Position Doubtful is an evocative memoir by artist and writer Kim Mahood. The book is structured as a series of powerful essays that recount the author’s links to remote communities in the Tanami Desert. Having grown up on a nearby cattle farm with her family, Mahood finds herself drawn back to the region at various points in her adult life. Each trip reveals the “overlapping stories” of the desert, and the uncomfortable truths it hides about black and white relations in Australia.
“The hours of driving through that particular landscape are hours in which I revisit the cultural disjunction within Australia,” Mahood writes. “The gap between the urban, Eurocentric, aspirational heavily-populated south-east corner of the continent and the remote, predominantly Aboriginal, barely sustainable, thinly populated pocket of the desert.”
As the above description of her surrounds reveals, the most striking feature of Position Doubtful is Mahood’s artful mastery of the written word. Her visceral prose transports the reader to the middle of the Tanami Desert, rebutting any prior notions of the desert as, she writes, “subtle, unspectacular, repetitive”.
The beauty of the landscape is explored through both indigenous and kartiya (local language for “white person”) perspectives. Her artistic work centres on making sense of both interpretations of country. Mahood embarks on a project to chart the terrain, culture and history of the region in a series of physical maps.. The certainty of Western cartography is juxtaposed with the “fluid and morphing” indigenous accounts of country: dreaming stories, traditional ways of living and first contact encounters.
In recording the stories of the traditional owners of the land, Mahood is astute and compassionate. Mahood refuses to reduce an indigenous woman killed in a drink driving accident to a victim of systemic problems, but rather shows how she is remembered, through ritual mourning known as Sorry Business. A senile elder who soils himself on a mapping excursion is heard respectfully, despite the stench of urine that follows him. In these accounts of her characters, Mahood offers indigenous Australia the dignity and respect that they are often otherwise denied.
Despite both literal and metaphoric efforts to reconcile the two narratives of the land, a sense of unease lingers in Position Doubtful. The distrust between kartiya and indigenous locals is palpable throughout the book. Upon arriving at a creek on the mapping expedition in Testimony, an indigenous elder recollects the story of the mass murder of dozens of young indigenous men at the site.
“People trying to get away that way, along the plain,” he says. “Kartiya round them up with horses…Five men, proper murderer. They bin shootem all here now. Whole lot finished”.
More troubling still is the secrecy shrouding the event, as Mahood discovers while trying in vain to trace accurate historic records. This story is one of many that leave the reader uncomfortably wondering what other atrocities have been hidden, intentionally or otherwise, by overlapping kartiya and indigenous narratives.
The combination of well-crafted prose and deliberate tension is a reflection of Mahood’s skill as a writer and her understanding of the opposing forces that have shaped the land. Ultimately, Position Doubtful is a reflection of contemporary Australia: the beauty and the richness of country and culture, compromised by the systemic denial of the history that haunts it.