The map and the country

Place, emotion and memory: a review of Kim Mahood's Position Doubtful

Hi! I’m Hannah James, journalist, writer and editor, and this is where I review nature books, and think about nature-related topics out loud. Thanks for reading!

What I’m reading

“Sunlight shivers in the branches of the paperbarks, white on white, and throws nets of shadow on the white sand.”

I was introduced to this book by Inga Simpson, when I did an online nature writing course she taught through Writing NSW. It was another of those moments when I despair at ever keeping up with all the brilliant books published. This book was published recently, in 2016; it won prizes; it falls squarely in my most-loved topic area - and yet I’d never heard of it. At least I have now!

Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful: Mapping Landscape and Memories is a memoir about the artist and writer’s annual visits to the Tanami desert country where the Northern Territory meets Western Australia - the place where she grew up. Soon after her birth on the Mongrel Downs cattle station, she was given a skin name by the local Warlpiri people, and this history gives her extraordinary access to the country and its people. She embarks on the creation of a series of maps in collaboration with the locals, spurred by her profound love of the country and her opposing knowledge that: “Exploration and colonisation are part of my heritage.”

It’s a task whose difficulty she does not underplay. “The hothouse environment of remote Aboriginal communities brings out the worst and the best in any kartiya [white people] who work in them.” Imperious elders order her around; young people seem “tricky and sullen”; and her mapping - more familiar to the locals in the context of gold-mining than art - means she is caught in the middle of the shift from “the emphasis of looking after and being responsible for country, to the more Western inflection of owning and gaining benefit from it”. On seeing an ochre-painted payback party out to avenge a pub brawl that ended in murder, she is reminded: “There is an irreconcilable core here that we blunder around, peripheral and irrelevant.”

But it’s a task that gives her unparalleled insight into both people and country. When volunteering at an art centre, she meets Tjumpo, a painter who tells her:

“Drought caused his people to abandon their country on the edge of the great salt lake, but to all intents and purposes he lives there still, his old mind marooned in the enchantment of heat and light… The dimensions of his memory have no boundaries.”

She spends time with people who enjoyed:

“childhoods in which the land was the supermarket and cathedral and school and pharmacy, and white men were still a rumour of ghosts.”

Hearing an old, old song, she writes:

“Payi Payi’s song travels along my nerves like neuralgia, triggering an inchoate sense of what it was like to live always in this light and silence.”

Of walking in country with women who tell her the story of the Seven Sisters, she says:

“I have a curious sensation of walking in the shared mindscape of the women who have brought me here. They are themselves in the here and now, and they are the sisters that exist as features of the landscape; simultaneously individual modern beings and the embodiment of ancient collective presences manifest as the sacred geography of their world.”

“A moment of inattention and you’re falling, into the gap between ways of being and knowing, into someone you don't recognise.”

And it’s her maps that are the key to accessing that unrecognisable person, to peer into the gap between white and Aboriginal ways of seeing.

“My own map is an attempt to track this faultline. Its scribbled threads of geography and metaphor represent my own uncertain search, my attempt to infuse the physicality of landscape with the poetics of western psychology.”

Mahood started her maps with the aim of intertwining her knowledge - the knowledge of the white station owner, with roads and windmills and station buildings - with the Warlpiri and Walmajarri people’s original knowledge of placenames, ancestral routes, birthplaces, campsites, massacre stories and creation stories. But she comes to realise:

“A true map doesn’t take you to where you imagine it will. It’s a starting point into the unknown, a nod towards having a plan. It allows you to step out and make it up as you go. A good map is work in progress.”

And so her map will never complete its work of blending the two world views.

“Aboriginal people hold their master map in the stories and songs and embodied memories of place and journeys. Mine is the unfinished map, the search for a moral compass with which to travel the same ground.”

Her genius is in accepting this and finding her own way of loving this country and telling its stories, one that’s deeply rooted in Aboriginal knowledge without exploiting it. (This is something I’ve just (very gingerly!) written about for Australian Geographic - I’ll let you know when it’s published.) I also particularly loved her insight into the artistic process that’s woven through the book.

I’ll leave you with one last quote from this shimmering miracle of a book:

“The salt lake is on the edge of the wild country, a remnant palaeo-channel from the time of the inland seas, when giant snakes of water crawled across the continent, coupled and fought in slow convulsions that shaped the ancient geography of the country. I don’t believe in the ancestral beings, but there’s a space in my mind that registers their shimmering traces. The tremor of their passage moves like a ripple of light along a dune, leaving its trace in a rime of salt flushed into the samphire. It's impossible not to read the country this way, with the voices of its custodians in my ear… I saw the two snakes flying east one morning, lit pink by the dawn. I woke up at Mangkurrurpa and they were directly above me, two sinuous banners of cloud with broad, triangular heads pointing towards the sunrise. For a moment, before my rational mind took hold, I was awake to a world in which everything was animate and felt my heart race with astonishment. When I recognised them as clouds, my sense of wonder was undiminished.”

Position Doubtful was book #97 of 2020. In the past two weeks I’ve also been reading:

  1. Anna Wiener, Uncanny Valley

  2. Dominic Smith, The Electric Hotel 

  3. Naoise Dolan, Exciting Times

  4. Kate Hilton, Better Luck Next Time

  5. Kim Mahood, Position Doubtful

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