Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 12, 2022

Wandering with Intent (2022), by Kim Mahood

Kim Mahood is one of our most interesting thinkers about the interface between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.  Writing my review of her previous book Position Doubtful (2016) coincided with attending the Indigenous Language Intensive program organised by Writers Victoria, which was designed to guide non-indigenous authors to write respectfully about Indigenous people, their culture and history.  Kim Mahood has made it her life’s work to do just that.

As she says in the preface to Wandering with Intent:

To essay means to try, to endeavour, to attempt.  It implies risk and failure.  It is also the only way to find out whether something is possible.  These essays are a sort of written equivalent of hunting and gathering, of wandering with intent.  They are the product of my own wandering among the conundrums and contradictions of the cross-cultural world I’ve chosen to inhabit, and of my intent to understand and honour it. (p.xi)

In today’s cultural climate of identity politics and cancel culture, it takes courage to traverse this territory.  For some, there are hard and fast lines that delineate who has the right to speak and write about Indigenous issues, and as we are already seeing in the context of the forthcoming referendum on the Voice, there are differing perspectives and disconcerting hostilities between First Nations themselves.  So what is it that impels Mahood to venture into this complex territory?

What compels me is watching relationships play out at the edge of cultural systems that baffle and subvert each other, where the frontier is still adaptive and resistant, the population is predominantly Aboriginal, and the land is a living entity that influences the lives of the human players.  It is a dynamic and volatile world that has been impacted by colonialism but has retained its Indigenous character, much of which is interpreted by the white world as dysfunctional, but which continues to function with remarkable tenacity.  I’ve spend years seeing the Indigenous people I know grow and change, take on responsibilities or avoid them, make choices about how to be the Indigenous player on someone else’s agenda. (p.xiii)

This collection of 17 essays written over more than 15 years includes nine which were previously published… in Griffith Reviews 15, 36 and 63; (reissued in The Best Australian Essays 2007); The Monthly in 2015, 2017 and 2019; the Chicago Quarterly Review 2020, and in the Australian Book Review 2019.  Since I don’t subscribe to any of these, I have missed out on every one of these remarkable essays so I was very pleased to see them published together in this must-have collection.

This is the book description:

In these finely observed and probing essays, award-winning artist and writer Kim Mahood invites us to accompany her on the road and into the remote places of Australia where she is engaged in long-established collaborations of mapping, storytelling, and placemaking. Celebrated as one of the few Australian writers who both lives within and can articulate the complexities and tensions that arise in the spaces between Aboriginal and settler Australia, Mahood writes passionately and eloquently about the things that capture her senses and demand her attention — art, country, people, and writing. Her compelling evocation of desert landscapes and tender, wry observations of cross-cultural relationships describe people, places, and ways of living that are familiar to her but still strange to most non-Indigenous Australians.

At once a testament to personal freedom and a powerful argument for Indigenous self-determination, Wandering with Intent demonstrates, with candour, humour, and hope, how necessary and precious it is for each of us to choose how to live.

The essay which, for me, best encapsulates the dilemmas of the frontier is ‘Kardiya are like Toyotas’: white workers on Australia’s cultural frontier.  This essay is available to read online because it went viral when it was published in the Griffith Review ‘What is Australia For?’ The expression comes from a Western Desert woman remarking on whitefellas working in communities: ‘Kardiya are like Toyotas.  When they break down, we get another one,’ and the essay begins like this:

Unlike the broken Toyotas, which are abandoned where they fall, cannibalised, overturned, gutted and torched, the broken kardiya go away — albeit often feeling they have been cannibalised, overturned, gutted and torched. They leave behind them dying gardens and unfinished projects, misunderstandings, and misplaced good intentions.  The best leave foundations on which their replacements can build provisional shelters while they scout the terrain, while the worst leave funds unaccounted for, relationships in ruins, and communities in chaos.

There are many reasons why kartiya break down. Some break themselves, bringing with them baggage lugged from other lives, investing in the people they’ve come to help qualities that are projections of their own anxieties and ideals. Eager and needy, they are prime material for white slavery, rushing to meet demands that increase in direct proportion to their willingness to respond to them. They create a legacy of expectation and dependency, coupled with one of failure and disappointment.

A more common cause of breakdown is the impossibility of carrying out the work you are expected to do. Two factors in particular are not included in any job description. The first is that if the work involves interaction with Aboriginal people, which is usually the case, this interaction will be so constant and demanding that there will be no time left to carry out the required tasks. The second is that by default the kartiya’s function is to be blamed for everything that goes wrong. Blaming the kartiya is the lubricant that smooths the volatile frictions of community life. For someone of robust temperament and sound self-esteem this is irritating but manageable. If you have an overheated sense of responsibility or a tendency towards self-blame it’s an opportunity to experience the high point of personal failure. (p.36, inconsistencies in spelling of kardiya/kartiya in the essay and the title have to do with alternate orthographies).

The essay is often funny, but it’s confronting too. For example, she makes the point that screening and training people for work in Indigenous communities is inadequate:

….it is mandatory for anyone wishing to work in Antarctica to undergo a physical and psychological assessment to establish whether they will stand up to the stresses of isolation, the extreme environment, and the intense proximity to other people. All the same factors exist in remote Aboriginal communities, along with confronting cross-cultural conditions.(p.37)

Today, Mahood’s essay is a standard text for the induction of newcomers.  In a postscript to it, ‘Trapped in the Gap’ translates the jargon in an academic paper by Emma Kowal about white Australia’s repeated failures in remote Aboriginal Australia. This essay looks like essential reading to me too.

It will surprise no one that my favourite essay is ‘Lost and Found in Translation’ which is not just about the significance of Indigenous languages but also makes reference to works from the canon: D H Lawrence’s Kangaroo, (1923); Patrick White’s Voss, (1957); and Randolph Stow’s To the Islands (1958). Stow, Mahood says, was the writer who described her world in the drought stricken years of her childhood:

Stow spoke to me as no other Australian writers has done before or since. (p.128)

Whether explorer narratives or not, these books all have settings of the search for meaning out in the metaphysical void. 

A ritual manliness.’ D H Lawrence, Patrick White, Randolph Stow and the current exemplar of the genre, Nicolas Rothwell, are male, white, and the inheritors of a spiritual tradition embedded in European scholarship and a European imagination.

Ironically, the writer who most perfectly embodies this sensibility, and one who made the sojourn into the wilderness before writing about it, was female. Tracks, by Robyn Davidson, is her account of her solo camel trek in 1977 across the Gibson Desert from Uluru to the West Australian coast.  Davidson’s quest spoke directly to the great Australian hunger for insights into whatever secrets the desert might hold. (p.129)

In our era, as Mahood says, a deep ambivalence continues to permeate the stories we tell and …

The prohibitions against non-Indigenous writers entering this terrain are intensifying, and the ground is pretty complicated for Indigenous writers, too, who have to prove their credentials in an increasingly complex territorial domain. (p.,130)

We live in interesting times, which makes Wandering with Intent essential reading!

BTW, readers of my review of Position Doubtful may remember my criticism that the B&W images were unsatisfactory.  I wasn’t the only one, and Scribe have taken it on board and included an 8-page colour section in this more handsome edition, which sells for a perfectly reasonable price for a paperback.

See also the review at The Conversation.

Author: Kim Mahood
Title: Wandering with Intent
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2022
ISBN: 9781925713251, pbk., 322 pages + 8pp colour section (photos, maps and artworks)
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications


Responses

  1. I have both this and Position Doubtful on my TBR pile. Should I read them in order? Or does it matter not?

    Like

    • I don’t think it matters.
      And the bonus is, that you can dip in and out of the essays as and when you have time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read the review in The Conversation, and immediately got hold of Craft for a Dry Lake (so I could understand Mahood’s background a bit first). I’m enjoying reading it. I think I might have to get hold of Wandering with Intent to read over the summer.
    I have just finished teaching Year 9 Geography through the prism of Australia’s First Nations peoples and issues facing them (and yes, it’s a sensitivity minefield). We spent some time looking at mapping and juxtaposing the western concept of maps and the Indigenous use of land and sky, song, dance, art and story. I think this book might give greater depth to my understanding and therefore to my teaching.

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    • Yes, I think it would be invaluable.
      Your way of teaching geography sounds excellent!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. She’s a great thinker on these subjects. I’d love to read this.

    Like

    • It’s one I hope you can make time for.
      (But I know, there’s never enough time.)

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  4. I can see Craft for a Dry Lake up on the shelf of books I will read ‘soon’, but it’s been there a few years. I love Tracks, but it’s about Davidson’s relationship with the desert, not with desert people. I’ve always worried Mahood crosses the line she writes about in that last quote.

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  5. Well, you see, for me, she exemplifies the reason why having hard-and-fast delineations is counter-productive. Like the archaeologists and geologists who with mutual respect work with traditional owners to validate their story-telling with science (as we saw in Rachel Perkins doco First Australians) she works with communities to blend mapping with traditional story-telling about sites of significance. I’m interested to learn about this, and I’m glad she writes about it.

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