A review of Position Doubtful by Kim Mahood

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Position Doubtful
By Kim Mahood
$29.99, ISBN: 9781925321685, Paperback, Aug 2016, 336pp

I’ve made rather a mess of my copy of Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful. The book is so full of insights, beautiful reflective passages I want to return to, and new ways of looking at creativity and the world that I intend re-read, that I’ve dog-eared almost every other page. Position Doubtful is more than a good read—it’s like a reference guide to the soul. Ostensibly the book is a memoir that begins at the end of Mahood’s award-winning memoir Craft for a Dry Lake, working forward in time in a series of essays built around a long running mapping exercise involving a multimedia exploration of place in paint, canvas, words and recorded memories. Every year Mahood leaves her home in Canberra and returns to the country she grew up in – a remote piece of land along the Tanami Desert at the edge of the east Kimberley in Western Australia, often with her artist friend Pam Lofts. Separately and together, the pair visit the cattle station that Mahood grew up on, and the reader is invited along as Mahood works at the Balgo Aboriginal community art centre, creates a range of exhibitions, progresses her map-making project and other environmental projects with the Walmajarri aboriginal tribe of the area. Instead of being a simple memoir however, Position Doubtful brings together many different threads, artistic and otherwise, and presents a literary map of life, love and grief, of identity and community.

Throughout the narrative there are visual images and descriptions of image making, linguistic explorations, and an incorporation/exploration of mythology, geology, geography, philosophy, cosmology, history, music and poetry all working together seamlessly. The story works through a series of overlapping connection points at the nexus of friendships, mentorships, collaborations, and the anxiety/tensions that all integrated into a series of self-contained but progressively integrated chapters. Integrated into every story is a deep and sensitive exploration of the relationship between the Kartiya (white folk) and the Aboriginal communities into which Mahood continues to find herself drawn, to work, to support, and to co-create. Paralleled with that is an ongoing exploration of the distinction and connection between humans and the earth:

These embodied representations of country threaten to overwhelm whatever tentative intuitions I’m trying to formulate, teasing out the root of the difference between how I’ve been taught to interpret the world, and this other multi-layered response to the physicality of place. It’s not so much a visual landscape as a place, a pattern, a story. If you spend enough time you begin to feel the patterns of the country you are walking on. It’s there, under the feet, under the skin. It ripples and shudders, so that the story you tell is subtly altered, the pattern you make is stretched and distorted, and something else shows through. (33)

As the above passage shows, the writing is exquisite, poetic, and very detailed. Mahood’s observations are often minute explorations: a delicate rock formation, the texture of a rope, the sound of grass crunching under the feet, a sunrise, the smell of cooking, or an empathic exploration of a companion’s discomfort. Though Position Doubtful is sophisticated, charged as it is by ethical considerations, the political impact of government policy, and a deep-seated understanding – both visceral and intellectual – of the ethics of colonial occupation, power struggles, and feminist discourse, it’s also a personal journey and deeply moving. In every line, every observation made, Mahood’s focus is a combination of the micro and macro; the personal, cultural, and the political working together to create a work that is engrossing but also dense and rich. The reader is drawn into the situations along with Mahood, in first person present tense, and yet is also continually conscious of the broader context – a universalising principle beyond the immediate:

This is what strikes me as I write down the placenames for this old, pre-literate man, for whom each name is a code, a trigger that will activate a chain reacton of associations he will sing with his brothers that evening – the three old men harmonizing with their clapping sticks, the rest of us falling away, mesmerized and exhausted, while the brothers see out the night in what will prove to be the last time they visit and sing their country together. (128)

Some of the mapping in Position Doubtful isn’t geographical but historical (or a combination). For example, Mahood spends a chapter exploring the Stuart Creek massacre that took place in the 1920s, a story constructed from often conflicting narrative fragments. There are other stories as well, such as, such as the story of the Canning Stock Route, or Lee Cataldi’s cataloguing of Dora Mungkina’s language – the last of the Ngardi speakers. Mahood often dovetails the stories of humans with the natural world: the sound and flight of birds, the motion of the insects, and the way these perceptions dovetail with the dreamtime, appearing in the shape of the landscape, or the line of clouds. This presents a kind of continuous present tense that is both unsettling and intensely truthful, employing the experiential logic of dreams. Mahood’s prose is crystal clear throughout, moving forward in a linear and always with a logical coherency, but the work gets under the skin:

It’s moments like this that shake me loose from my own filtered consciousness into the vibrating strangeness of a world in which there are none of the contemporary reference points I take for granted. (162-3)

The book is full of death, both physical pain and existential crises that shift and reorient the perspective of the reader as any great art does, but always there is the absolutely sense of connectedness between the disparate stories, between the land and the people, and between the different cultures that Position Doubtful explores. Those who know the outback well, and who have had experience exploring the Tanami will find themselves and their experiences made explicit in this beautiful and moving narrative. For those with little experience of Australia’s outbook, Position Doubtful is a treasure – providing such a deep engagement that the human and natural world that they no longer appear as separate entities – Mahood bridges many gulfs in this book, crossing lines and reworking the scenes, but always slowly, sensitively, and building understanding over time. The multitude of ‘selves’ explored in the book create a beautiful dichotomy between the shy observer – Kim, and the unselfconscious, brave Napurrula – Mahood’s skin name given to her shortly after she was born – always linked together by the notion of mapping meaning as a way of opening a dialogue between place and the self, not only through space but through time.