While surveying the Tanami Desert in 1962 for a stock route, Kim Mahood’s father chanced upon a prominent sandstone hill – “the best landmark for thirty miles around”, as he later wrote. Yet the aeronautical map he was using labelled the hill as “Position Doubtful”. This didn’t, he observed, “augur too well for the rest of the trip”. It did, however, provide his daughter with a resonant metaphor for, as she puts it, how non-Indigenous Australians “move through and occupy the country”. It’s a metaphor that for decades she has been exploring through poetry and books such as her first award-winning memoir Craft for a Dry Lake and now Position Doubtful, as well as the mapping project at the heart of the new work.
Mahood grew up in the Tanami on her parents’ cattle station. Indigenous women who knew her from infancy gave her the “skin” name Napurrula when she was just a baby. She preferred hanging out in the camp with the station’s Aboriginal stockmen than in the homestead. So, although kartiya (“white person” in the language of country), she grew up between two cultures. Mahood has spent the past several decades physically moving between them as well. Each year, she leaves her home near Canberra to spend several months in communities close to where she was born, her great project the creation of a unique series of maps that represent collaborations with scientists and Indigenous community members, including artists.
Layer by layer, sometimes dot by dot, the maps chart the intersections of geography, culture and history in the Tanami. They show the marks of white settlement, the tracks of Dreamtime ancestors and the evolution of the natural landscape, and record the lives of its people. Mahood calls the Tanami a “secretive desert, subtle, unspectacular, repetitive” yet “dense with overlapping stories”. They include those of the Canning Stock Route, of massacres and the “unintended consequences” of the equal wages bill of 1968 on Aboriginal participation in the cattle industry. The land that seems empty to those who don’t know it has such overspill of story that Mahood sometimes struggles to find a place for it all. Just “puttem”, an Indigenous elder instructs her, “You can fixem up later.” So, she writes: “I puttem.”
Mahood brings a formidable intelligence to her work as a writer and an artist, but also a sly humour here and an almost uncanny talent for observation – whether of language; terrain; birds and animals; her own flaws, self-doubts and foibles; or the antics of her fellow human beings, black and white. We meet a fellow kartiya, John, who “is in the barefoot and full-bearded phase of his evolution as an anthropologist”. Then there’s the group of Aboriginal women she was driving somewhere when one wanted to stop in at a shop first: “Lulu gets out and goes into the shop. Monica gets out and goes into the shop, comes back, and gets into the car. KL gets out and goes into the shop, Wendy gets out, Monica gets out, and then gets back in. I start the motor and begin to drive off slowly. They run for the car, two fat ladies and one skinny one. All of them get in, and we leave town.” There are also glimpses of outback Gothic in descriptions of camel skeletons at a salt lake and a mummified cow in the dunny of an abandoned homestead.
She visits the decaying homestead with another kartiya artist, her friend Pam Lofts, with whom she travels to the Tanami to camp and make art. Lofts is interested in feminist and postcolonial theories, and these colour her experience of the desert and inform her art. Mahood sees the world differently and has a more intuitive (if equally rigorous) approach to her own art-making. When Lofts asks Mahood to model for a series of photographs in the desert in a long skirt and high heels, it pushes her up against another kind of boundary, leaving the tough-minded author feeling “in some obscure way” that she has been made to impersonate “a feminised self who has never existed”.
Mahood’s skin name of Napurrula is in some ways another kind of costume. She describes Napurrula as a “sisterhood, a set of relationships and responsibilities” but also “a mask” that allows her to inhabit “a more robust and unselfconscious being” than “the persona that carries me through my other life” back east. As comfortable as she is in her “skin”, she also recognises that she will never fully “cross the barrier of whiteness”. She belongs to a tribe of whitefellas that “blunders” around the margins of Indigenous life, “peripheral and irrelevant”.
And yet that’s not quite right, either. Journalists reporting on the mapping project keep asking her to move away so that, in her words, “the photographer can get a picture with no whitefellas in it to disturb the integrity of the image”. One of her Walmajarri collaborators finally snaps: “We wouldn’t have this map without her.” The situation both amuses and irritates Mahood. Although she has no desire to be in the photos, her exclusion “distorts the reality that our stories are enmeshed, and can’t be separated. Which is what our map is all about.”
Towards the end of the book, Mahood is confronted with the (unrelated) deaths of two women who mean a lot to her, one from each of her worlds, and as a result of these losses, each of those worlds becomes a little smaller, a little stranger. Mahood, the loner who finds the “relentless sociability” of desert communities challenging, and yet somehow vital and irresistible, calls the last two chapters of Position Doubtful “Unstable Horizons” and “Undertow”.
She writes that sometimes it feels as if “the time I’ve spent in the desert has compromised my access to the deep psychology of my own culture – replaced the collective unconscious with the shadowy glimpses of a place-based collective consciousness, and sentenced me to wander in the borderlands between Jung and Geography.” By charting these wanderings with such eloquence and scrupulous self-examination, she has created in Position Doubtful a true map of the heart. CG
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 20, 2016 as "Kim Mahood, Position Doubtful". Subscribe here.