good way.

Brad Nguyen’s ‘Morality begone!‘ does a neat job of exposing the inadequacy of moral outrage as a tool for understanding, especially in relation to events like the riots in London in August last year. He doesn’t argue that morality has no place, but that relationships of power needs to be taken into account. ‘We can all agree,’ he writes, ‘that events such as 9/11 are the results of acts of evil. But why shouldn’t we let ourselves locate such events within the totality of global capitalism?’ He goes on, ‘If you so much as mention [US] imperialism, you open yourself up to charges of justifying the atrocities of 9/11.’ In a fabulous twist, he invokes Jesus, with a challenging reading of the injunction to turn the other cheek. (This isn’t the journal’s only surprise for those who confuse secularism with hostility to religion: Peter Slezak’s ‘Silence resembling stupidity‘ argues forcibly that the anti-Islamic stance of the ‘new atheists’ – Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins – actually plays into the hands of  those who would wage neo-imperialist and -colonialist wars.)

There are a couple of debates – Stephanie Convery and Katrina Fox on PETA’s use of pornography in its animal rights activism, Ali Alizadeh and Robert Lukins on Australian Poetry, the new peak industry body for poetry. The poetry one, as you might expect, is the more heated (‘Robert Lukins’ is … devoid of almost any substance with which to engage,’ says Alizadeh, unfairly in my view). The animal rights one has the higher moral tone (‘Let’s get our priorities right,’ says Fox, arguing that we shouldn’t object to PETA’s obnoxiousness when other people do much worse things – I guess you can tell where I stand on that one). And there’s a profound panel discussion about language and politics in Indigenous writing, featuring John Bradley, Kim Scott and Marie Munkara.

There are stories and poems, notably an excerpt from Alexis Wright’s forthcoming novel, Eileen Chong’s ‘Mary: A Fiction‘, and Angela Smith’s ‘Jennifer Maiden woke up in The Lodge‘, which I persist in seeing as a tribute to Jennifer Maiden rather than an attack.

Notice all those links! The thing about Overland  is that most of its content is online, and the Overland blog has follow-up interviews and discussions. This interview with Robert Bollard is a fine example. Still, reading it in hard copy has its pleasures, not least of which is the sense of righteousness that comes from sending money their way.

Every Secret Thing

Marie Munkara, Every Secret Thing (UQP 2009)

I read this immediately after The Tree of Man. I’ll wait to post about the latter until we’ve discussed it at the Book Group  – enough for now to tell you that it was Edward Said’s notion of counterpoint that prompted me to follow White’s novel with one by an Aboriginal writer.

The books have more in common that you might expect – mainly a contempt for Irish Catholics and selected white middle-class people of whatever religio-ethnic background – but where White’s contempt is accompanied by patrician amusement, attacking from on high, Maria Munkara’s, behind its veneer of cheerfully knockabout calumny, is fuelled by powerful sorrow and rage at the damage done by missionaries.

In fact, scrap the word ‘cheerful’ in that last paragraph. The opening chapters have the form of rough humour as they introduce the people of ‘the Mission’  – the ‘mission mob’ of priest, brothers and nuns and the ‘bush mob’ whom they are out to convert. But from the beginning we are told of endemic sexual abuse and corruption, and  the humour comes with such heavy sarcasm that it’s hard to find it actually funny. For example, when some boys are disobeying the nuns while their parents are standing by, the nuns have an inkling that they may be encountering deliberate resistance rather than incidental lack of cooperation, ‘but they all knew that the bush mob were God-fearing people with a deep and abiding respect for the mission and its papally sanctioned quest to strip them of every vestige of their culture so they would never be defiant now, would they?’ The whites of the Mission are mostly presented in unforgiving caricature – closed-minded, arrogantly confident of their own superiority, sexually predatory (the men) or quietly lustful (the women). The Aboriginal characters aren’t treated much more kindly. They’re rough, pragmatic, disorganised, venal, and only slightly more fleshed out than the non-Aboriginal – but there’s no doubt where the book’s sympathies lie.

The book progresses mainly in a series of skits: the children ask the visiting Bishop curly questions about Christian teachings, the old man of the bush mob helps an anthropologist fill his notebooks with misinformation, a couple of French Hippies arrive in a shipwreck, a cyclone virtually destroys the Mission when the mission mob disregard the warnings of the bush mob, and so on. It takes a while for the narrative gears to mesh, and when they do it’s not so much that the sarcastic caricaturing lets up as that a deeper current asserts itself, and we begin to understand that we are reading about an appalling spiritual tragedy. The moments where the narrative voice tells it straight are incredibly powerful, as at the point when the bush mob have been ‘dying in droves’ from a flu that has only mildly inconvenienced the missionaries, and are persuaded to convert en masse not only to Christianity but also to Western materialism, mainly in the form of cast off clothes. The narrator comes out into the open:

The almighty God that most of the bush mob now believed in was nothing more than the grim reaper of human souls with the mission mob as his helpers and the cast-offs the sad compensation for the relinquishment of their own beliefs. And even though the tenth commandment mentioned that you shouldn’t covet your neighbour’s house or wife or donkey or anything else, the church must have decided that coveting someone’s soul was an entirely different matter. And even though the eighth commandment stated quite clearly that it was very naughty to steal, the mission mob ignored this too and stole the things that were dearest to the bush mob’s heart. They stole their resistance to change and they stole their belief in themselves and they stole their children. Because each black soul that was harvested and each child that was appropriated was another rung higher up the ladder to heaven for Father and his crew and another step closer to salvation from this cesspool of earthly temptation and sin.

In a chapter where a stolen child finds her way back to the community as an adult, the tone lurches from silly farce on a crab hunt to plainspoken desolation when the narrator again intervenes. The final moments of the book are as devastating as you’re likely to read anywhere.

Every Secret Thing won the 2008 David Unaipon Award as a manuscript and then in February this year it won the Northern Territory Book of the Year Award. In an interview on Awaye in February, Marie Munkara said her story had ‘little wisps of truth and huge bits of embellishment’. The book makes no claims to be a historical record, but the truths it tells are a far cry from wispy.

My second full day at the SWF

I was off to Walsh Bay again for the day today.

10 : 00 Marie Munkara in conversation with Irina Dunn
I first heard of Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing on Will Owen’s blog last December, and it’s been on my To Be read list since then. If it hadn’t been, this session would have put it there, especially when she read the opening pages, beginning most memorably, ‘It had been a shit of a day for Sister Annunciata and Sister Clavier.’ Irina (full disclosure: she’s an old and dear friend) did a lovely job of drawing out Marie’s biography in relation to the book, giving her scope to be – miraculously –  funny about her experience as a member of the stolen generations meeting up at last with her Aboriginal family:

My mother was black. I was thinking, ‘That can’t be my mother. And you know how they say all black people look the same … I’d say, ‘Hello, Auntie,’ and my mother would say, ‘Don’t talk to her, she’s rubbish.’ I’d say, ‘But isn’t that Auntie …’ ‘No!’

When she was little her class at school had to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up. She drew a figure with a red cloak and a crown. Sister Damien said, ‘Marie, you can’t be a king.’ But young Marie insisted that that’s what she wanted to be, because a king has lots of money and can do what he wants. ‘Now,’ said Marie today, ‘I haven’t got much money but I do what I want.’

11 : 30  Terrorism: How to Win a Cosmic War – Reza Aslan talking to Tony Jones about the futility of the War on Terror
I am not a Tony Jones fan. Ever since his extraordinary performance interviewing Nicole Cornes on election night 2007, I have had trouble watching him interview anyone. But Reza Aslan’s articulate confidence was a match for his combative style, and their sparring was actually enjoyable. Reza Aslan distinguished between Islamism and Jihadism. Islamism, he says, is a form of nationalism seeking to establish an Islamic state in principle no more diabolical than a Christian state like Greece or a Jewish state such as Israel. Jihadism is anti-nationalist, seeking to establish planet-wide Islamic theocracy. He went on to say that Islamism is the answer to Jihadism: that if Islamists are able to participate in normal political processes, Jihadism will lose its recruiting grounds. It was a riveting presentation, and we bought his book.

13:00 to 14:00 Three Australias: Les Murray, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Kim Cheng Boey reading their poems, chaired by Rhyll McMaster
This was the only event I attended where I had to stand in one of the monster queues and for some reason receive a “Good work” stamp on my wrist. The readings were interesting. I was especially glad to hear more of Ali Cobby Eckermann’s work, having read only her long piece on the Intervention in the Best of 2009 collection. Kim Cheng read one of the poems he read on Friday morning, and it was a pleasure to hear it again. Les Murray, who was probably the reason this event was held in one of the bigger spaces, was as always Les Murray, and a good thing too.

Ali Cobby Eckermann acknowledged the Gadigal people, as Anita Heiss and Boori Prior did yesterday. I wonder if it was by formal decision that such acknowledgements were not made at any other events, at least none of those I attended. Whether deliberate or not, I think the festival was the poorer for the absence of such acknowledgements. I also missed the PEN chairs at paid events, and the brief explanation of the imprisoned writer each chair represented. There is a roped off area in the vast Heritage Pier populated by a dozen beautifully painted chairs and a soundscape. The chairs are to be auctioned to raise money for PEN, but that’s not the same as explicit acknowledgement of named individuals.

2: 30  Who’s Interviewing Who? Alan Ramsey and John Faulkner
These two – a retired journalist famous for his take-no-prisoners opinion pieces and the Federal Minister for Defence famous for his ineluctable pursuit of corruption – have been friends for 20 years or so. They told us in all seriousness that the reason the friendship has thrived for so long is that they never discuss politics. They then moved on to discuss politics, with some tense moments. They were very funny together. At one stage Ramsey left the stage to get the quotes he’d left somewhere. Faulkner continued in the role of interviewee.

17 : 30 The Big Reading: Hanan al-Shaykh, Willy Vlautin, Dubravka Ugresic, Natasha Solomons and Rupert Thomson
This was my last event for the festival. It was, as it always is, pleasant to be read to. In particular I loved being read to again by Rupert Thomson – and the tone of the extract he read from This Party’s Got to Stop couldn’t have been further from that of the one he read on Thursday morning. It must be an intriguingly complex book.

I had been planning to stay in the general area to hear Jennifer Maiden, David Brooks and Adam Aitken read. But the reading didn’t start until 9.30, and it was in a wine bar. As a non-drinker who is very often in bed by 10 o’clock, I found the deterrents outweighed the attractions. I had heard a little of Aitken and Brooks this week (though the latter hadn’t been reading his own work), and I decided with regret that I would have to forgo the great pleasure of hearing Jennifer Maiden.

The Festival’s slogan this year was Read, Rethink, Respond. There wasn’t a lot of space at the festival itself for responding (question times just don’t do it!), and for that matter not a lot of reading got done, at least by the punters. But I’ve come away with plenty to think about, and the world is full of opportunities to respond, and far too much waiting to be read.