Delicious descriptions: Kim Mahood’s desert

Kim Mahood, Position doubtfulI wanted to use this Descriptions series to share a couple of Mahood’s gorgeous descriptions from her memoir, Position doubtful, which I reviewed recently, but I’ve decided to share one about maps and relationships (and you’ll probably see why), and a description.

From a mapping expedition:

The shortcomings of my prototype map soon become evident. The first lesson in the overlapping of knowledge systems is that Aboriginal knowledge doesn’t confine itself to the square dimensions of the canvas. Traditional jurisdictions extend to Well 50 in the west and to Jalyuwarn in the south. The ancestral dingoes who created the lake came down from the north and Kiki, the falling star, fell from the sky in the east. All these places and events are off the map.

– Puttem, I am told. You can fixem up later.

I puttem, and the edges of the canvas became congested with names that belong to the country outside the square.

She goes on to describe the process of capturing stories and knowledge, how “each site has its attendant stories – dreaming stories and traditional ways of living, accounts of the station days and mission days and first-contact encounters.” So fascinating – but these maps can be fraught with risk too.

Samphire Shrubland

Samphire landscape, Central Australia (By Mark Marathon, using CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

From a trip to Lake Ruth, 2008:

… The anthills on the plain are small and crenelated, like urban skylines. Ahead of us the horizon feels unstable, as if we are approaching an edge of some kind. The sandy soil becomes littered with limestone pebbles, and the anthills morph into the massive conical forms of cathedral mounds. Abruptly, the salt lake is before us, a negative space boundaried to the south by another unstable horizon. …

Between the salt lake and the limestone ridge where we have halted is a low red dune, an arc of sand created by wind and waves when the ephemeral lakes were substantial bodies of water. Stunted ti-tree grows along the dune, and red and gold samphire spreads out onto the salt crust, which is buckled and crisp. The southern horizon ripples with dissolving light, like wind moving through invisible fields of grass.

These descriptions of the desert are so vivid, so true. They show that Mahood is not just a mapmaker and artist, but a writer too.

Kim Mahood, Position doubtful (#BookReview)

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 our 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
ISBN: 9781925321685

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