Mission and Bush


The David Unaipon Award, established in 1988, is an annual competition that recognizes the best unpublished manuscript by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander author. The 2008 winner was Every Secret Thing (University of Queensland Press, 2009) by Marie Munkara. Like earlier winners Bitin’ Back (2000) by Vivienne Cleven and Me, Antman and Fleabag (2006) by Gayle KennedyEvery Secret Thing is by turns hilarious and somber and deserves to be at the top of your reading list.The novel is set on a mission in the Tiwi Islands, and from the first line it is evident who has the upper hand in the struggle between the bush mob and the mission mob. “It had been a shit of a day for Sister Annunciata and Sister Clavier.” Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–young boys of the bush mob, not the Evangelists–have run off from morning prayers in advance of the Bishop’s visit to the island, and the mob is having too much fun as they watch the good sister “drag Matthew from a nearby bark hut by one of his ankles and crack him across the arse with a digging stick.” But by the second page, we can sense that there is trouble in this paradise. After dealing with the runaway boys, Sister Annunciata is harrassed by the mother of Mary Magdalene–the young Wuninga, as she’s known in the bush–who demands to know how her daughter could have gotten pregnant if she was locked up every night in the mission dormitory. Several chapters later when Mary Magdalene’s baby is born looking remarkably pale, we begin to understand the unspoken anguish alluded to in these opening pages.

But for the most part, the first half of the book is a hilarious account of the misadventures of the mission mob as they try to make the bush mob understand what the miracle of baptism has wrought in their poor heathen lives. Of course, the bush mob sees it quite differently, and their deadpan bemusement masks a mixture of incomprehension and disbelief at the self-delusion of the priests, brothers, sisters and assorted other whitefellas who think they are the masters of this tiny island paradise. If nuns are all the brides of Christ and there are more nuns out than than in a big mob of wallabies, reasons old Jerrekepai, why should Father Macredie be concerned about Jerrekepai’s mere nine wives after all?

And consider how Pwominga discovers that the best way to endure the visiting anthropologist is to teach him language. Pwominga instructs the anthro, whom the mob calls Wurruwataka (rat) that timurarra is the word for spear, and the dhooroo describes a big wind. Pwominga’s not really fibbing, as the words mean “penis” and “fart” respectively, but the bush mob nearly piss themselves when they hear about it. Of course, the mission mob has never much tried to learn the lingo, so they’re not offended when the anthro greets Father Macredie with Awana juruliwa (“Hello, pubic hair”) or tells Sister Jerome that her lamb with gravy is the best kundiri (shit) he’s ever eaten.

Mary Magdalen’s baby turns darker as the days pass, and like the baby, so does the tone of Every Secret Thing. After eighty pages of hilarity, in which the bush mob bests the mission mob six ways to Sunday, the suspicions of abuse return when a new baby is born who looks uncomfortably like Brother John. Two Spanish laborers, Mingo and Gringo, on the island to help rebuild the mission after the bush mob’s warning of an impending cyclone is ignored, have also fathered too many children on the young women of the bush mob. Something has to be done, and so the Garden of Eden–not the one we read about in Genesis–is founded to isolate and educate the abductees. Er, children. This Garden of Eden bears an uncomfortable resemblance of its own to the Garden Point Mission on Melville Island, where Munkara herself was sent at the age of eighteen months.

[T]he nuns at the Garden of Eden …worked relentlessly to shape the unruly half-caste rabble into obedient and God-fearing servants of the muruntani. No rod was spared and no abductee spoilt in the process as the little coloured kids were repeatedly chastised and flayed until prayers and hymns and excerpts form the Bible were slowly absorbed by rote into every fibre of their being. And when they were eventually knocked into shape they were passed on to caring white families as domestics and the like because, let’s face it, the mission mob knew these useless individuals would never amount ot anything else. In order to control them, many of the good Christian families duly followed in the incarcerators’ lead by perpetuating the violence, sometimes throwing in a few more tortures for good measure like rape and mental abuse, because this was the only thing this half-caste lot understood. A few even had to be sent back to the mission because they just didn’t seem to respond to the kindly ministration of their new families and kept trying to run away or told wild stories to people about their treatment.

It was sad really.

The knife-edge of irony in that final assessment, “It was sad really,” is the perspective that elevates Every Secret Thing beyond farce. After this point in the story, there is still plenty to laugh at, as more missionaries visit, a pair of French castaways comes to stay, and Doctor Phil arrives with his wife, braless Betty. But each chapter now seethes with sexual misalignments, there is alcohol, but most disturbingly, the bush mob comes to understand that the logic of the missionaries’ preaching is fatally flawed. Where they had once happily dismissed the fables and foibles of the Christian community, the bush mob slowly becomes bitter, disenchanted, and fatalistic. The final chapters are among the saddest comedies of errors I’ve ever read. Marigold, who had been sent to the Garden of Eden as a baby, returns to meet her family two decades later; and Pwominga decides to test the mission mob’s doctrine of the Resurrection with a personal and disastrous experiment. The boisterous, rebellious, laughing mob that watched Sister Annunciate take after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John on the first page of the novel is forever altered. Despair and hopelessness are joined to a deep and devastating uncertainty about all that they have learned from their Christian brethren. At the end, 

there was one thing they were certain of. They didn’t have to die to go to hell because the mission had happily brought that with them when they’d arrived unasked on the fateful shores of the place that was their heaven all those years before.

Quite unlike any other novel I’ve read, Every Secret Thing captures the process of the collapse of the old culture in the face of an alien philosophy buttressed by a powerful and equally incomprehensible technology. Its vision of spirit being waylaid by the spiritual brilliantly records the leaching of joy from the world and the residue of bitter earth that is left behind. And yet, like the hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box, the novel’s humor and the ability of Munkara to laugh in the face of tragedy offers solace. Every Secret Thingmanifests the importance of grasping what little is left, in hearts and memories, of “the place that was their heaven.”

My thanks to Bob Gosford for tipping me off to this tale. Bob published an interview with Marie Munkara on The Northern Myth in two parts on October 21 and 22, 2009.

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4 Responses to Mission and Bush

  1. Pingback: My second full day at the SWF | Me fail? I fly!

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  3. Pingback: Every Secret Thing, by Marie Munkara | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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