I had bought a copy of Kim Mahood’s new memoir Position Doubtful before I went to the Bendigo Writers Festival where she was in conversation with Susan Martin. Although I felt that Craft for a Dry Lake (2000) was a bit too long for itself and I lost interest in Mahood’s identity issues with her father, nevertheless it was a book in which she wrote memorably about the beauty of the outback, and perceptively about Aborigines especially women. (And it won the 2001 NSW Premier’s Award and The Age non-fiction Book of the Year). So I hadn’t hesitated to buy the new one, and listening to Mahood talk about it at the festival ensured that I kept it near the top of the TBR pile so that I could get to it soon.
It’s a book that repays slow, careful reading, and I was drifting through it when I was unexpectedly able to take up a place at the Indigenous Language Intensive program organised by Writers Victoria. So it was just serendipity that I was learning about ways in which non-indigenous authors could write respectfully about Indigenous people, their culture and history, when I was reading a memoir by an author who has made it her life’s work to do just that.
Mahood’s family were part of the pastoral industry in the Tanami district and she grew up enjoying close relationships with the local indigenous people who were employed there. Although the Tanami Downs Station is now in the hands of its traditional owners, the Warlpiri, she has retained her connections with them and with the descendants of the Walmajarri stockmen who worked for her father on the station. Torn between modernity and a need for quiet privacy, and her love of the desert country and the interconnectedness of life in indigenous communities, she spends part of each year in the Tanami and Great Sandy Desert region, working on projects with the people, who have given her a ‘skin name’ and treat her much like one of their own. To the reader it seems that part of her identity is enmeshed with theirs though she doesn’t presume to claim any entitlement. In fact it seems to be the reverse: she has acquired obligations, some of which are onerous and tiresome, but others which bring her joy.
Mahood is an artist, a writer and a maker of maps, but the maps she makes are not like the ones in a school atlas. Like the maps my small students used to make about their weekends (instead of laboriously writing a ‘journal’ each Monday), Mahood maps story. It’s a case of identifying the significant places, and showing that ‘this happened there’. This means that the maps are not topographical and representational in the way that we are used to.
Horizon and ground, and the numinous ground between them of mirage and reflection…
These words, first scribbled in pencil in one of my drawing diaries from the 1990s, flag a preoccupation that continues to haunt my work. The tension between ways of seeing the landscape – the perspectival view of foreground, middle ground and horizon, and the bird’s-eye view of a schematic, inhabited topography – mirrors the tension between ways of being in the landscape. (p.294)
Mahood’s cultural and environmental maps are created collaboratively, and take a great deal of time and patience to make. They involve trips across bone-breaking landscapes and hours outside in the paralysing heat of the desert. More than anything else, they involve developing trust so that the traditional owners are willing to tell their stories…
(You can see a picture of Mahood working on one of these maps with Walmajarri elders at Paruku here and at this link you can see one of her fire maps, and read a truncated version of the processes she uses.)
Slides of these maps/art works were part of the presentation at the BWF, and IMO this is a book that demands images to amplify Mahood’s descriptions, so it is a real pity that it’s been published with small B&W images that merely frustrate the reader. I know that decisions about colour plates are commercial decisions, and I know that this book will get a wider readership because it costs less. But still, reading it, I hankered for the kind of publication that Wakefield Press would have made of it. It would have been produced on the right kind of paper on bigger pages to show off the images clearly, and it would have included full colour reproductions of the paintings. Wakefield’s motto is that they make ‘beautiful books’ and Position Doubtful deserved to be a beautiful book as well as an interesting one.
The reader, however, has to rely on Mahood’s words (and the occasional Google search) to imagine the world she describes. But she is a wordsmith, conjuring the vast landscapes and oppressive weather while also describing the life of the community, its joys and woes. Here she is writing about the desolation of the abandoned homestead:
At the gateway where the road forks, I leave the vehicle and walk. I want to come to the place without insulation, with all my senses alert. In the sand and gravel of the old road, I make out the tracks of dingo and camel, kangaroo, python, goanna and bush turkey.
The iron roof is slumped and buckled, draped like a heavy cloth over the pink stone walls. One end of the house is engulfed in crimson bougainvillea, and the white satellite dish has slid from the roof and nestles like an eardrum in the blaze of flowers. Sections of the roof are missing, all the interior windows are gone, the fly wire ripped away from verandahs that surround the building. A dozen Major Mitchell cockatoos have stationed themselves on an overhanging branch to keep an eye on me.
There has been a fire, and charred roof beams collapse into rooms that are middens of crumbling plaster. Ceiling fans hang from their entrails. In the office, filing cabinets have been overturned, documents buried under rubble. Tarnished sachets of condoms are scattered among the bleached bougainvillea flowers that pile in drifts along the corridors and verandahs. (p.282)
Mahood is painfully honest: there is no sentimentalising and she is brutal about some of the dysfunctional life she observes amongst both inhabitants both Black and White. When she drives an incontinent old man across the desert for miles, you can almost smell his acrid clothing, but she treats him with respect and his stories are invaluable. [Autocorrect just turned my typo of ‘his stories’ without the ‘s’ of ‘stories’, into ‘histories’, and of course, that’s what they are.] When she observes with an experienced eye, the arrival of new staff in the White community, she predicts trouble arising from their arrogance and authoritarianism, and she is deeply grieved to be proven right.
As in Craft for a Dry Lake where she analysed her relationship with her father, Position Doubtful explores her sometimes fraught relationship with fellow-artist and dear friends Pamela Lofts. It was a long-standing friendship, and they made many trips into the desert together to work on their art. But they had a very different view of what art is, and this impacted on what they actually did out in the desert:
Her formal training at art school in the 1980s had taught her that ideas had to be interrogated and deconstructed through the prism of philosophical and political positions: that materials had inherent qualities which carried their own meanings, and should dictate the form of the work. For me, classically trained in the old-fashioned skills of life-drawing, tonal painting and clay sculpture, having been taught to observe the nuances of form and colour and light, art-making was all to do with the senses. It was observational, intuitive, haptic and emotional. That materials had their own integrity was self-evident – I had no quarrel with this – but to apply a rigorous intellectual approach to the making of the work afflicted me with a kind of claustrophobic horror. (p.281)
What this difference in approach translated into, in practice, was that Lofts insisted on Mahood taking on a persona of ‘Violet’ and dressing up in the desert in ironically stereotypical female ways with high heels and skirts. She posed her in ways with an arsenal of post-colonial and feminist critiques that challenged the white settler culture to which I nominally belonged, with varying degrees of cooperation from Mahood. (You can see an example here). Somehow their friendship survived an entirely different way of being in the landscape and making art about it. For Mahood, the indigenous stories she has been told shapes her awareness that a rock or a hummock represents an ancient culture:
I don’t believe in the ancestral beings, but there’s a space in my mind that registers their shimmering traces. The tremor of their passage moves like a ripple of light along a dune, leaving its trace in a rime of salt flushed into the samphire. It’s impossible not to read country this way, with the voices of its custodians in my ear. (p.268)
The book is aptly titled. Position Doubtful is how old maps of desert country noted features that before satellite imagery were not neatly located by lines of latitude and longitude. Places heard about, but not seen, or not recorded accurately, or were ephemeral like the intermittent river systems of Australia’s capricious rainfall. Waterholes that came and went; man-made structures that fell into disrepair when their discouraged entrepreneurs abandoned them. Mahood and her Aboriginal collaborators are mapping these places and their stories, but the doubts remain. There is a hesitancy about the place of any people in this region: change has made everything tentative as we see when Mahood tells us about the fragile health of the keepers of the stories. How some gendered stories have had to shift to female custodianship. How the young people seem mostly not interested. Some parts of the book are rather melancholy.
But not pessimistic.
The desert people I know have a powerful sense of entitlement. Their personalities are big, their lives unpredictable, provisional and epic – full of tragedy, drama, violence and humour. Their one immutable commitment is to family and country. Although they suffer the incremental effects of poverty, violence, and poor health, their ability to live one day at a time, their focus on having their immediate needs met, creates an astonishing capacity to recover and endure. They did not survive one of the harshest environments on the planet and the vicissitudes of colonisation through passivity and fatalism, but through a fierce and insistent determination to exploit every available resource. (p.269)
I learned a lot from reading this book…
Author: Kim Mahood
Title: Position Doubtful
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2016
Source: Personal library (I think I bought it via Readings Monthly).