REUNITED AFTER A 53-YEAR EXILE
Taken as a toddler, author Marie Munkara reconnects with her birth family
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