Kim Mahood, Position Doubtful: Mapping landscapes and memories (Text 2016)
– I love this country, she said. People don’t understand. There aren’t words to describe it.
One way of reading Position Doubtful is as Mahood’s attempt to find ways of communicating her love of that country, not in any easy sense, but as the complex engagement of one who ‘feels an almost cellular affinity to a place that has been constructed by a different cultural imagination’: she spent her late childhood and early teenage years in ‘a tract of country that extends across the Tanami Desert to the edge of the East Kimberley’ and has been returning to it now for twenty years.
Though Mahood writes beautifully, words aren’t her only means of communication. Among other things the book describes a number of art projects that grapple with her relationship to the country. As well as her own works, and more interesting than them in the telling, are her collaborations with artist Pam Lofts on surreal photographic works involving high heels and a rowboat in the desert; and with people – mostly women – from Aboriginal communities to create large maps annotated with Indigenous and non-Indigenous place names, the names of people, history and Dreaming stories. The book’s first paragraphs invite us to think of the book as just such a map – ‘position doubtful’ is an annotation from an old map of the desert, a term that satellite technology has rendered obsolete, though it retains its power here to describe ‘the way in which white Australians move through and occupy the country, especially the less accessible parts of it’.
To engage with the land is to engage with the people who live there, so the book includes riveting accounts of cross-cultural relationships, in which Mahood has a ‘position doubtful’ status as insider–outsider: she’s not Aboriginal, but people who know her acknowledge that she is from that place. Sometimes the old women expect her to know things and she has to consult her GPS device surreptitiously so as not to disappoint them. Her half-in-half-out status gives a vivid intimacy to her descriptions of life at the Balgo Art Centre and the tiny community of Mulan, her accounts of a number of mapping projects, the Canning Stock Route Art Project, an archaeological expedition with (among others) Mike Smith, author of The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts.
This is not a drop-in account of life in remote Australia. It’s in part a memoir about friendship, including a number of bereavements, in part a reflection on an artistic practice, in part a record of Aboriginal testimony. Some of the interactions with Aboriginal women are so intense – some funny, others tragic – that it’s a relief to read towards the end that Mahood read large parts of the book to people at Mulan:
I face the assembled group with my manuscript.
—– I’ve been working with you for a long time, I say. I’ve written down your stories, I’ve mapped your country with you, I’ve made a radio program, I’ve helped to write books about you and for you. Now it’s my turn. I’m going to tell my side of the story.
—I read everything I think might offend or upset people. Bessie is not sure about the moment on the Canning Stock Route trip when we all say we stink, but the others laugh and tell her that it’s really funny. Many of the people in the room are not literate, but the context, the animation I bring to the reading, the knowledge people have of the events and places, transcends the barrier of language….
—When I stop reading they demand more. Seeing themselves through my eyes is a beguiling novelty. The ancient authority of storytelling maintains its power to captivate.
It maintains that power for me too. I think this book will engross anyone who grew up in rural Australia, and especially, I imagine, in desert regions knowing traditional Aboriginal people. It will grip anyone interested in Western Desert art, or the question of how to live awarely as a non-Indigenous Australian My one sorrow is that almost all of the reproductions of art works in the paperback edition are too small and muddy to be of much use. The book cries out for an edition with larger, full-colour illustrations.
Position Doubtful is the third book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.