Kunyi June Anne McInerney, Kunyi, Magabala Books, June 2021, 60 pp., RRP $24.99 (hbk), ISBN 9781925936575
Kunyi was born in Todmorden Station near Oodnadatta in South Australia. Her grandmother, who could only speak her native language, Yankunytjatjara, was her teacher. When Kunyi was four years old, she was taken from her family to a nearby mission where she was given a white name, told to speak English, and forbidden to even go to the side of town closest to her real home. This book is an account of her memories.
Many small details are remembered vividly. For instance, instead of sheets, she had rags on her bed. For a long time, she wet the bed every night. Sister Bullpit was the main one in charge, and when children were considered to have been too naughty, they were force-fed a mouthful of mustard. It wasn’t unusual to be made to stand facing into a corner for a whole day if you weren’t paying attention to what the missionaries said. Kunyi saw her mother only four times during those five years at the mission. For one of these times, they went on an excursion where the gibber plain was so hot it burned the children’s feet. Their mothers had to find cardboard to tie on their children’s feet.
There are many brief and amusing tales of secretly reading books at night, capturing ‘devil-devil lizards’, visits by swarms of butterflies, flooding rain, fun at the local swimming hole, cattle drives and stray camels going by, a cocky that learned to swear in Yankunytjatjara, and Uncle Yami who was blinded by the Maralinga atomic blasts. Kunyi was spirited away from the mission when she was nine and didn’t see her mother again until she was twenty-one. Her mother lost nine children in this way.
As a nation we need these stories. Those who were taken need to tell their stories. If we listen, then perhaps we will come closer to facing Australia’s history of both shame and resilience. The illustrations, all oil paintings on canvas, are bold and expressive, managing to be both hilarious and shockingly truthful at the same time. I loved this art, and this story, especially for its matter-of-fact tone and innate humour.
Recommended for readers from three years to one hundred and three years.
Reviewed by Kevin Brophy