Taken as a tod­dler, au­thor Marie Munkara re­con­nects with her birth fam­ily

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - REVIEWS - AN­GELA SAURINE

At the time Marie Munkara was born in Arn­hem Land in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, ba­bies in her fam­ily with light skin were usu­ally thrown to the croc­o­diles. For­tu­nately, when Munkara ar­rived, her grand­mother Nel­lie de­cided Munkara was spe­cial and she was saved from this fate.

“My nanna told me that’s what they did with kids that had light-coloured skin be­cause they knew the au­thor­i­ties took kids like that away, and it was bet­ter for them to die in their own coun­try,” she says. “It wasn’t a bar­baric prac­tice, it was just the way they did things. But she looked at me and thought, we’re keep­ing her. She’ll come back.”

Her grand­mother was right. When she was about three years old, Munkara – whose bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther was part-Chi­nese – was taken from her in­dige­nous mother in the Tiwi Is­lands, 80km north of Dar­win, and sent to live with a mid­dle-class white fam­ily in Ade­laide. Her fos­ter fa­ther mo­lested her for 15 years. Munkara wanted to run away, but she had nowhere to go and knew it was im­por­tant to get an education. On her last day of school she packed her bags and moved out.

Munkara had al­ways been told she’d been found un­der the cab­bage patch. When she was 28 she dis­cov­ered her bap­tismal card in an old book with her birth mother’s name on it. A few weeks later, she re­united with her on Bathurst Is­land. The ex­pe­ri­ence was a shock. “It looked like a Third World coun­try,” she says. “I was even more shocked when I saw my mother be­cause I ex­pected to see an older ver­sion of my­self, and there was this lady who was as black as the ace of spades. I was re­ally sus­pi­cious of her be­cause my other mother had al­ways said black peo­ple were shifty and thieves. Of course, in­dige­nous peo­ple have their own sys­tem of shar­ing, but it didn’t take long to work out they were good peo­ple.”

Al­though the ex­pe­ri­ence was un­set­tling, Munkara de­cided to re­turn and spent the next nine months there be­fore mov­ing to Dar­win, which she now con­sid­ers her home. She never told her mum, who died of throat can­cer 15 years ago, about be­ing abused.

“It was bad enough be­ing taken from her with­out her think­ing I had a hor­ri­ble life as well.

“I didn’t want her to suf­fer with that.”

Munkara, 56, had al­ways loved writ­ing. Her first novel, Ev­ery Se­cret

Thing, about mis­sion life in the Top End, won the David Unaipon Lit­er­ary Award for in­dige­nous writ­ing in 2008, and the North­ern Ter­ri­tory Book of the Year in 2010, and is to be made into a tele­vi­sion minis­eries. “My fam­ily in Arn­hem Land and on the is­lands don’t read that much, so for them to have a visual idea of what I write would be nice,” she says. She re­leased an­other novel, A Most

Pe­cu­liar Act, two years ago and has writ­ten two chil­dren’s books. She was sur­prised when her pub­lisher asked her to write her mem­oir, but em­braced the op­por­tu­nity to record her life in Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea.

“It was a lot eas­ier, in a way, be­cause I don’t have to think of char­ac­ters and plots; you’re only writ­ing about your­self. I didn’t set out to write in­dige­nous sto­ries. It’s just what I know. I think I am a per­son first and an in­dige­nous per­son sec­ond. I’m not an in­dige­nous writer, I’m a writer who hap­pens to be in­dige­nous.”

Award-win­ning au­thor Marie Munkara’s mem­oir re­calls her life as a stolen child.

Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea, Ran­dom House Aus­tralia, $35

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