In her second book of memoir, Kim Mahood delves into the “fundamental displacement” of someone with “an almost cellular affinity to a place that has been constructed by a different cultural imagination”. This “place” is the desert country straddling the border between Western Australia and the Northern Territory, where Mahood grew up with her cattleman father and her journalist mother who chronicled that life. Aboriginal people were always present, as stockmen, as cooks. Today, the station that was her childhood home is back in the hands of its traditional owners, and it is largely an Aboriginal world to which Mahood has been regularly returning for more than two decades.
Her first book, the acclaimed Craft for a Dry Lake (2000), was impelled by the death of her father; grief was its starting point. With Position Doubtful, which traces the years since then, new grief brings its many parts into a whole. The women to whom she dedicates the book all die over its course, four of the five within two years of one another. In this cascade of loss, what Mahood finally experiences is “larger and less personal than grief”; it is a “responsibility to remember”. The weight of this responsibility infuses the whole work.
Mahood’s process is more than remembering, however, and her focus broader than the people she has come to hold dear. Just as she travels down seldom-used desert roads, in her writing she takes every turn that her unusual life delivers, to find out where it may lead. Charting this territory, literally and figuratively, she fills in to some degree the “position doubtful”, a reference to a frequent annotation on the coloniser maps of her heritage as well as to her own life between two worlds.
Since 2004, Mahood has been leaving her work as a visual artist, writer and teacher in the environs of Canberra to spend half of each year in Mulan, a tiny Walmajarri community in Western Australia that’s not far, in desert terms, from where she grew up. There she co-ordinates the making of large-scale maps that function as tools for intercultural understanding, recording the overlapping knowledge systems of the Aboriginal locals and the many visitors to their land – archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, scientists, land managers, artists. The complex stories behind each map anchor the writing: a rich mix of anecdote (warm, honest, often funny), description (finely balanced between intent observation and poetic evocation), oral history (including an account of a little-known massacre, as told by the son of a survivor, and a moving apology ceremony), investigation (historical, scientific, philosophical, artistic) and reflection.
The end result is an extraordinary excavation of the relationship, past and present, between settlers and indigenous Australians, deeply grounded in this alluring tract of desert, but with relevance for us all.
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