• Marie Munkara (right) reunited with her mother, Judy Munkara, at the age of 28. (Courtesy of Marie Munkara)Source: Courtesy of Marie Munkara
Marie Munkara was torn from her mother when she was a young child, but a chance encounter took her on an adventure back to her love.
Andrea Booth

6 May 2016 - 3:30 PM  UPDATED 6 May 2016 - 3:30 PM

When the tide at Bathurst Island off the tip of northern Australia went out and the mud flats rose, Marie Munkara and her mother Judy pick up their buckets and take them to collect shell fish.

As their load begins to overflow, Judy takes off her shirt, filling it too with the abundance of crustacean.

For a moment she stands up and looks out to the horizon, the wind blowing her hair back and sun rays falling around her bare skin.

"I looked at her and I thought, 'my God - this is my mum. She is so, so, beautiful'," novelist Marie Munkara told NITV News.

It is a memory of Marie's mother, who passed away 16 years ago, that she says she will forever cherish.

From Arnhem Land to a foster home 

Marie was born on the banks of a river in Arnhem Land, where she was delivered and cleansed with the ash of black wattle by her grandmothers, before moving with her family to Bathurst Island, part of the Tiwi Islands, off the coast of the Northern Territory.

"I came from a strong family in Arnhem Land, they are linguists, they organise ceremonies, they're a really strong family, they're great artists, it was safe," she says. 

However, by the tender age of three, she was taken from her mother by authorities under the Australian government's assimilation policies of the 20th century that dictated Indigenous children with mixed heritage be placed with European families.

Her mother was Aboriginal, her father Aboriginal-Chinese.  

She was taken to the Garden Point Mission on nearby Melville Island where she was brought up by European foster parents until she reached 15.

"It was difficult," she says. "I didn’t know how to speak English, I only spoke our language from the Tiwi Islands, and my mother taught me other languages as well, so at the age of three, going to this place was just entirely different from the bush, and having to speak English where you get slapped when you don't."

However, this was but the tip of the iceberg of the challenges she was confronted with in her new environment, she says, describing her foster father as "a rampant paedophile".

"The whole 15 years that I was with them, it was just a regular occurrence for him, and my foster mother knew about it, but when I confronted her, she just said, 'well, we married for better or for worse'."

Marie knew that once she had gained her education, she would be free: "I could leave that all behind me," she says and so began her journey towards putting her schooling to use as she embarked on becoming an author.

'It was the strangest thing'

It was only at the age of 28 while at her foster parents' house, did she discover an opportunity to meet her birth mother.

As she sat, flipping through a book, a Baptismal card from the Dally River Mission on Bathurst Island fell out which she saw was printed with a strange name but stamped with her date of birth.

"I just knew that was me. I thought, 'my God this is me – this is what I've been waiting for."

Marie wrote a letter to the mission asking if anyone knew her mother, and two weeks later, the priest who received it informed her that her Godmother, Roseanne Parry, had responded to his query on her behalf at mass to say that indeed she did and her mother, now married to a Tiwi Island man, lived on the island.

Marie arrived to her mother's house without warning, expecting to surprise her.

"I was just getting my bag out of the back of the ute, and I turned around and there was this black lady coming down the steps, and she walked up to me and I said, 'who are you?'

"She said, 'I'm your mother, come in and have a cup of tea'.

Maternal wisdom

Judy nourished Marie in ways she had never imagined, Marie told NITV News. "It was like I'd never gone. And I learned so, so much."

As she led Marie through the mangroves hunting, where Marie discovered shortcuts weren't always the best decisions, she taught her the qualities of persistence.

"She was a person who made me work things out for myself."

Sometimes it was her mother's musings that gripped her, such as Judy's belief that the environment in which you're born can help shape your life. 

"And how true that was, because I was born in a rush, in a big thunderstorm, in all this wild energy. I came into the world in a big blaze of glory, and I'm still rushing at a million miles an hour, doing all these exciting things." 

Other times it was the vibrancy of her mother's actions that really sunk in. "Showing how we love each other, cuddling your children, respecting your elders," she says.

"When I see my children now who are grown up, they’re just such wonderful, compassionate, beautiful people and I’m just so proud of them. 

"My mum gave me that, and my old ancestors gave me that, and my grandmothers gave me that."

'I saw the world in a completely different way'

But it was her mother’s death at around 60 years of age - 12 years after they first met - that provided some of her most potent learning. 

"She said, 'when I go, all the things that I know are going to come to you'. And I said 'how does that happen?' and she said 'it happens'.

She was right, Marie says, "I saw the world in a completely different way from then. I've got her thoughts, I've got the way that she would do things, and think and feel, and it all came to me when she passed.

“That was her gift to me when she died.”

It was in her mother's death that she truly learned the meaning of humility. "We don’t respect the fact we’re part of the whole world, we're part of everything, we’re not the centre of everything.

“We’re just repositories for knowledge, and then it just comes on in a beautiful fluid way to the next generation.

"She showed me that life goes on and it’s still beautiful."

Marie Munkara is featuring at the Northern Territory Writers' Festival in Darwin over Mother's Day weekend where she released her memoir 'Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea'.