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Kim Mahood, Position doubtful (#BookReview)

June 30, 2017

Kim Mahood, Position doubtfulKim Mahood’s memoir Position doubtful is a such a stimulating read. That might sound weird for a book whose subtitle is Mapping, landscapes and memories, but the thing is that it hits the spot in so many ways that are central to the issues confronting Australians right now. In other words, it’s about our relationship to place. Specifically, it’s about how kartiya* (non-indigenous Australians) comprehend our love for place, how we reconcile that vis-à-vis that of indigenous Australians, and how we go about respecting each other’s relationship with our land. Mahood may not explicitly generalise it like this, as for her it’s a personal journey – one exploring her experience of place and her reckoning of that with the indigenous owners – but I believe we can extrapolate her thinking to encompass something more universally Australian.

So, let me describe this personal aspect of the journey first, because this is, essentially, a memoir. It primarily covers the twenty years or so, from the mid 1990s, during which Mahood, chasing “unfinished business”, made annual trips back, from her Canberra region base, to the Tanami Desert region where she’d spent her childhood on a cattle station run by her parents, but which is now owned by the local Warlpiri people. She chronicles her desert art trips with Pam Lofts, the mapmaking she does to document country and stories, her various itinerant jobs, and most of all her relationships in the communities in which she stays, particularly Mulan (a Walmajarri community) and Balgo (where she works early on in the art centre).

Maps underpin her way of viewing and understanding place, and have become, also, the basis of her art practice. Early in the book, she writes:

In recent years I have made a number of maps with Aboriginal people, designed to reveal common ground between white and Aboriginal ways of representing and understanding country … The information marked on them is a mixture of Aboriginal knowledge – traditional camp sites, the birthplaces of individuals, the tracks of ancestors – scientific information about ancient shorelines and archaeological investigations, and the template of bores and paddocks and tracks and boundaries that represent the cattle stations and stock routes of white settlement. They serve different purposes – aboriginal, scientific, testimonial, environmental – depending on when and where they are used. Often there is a mismatch between my interpretation and the Aboriginal interpretation of their purpose.

So, this is a story about communication and negotiation, about sharing knowledge and understanding, about layers and multiple meanings, and above all, about respect for other while standing one’s own ground. The way Mahood navigates all this – the accommodations and understandings she works through, socially, personally, intellectually, scientifically, artistically and philosophically – is, really, what the book’s about. And it’s what makes it such a relevant read.

Now it’s my turn, I’m going to tell my side of the story

But of course, to write this story, she had to confront that issue I’ve raised here several times before of kartiya speaking for and/or about indigenous people. She addresses this in the last chapter (without specifically discussing the issue itself), when she describes visiting Mulan in September 2015 to tell them about her book. She organises several meetings, and reads “everything” that she thinks “might offend or upset people”. She is particularly anxious about her suggestion that the “popular version” of a massacre story she’s been told could be “a compilation of several distinct events” but she needn’t have worried. Her listeners nodded in agreement and pointed her to other people she could talk to.

This massacre “story” reminded me of another ongoing thread of mine – that one about “fact” versus “truth”. The truth is that massacres occurred – that’s not denied – but the evidence is now so murky that the various “facts” presented don’t always align. Does this mean the history, the recording of massacres, is wrong? I don’t think so.

a template of country infused with multiple meanings

The book is structured more or less chronologically following her trips, but she does move backwards and forwards occasionally – to finish an experience or flesh out a story. In between the more chronological, narrative chapters, are specifically reflective ones where she pauses to explore an idea. One is titled “Mapping Common Ground”. In it she articulates her ideas about language, maps, and being human. She says that “mapmaking was the common ground” on which she and her “Aboriginal companions put together our different conceptions of country”. She describes how maps “captured the imagination of the local mob”. They provided

concrete evidence of the knowledge that existed in the country, and they represented country in a way that everyone could understand, including the kartiya upon whom so much of the negotiations about land depended. … But the maps also aggravated the simmering arguments about who came from where, who owned which place.

And there, you see, is the politics. Politics is not Mahood’s focus but it is there, and the more you know about indigenous history, past and present, in Australia, the more you see it in the book. It’s there in the implications of changing a word from “custodians” to “ownership”, in the absence of middle-aged men resulting in matriarchies, in the “unintended consequences” of the 1968 equal wages bill, in the high prevalence of disease like diabetes, in who has or controls the money, and so on. It’s rather a mess, but “fixing” is not Mahood’s aim here, so she notes and moves on.

The title itself subtly references the underlying politics. Literally it means “of uncertain position” and is often used, for example, to indicate shipwrecks. However, when her father used the term, while navigating in the Tanami Desert, Mahood writes:

The term lodged in my mind as a metaphor for the way in which white Australians move through and occupy the country, especially the less accessible parts of it. And while the advent of satellite technology has given us the tools to find and map geographic locations with great accuracy, it seems to me that or position in relation to the remote parts of the country is more doubtful than it ever has been.

Metaphor, in fact, underpins much of how Mahood sees and explains the world, and I enjoyed that aspect of her writing, the way she finds some term or experience or object to reference bigger meanings.

Position doubtful is not exactly an easy read, but it’s a thoroughly engaging one. As memoirs go, it’s a strange hybrid, combining wonderfully warm and sometimes funny anecdotes about the people she meets and travels with, oral histories, indigenous creation stories, poetic insets, travel writing containing beautiful descriptions of landscapes, and of course her introspective reflections on who she is and what she’s doing. She allows herself to be vulnerable, and yet there’s a strong sense of self there too.

Kim Mahood, Gia Metherell

Bessie’s map, from the book and shown at CBR Writers Festival, 2016

I’ll close with some comments she makes regarding a trip to Lake Gregory with local owners and kartiya, including the palaeontologist Jim Bowler. It’s aim was to create “a cross-cultural document” showing “the interplay between  Aboriginal knowledge and western scientific knowledge in a form … easily accessible to both Walmajarri and kartiya“. She writes:

To have the ancient geography interpreted simultaneously through modern science and the Waljirri or dreaming, lays down a template of country infused with multiple meanings. While I don’t believe the creation stories in a literal way, they breathe animate life into the landscape in a form as potent and awe-provoking as the deep-time story Jim’s science tells. They complement rather than contradict each other.

And then, she talks of a discussion with Bessie, premier traditional owner for the area, in which they look at Bessie’s painting (see my image above) and the big painted map created during the project. As they talk, Mahood writes:

In putting together these two ways of conceptualising the same place, I experience a cognitive shift from which I will never entirely cover.

It’s a cognitive shift that is gradually happening throughout Australia – I hope – as we all come to terms with our different ways of seeing our history and our relationship to place and each other. This book makes an excellent contribution to this process.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) appreciated this book too. Her write-up fills in some of the gaps I couldn’t cover without writing a tome.

aww2017 badgeKim Mahood
Position doubtful: Mapping, landscapes and memories
Brunswick: Scribe, 2016
320pp.
ISBN: 9781925321685

* Kartiya: white people (there is no one indigenous word for white people)

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Sara Dowse permalink
    June 30, 2017 3:21 pm

    I’m reading it now, WG, if with massive interruptions, and find it mesmerising so far. I’ll reserve my judgment until I finish it, but I can already gauge the book’s importance. Your review has been enlightening as well. So much to learn about what once was dismissed as ’empty’. The many languages alone testify to that, and the work that’s being done to maintain them is so very heartening.

    • June 30, 2017 3:31 pm

      Oh Sara, I hope you come back and comment when you finish it. there were so many angles l didn’t cover. I think I’ll do a little Delicious Descriptions post shoring a couple of her descriptions of the land. Like her, I love the desert.

  2. June 30, 2017 3:33 pm

    I loved this book. I was lucky enough to hear Kim Mahood talk about it at last year’s Bendigo Writers Festival and they had a huge wide screen to project her photos and maps onto.
    I love the books that Scribe Publishing produces, but I still think it’s a shame that this book wasn’t published in a bigger, coffee-table format on quality papers so that readers can see the images properly.

    • June 30, 2017 5:15 pm

      Yes, I saw her at the Canberra Writers festival last August, which is where I bought my copy and took the photo I’m showing here. I’m not sure I quite agree about the coffee table format, though, Lisa. I don’t think that format works well for dense serious text – at least I don’t like reading a lot of text in big glossy books. However, some inset colour plates pages like you sometimes get in biographies/autobiographies would have been a good compromise (for me, anyhow!). All my reading group found the image issue frustrating. Most of the black and white maps were less than useless weren’t they?

  3. Jim KABLE permalink
    June 30, 2017 4:20 pm

    This is a most remarkable warm and moving testament to the heart of Australia – sensitive and respectful in the interpretation of experience, landscape and the (in some cases) damaged yet rebounding renascent Indigenous cultures lived, documented and charted. I am only a third the way through but already for me a book of the decade. Just to-day I was reading a story in The Guardian – Australia – on-line – the story behind Clinton Pryor’s Walk for Justice across Australia – from Perth – now closing in on Canberra. I have been following from just a day into his walk. He mentions that part of his childhood was growing up in Carnarvon and in the Mulan community, too! Kim Manhood was no doubt “mapping” there when he was a lad! Thanks for this review WG.

    • June 30, 2017 5:19 pm

      How funny Jim that you and Sara are both reading it now too.

      I didn’t mention in my review because it was getting too long, that after I retired a colleague and I did a project for an NGO working with the Martu people in the Pilbara. (They are one of the groups related to the Canning Stock Route.) The NGP office had a huge map on the wall in the office on which places were being recorded, but for sensitivity reasons I didn’t photograph it.

  4. June 30, 2017 8:01 pm

    I didnt realise there was such a debate going on in Australia about relationship to the place. What has triggered that – anything in particular?

    • June 30, 2017 8:20 pm

      Fair question Karen. It stems from the colonial dispossession of our indigenous people, Karen, and the fact that now – I mean in recent decades – they have started activating about their situation which has rightly forced a reassessment of how we all relate to this land.

      • July 1, 2017 3:18 am

        Ah yes that makes sense. BTW I am hoping to come over your way next year for a holiday. Haven’t got a plan yet other than Sydney, Cairns, Tasmania – so I may be looking for some recommendations!

        • July 1, 2017 9:01 am

          How exciting Karen. Would love to talk about your trip with you and meet if possible, though I don’t live in those places. How long and when, or are you not at that stage yet? Some desert experience would be good depending on your time and timing.

        • July 2, 2017 3:31 am

          Probably in January – my husband is angling for a three month trip but we also want to go to NZ

        • July 2, 2017 8:57 am

          Oh January is a bit hot for the desert, and Cairns could be pretty humid, but keep in touch as your plans develop. I’d do NZ first if you’re coming then.

        • July 4, 2017 4:18 am

          Why NZ first?

        • July 4, 2017 8:06 am

          Because NZ is a little further south so is a bit cooler. If you want b escape Australia’s peak heat but get NZ at its warmest, and probably most pleasant, and you’re skirting early to mid-summer, then I’d go NZ first.At a different time of year, say mid to late winter I’d reversethe order. Does that make sense? Australia, much of it, can be very hot January to February, and lovely in March.

  5. June 30, 2017 11:46 pm

    This book is the most beautifully written book I have read. It links to many of my own experiences, but in a way that almost made me gasp aloud, as she formed words around thoughts, feelings, memories, understandings I had not yet been able to crystallise. I have never read such exquisitely layered work. It moved me me on many levels simultaneously. I am now reading ‘Craft For a Dry Lake’ published in about 2001. It is a precursor to ‘Position Doubtful’ and I am immersed in it too. Reading backwards, it too is a generous and beautiful work. I am so glad Kim Mahood writes!

    • July 1, 2017 8:48 am

      Thanks Pauline, and welcome. Yes the many layers made it so hard to write about. I’d like to read “Craft” as well. It won an award or two I read. Anyhow, the book moved me too. At tmes I wanted to relate it to some of my experiences but they just tinker around the edges of what she’s done that I decided to leave it.

  6. July 1, 2017 12:40 am

    Reblogged this on World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum..

  7. July 1, 2017 3:14 pm

    I love reading distant cultures, their struggles, transitions and unravelling. I look forward to reading Kim Mahood one day. Thanks for introducing her to your readers.

    • July 1, 2017 6:39 pm

      Thanks umashankar. I agree that is the pleasure of reading – the experiencing of other cultures in their complexity.

  8. July 1, 2017 9:27 pm

    I think that now that Indigenous stories are getting a wider white readership some things are becoming received wisdom that weren’t previously. Two of those might be that the Aboriginal attitude to strangers was to offer hospitality; and that white settlement was based on many massacres. Truths (and untruths) are propagated by repeated story telling, but in this case truth is winning out. And I’ve always been a big fan of the intersection of writing and geography – though it does make out literature more obscure for outsiders.

    • July 1, 2017 11:20 pm

      Yes there have been many polarising generalisations haven’t there, Bill?

      I loved her early discussion about geography and its importance in our lives. Geography and English literature were my favourite subjects at high school in fact. Probably why I too love the place aspect of writung.

  9. July 3, 2017 5:23 pm

    Very timely just before its shortlisting for the National Biography Award!

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