By Kim MahoodNon-fiction Scribe Publications
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.
The judges were impressed by the engaging storytelling style and noted that, on a subject where many non-Indigenous writers become social seers, Mahood shows considerable restraint. She approaches her subject – life in the Tanami and Indigenous knowledge of the land – from an authoritative point of view but never lectures, relying instead on the simple power of her story. Readers can look forward to a compelling introduction to a powerful country.
For more than 20 years now, I have been returning to a tract of country that extends across the Tanami Desert to the edge of the East Kimberley. What began as a pilgrimage to revisit the country where I had spent my late childhood and teenage years morphed into annual journeys that have included artist field trips with my friend Pam Lofts, visits to the cattle station that had been my family home, volunteer work in the art centre at Balgo Aboriginal community, an artist residency at the Tanami mine, and map-making expeditions and environmental projects with the Walmajarri custodians of Lake Gregory. Over this period, I have become gradually enmeshed with the traditional owners of the region.
The place that had occupied an almost mythical status in my childhood was made both ordinary and infinitely complex as it became a necessary part of my life. This remote, mysterious country has become the centre of my enterprise as an artist and writer. Why this has happened continues to tease my mind. Every year, as I make preparations to leave behind my orderly life on the outskirts of Canberra and follow my well-worn track across the country, I wonder what I’m doing, whether any of it amounts to anything, and how I can hope to sustain it, both financially and physically. And every year, at a certain point, I stop asking the questions and start packing the ute.
I am onto my third in a series of second-hand Hilux dual cabs — a model robust enough to stand up to the attrition of the Tanami road corrugations and the directives by my Aboriginal minders to ‘keep going, keep going’ across trackless stretches of spinifex and wattle scrub. My travelling kit is pared down to the essentials that have been established over a couple of decades of trips. I always plan to get special built-in drawers, but there is never the time or the money, so it’s the same battered milk crates — the red one for the spare oil and tomahawk and cable ties, the blue one for the camp oven and the galvanised bucket and billies — the same set of stacking plastic drawers for the cooking equipment and basic foodstuffs, the same toolbox with its eclectic collection of tools, all of which have at one time or another proved their usefulness. I am onto my second swag cover and my third folding table. I haven’t yet got around to replacing the folding chair with the broken leg attachment, which is fine if I take care when I sit down, but there’s a danger it might collapse under one of the large Aboriginal ladies who snaffle it when my attention is diverted. I wrestle the second spare tyre into place on the tray, wondering how much longer I’ll be able to do it. Ditto for heaving up full jerry cans of fuel and water. But I’ll face that when I have to, which is not yet.
The suitcase of clothes, the plastic crate of books and art materials, the laptop and portable document box, the dog bed and the dog — I’m onto my third dog — all go into the back seat, goodbyes are said, and this settled life begins to loosen its hold. The first day is all about making miles, putting enough distance behind us to begin the process of entering the other life. The route I take depends on the time I have, whether or not someone is travelling with me, and what the weather conditions are like. If time and weather permit it, my preferred route is through Broken Hill, turning north at Yunta to Leigh Creek and up the Oodnadatta track, through Dalhousie and Finke, and along the old Ghan route to Alice. But that track is an expedition in itself, not to be done in a hurry, and more often than not I take the shortest route out through Mildura and Renmark, Peterborough and Port Augusta, and up the Stuart highway. I love the drive through South Australia, which is a form of space travel, a reminder of the scale and existential strangeness of this country.
The hours of driving through that particular landscape are hours in which I revisit the cultural disjunction within Australia, a gap that is both geographic and psychological. Retaining an embodied sense of this is central to what I do, since the gap between the urban, Eurocentric, aspirational, heavily populated south-east corner of the continent and the remote, predominately Aboriginal, barely sustainable, thinly populated pocket of desert is the space in which my writing and my art practice are made. This is the improvised life I have chosen to live for the past 20 years, straddling two worlds, settling in neither, trying always to keep alive the awareness of the other world in the one I currently occupy.
What drives me is not a desire to help, to fix or change, but to understand something about my country. The desert took up residence in my psyche when I was very young, in an impersonal, obdurate sort of way that made it impossible for me to form lasting attachments to any other place. A unique set of circumstances has given me privileged access to one of the least-known parts of Australia, and I have set out to learn it in as many of its manifestations and strata as I can discover. It has become the primary relationship in my life, an affair that roller-coasters from heartbreak to euphoria, although in recent years it has become less volatile, settling into the steadiness of commitment and familiarity.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist