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Position doubtful : mapping landscapes and memories

by Kim Mahood

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Imagine the document you have before you is not a book but a map. It is well-used, creased, and folded, so that when you open it, no matter how carefully, something tears and a line that is neither latitude nor longitude opens in the hidden geography of the place you are about to enter. Since the publication of her prize-winning memoir Craft for a Dry Lake, in 2000, writer and artist Kim Mahood has been returning to the Tanami desert country in far north-western Australia where, as a child, she lived with her family on a remote cattle station. The land is timeless, but much has changed- the station has been handed back to its traditional owners; the mining companies have arrived; and Aboriginal art has flourished. Comedy and tragedy, familiarity and uncertainty are Mahood's constant companions as she immerses herself in the life of a small community and in groundbreaking mapping projects. What emerges in Position Doubtful is a revelation of the significance of the land to its people - and of the burden of history. Mahood is an artist of astonishing versatility. She works with words, with paint, with installations, and with performance art. Her writing about her own work and collaborations, and about the work of the desert artists, is profoundly enlightening, making palpable the link between artist and country. This is a beautiful and intense exploration of friendships, landscape, and homecoming. Written with great energy and humour, Position Doubtful offers a unique portrait of the complexities of black and white relations in contemporary Australia. This is the second book of her memoirs.… (more)
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I had bought a copy of Kim Mahood's new memoir Position Doubtful before I went to the Bendigo Writers Festival where she was in conversation with Susan Martin. Although I felt that Craft for a Dry Lake (2000) was a bit too long for itself and I lost interest in Mahood's identity issues with her father, nevertheless it was a book in which she wrote memorably about the beauty of the outback, and perceptively about Aborigines especially women. (And it won the 2001 NSW Premier's Award and The Age non-fiction Book of the Year). So I hadn't hesitated to buy the new one, and listening to Mahood talk about it at the festival ensured that I kept it near the top of the TBR pile so that I could get to it soon.

It's a book that repays slow, careful reading, and I was drifting through it when I was unexpectedly able to take up a place at the Indigenous Language Intensive program organised by Writers Victoria. So it was just serendipity that I was learning about ways in which non-indigenous authors could write respectfully about Indigenous people, their culture and history, when I was reading a memoir by an author who has made it her life's work to do just that.

Mahood's family were part of the pastoral industry in the Tanami district and she grew up enjoying close relationships with the local indigenous people who were employed there. Although the Tanami Downs Station is now in the hands of its traditional owners, the Warlpiri, she has retained her connections with them and with the descendants of the Walmajarri stockmen who worked for her father on the station. Torn between modernity and a need for quiet privacy, and her love of the desert country and the interconnectedness of life in indigenous communities, she spends part of each year in the Tanami and Great Sandy Desert region, working on projects with the people, who have given her a 'skin name' and treat her much like one of their own. To the reader it seems that part of her identity is enmeshed with theirs though she doesn't presume to claim any entitlement. In fact it seems to be the reverse: she has acquired obligations, some of which are onerous and tiresome, but others which bring her joy.

Mahood is an artist, a writer and a maker of maps, but the maps she makes are not like the ones in a school atlas. Like the maps my small students used to make about their weekends (instead of laboriously writing a 'journal' each Monday), Mahood maps story. It's a case of identifying the significant places, and showing that 'this happened there'. This means that the maps are not topographical and representational in the way that we are used to.
Horizon and ground, and the numinous ground between them of mirage and reflection...

These words, first scribbled in pencil in one of my drawing diaries from the 1990s, flag a preoccupation that continues to haunt my work. The tension between ways of seeing the landscape - the perspectival view of foreground, middle ground and horizon, and the bird's-eye view of a schematic, inhabited topography - mirrors the tension between ways of being in the landscape. (p.294)
Mahood's cultural and environmental maps are created collaboratively, and take a great deal of time and patience to make.
To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2016/11/26/position-doubtful-by-kim-mahood/ ( )
  anzlitlovers | Jun 18, 2020 |
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Imagine the document you have before you is not a book but a map. It is well-used, creased, and folded, so that when you open it, no matter how carefully, something tears and a line that is neither latitude nor longitude opens in the hidden geography of the place you are about to enter. Since the publication of her prize-winning memoir Craft for a Dry Lake, in 2000, writer and artist Kim Mahood has been returning to the Tanami desert country in far north-western Australia where, as a child, she lived with her family on a remote cattle station. The land is timeless, but much has changed- the station has been handed back to its traditional owners; the mining companies have arrived; and Aboriginal art has flourished. Comedy and tragedy, familiarity and uncertainty are Mahood's constant companions as she immerses herself in the life of a small community and in groundbreaking mapping projects. What emerges in Position Doubtful is a revelation of the significance of the land to its people - and of the burden of history. Mahood is an artist of astonishing versatility. She works with words, with paint, with installations, and with performance art. Her writing about her own work and collaborations, and about the work of the desert artists, is profoundly enlightening, making palpable the link between artist and country. This is a beautiful and intense exploration of friendships, landscape, and homecoming. Written with great energy and humour, Position Doubtful offers a unique portrait of the complexities of black and white relations in contemporary Australia. This is the second book of her memoirs.

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