Imagine the document you have before you is not a book but a map. It is well-used, creased, and folded, so that when you open it, no matter how carefully, something tears and a line that is neither latitude nor longitude opens in the hidden geography of the place you are about to enter.
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 Indigenous 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 landscape.
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.
‘Position Doubtful leaps straight onto the shelf occupied by the great accounts of inland Australia. Theatrical, confessional, masterly descriptive, it is hard to find one word to sum up the achievement. Possibly it lies in the word character: in the brave character of the author herself, and in the spacious, beautiful, and unforgiving character of the Australian landscape and the people who dramatically take on its shape in these pages.’
Roger McDonald, author of Australia’s Wild Places, When Colts Ran, Mr Darwin’s Shooter, The Ballad of Desmond Kale
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‘There is something profound about the directness and clarity with which Kim Mahood writes about her art, and her life, in particular her relationship with the land she grew up in and on, and her relationship to the indigenous people who have lived on that land much longer than she. As Mahood writes of — quite literally — building a map that is both geographic, social and cultural, you feel that she has, ever so gently, shifted your view of the world. Position Doubtful is a remarkable, intelligent and mature work. I really loved it.’
Sophie Cunningham, author of Warning: the story of Cyclone Tracy, Geography and Bird
‘Kim Mahood is an astonishing treasure: an accomplished artist and writer who is equally well-equipped to navigate both Aboriginal and settler Australia. Her lyrical yet unsentimental memoir is a story of honouring the knowledge that two cultures have mapped upon each other, a lesson the entire globe needs to learn.’
William L. Fox, Director, Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art
‘[Mahood] is a talented writer whose mastery of the language is absolute. The combination of an artist’s eye, a mapmaker’s precision, and a wordsmith’s playfulness makes for a work of captivating beauty … a significant and timely work.’
‘Mahood is a writer of country. Her chapters unfurl like the ribbons of red dunes. She says “this is a kind of love story”, and so it is, a love of land, not purchased acreages, but country, birth country. Apart from family and close friends, she says, “there has been no other love in my life as sustained as the one I felt for a remote pocket of inland Australia”.
Country can get its fingers around your entrails, particularly if it owns them. That grip makes your movements cautious with the knowledge that, while you might move away for a time, the elasticity of your own gut drags you back.
Mahood is dragged back. It can be excruciating reading the words of a non-Aboriginal person recording their impressions of a brief visit to Aboriginal community, but Mahood belongs to country and it blesses her with that most refined human sensitivity, doubt. She is not tempted to improve or judge the communities of her country because she prefers to love them; the whole buckled, lovely and jumbled chaos of the land.
The rich pulse of country makes the heart quake with recognition. Position Doubtful has the scale and delicacy of desert and records genuine Aboriginal voice and emotion. Its breadth means that it is frequently visited by death but Mahood records those deaths with solemn grace while continuing to rejoice in the vibrance of the land with a calm and dignified joy.
A book for people who love this country as if it were their mother.’
Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu, Fog a Dox, Convincing Ground
‘Position Doubtful attests to an eye that is unfailing and a lifetime of looking … She sees what she sees, and comes to her own conclusions … Powerful.’
Australian Book Review