A fiercely independent writer ‘neither asleep, nor woke’

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By RUSSELL GOLDFLAM

We’re privileged to sit, to read, to talk, to dream and to live in Mparntwe, here on Arrernte country.

And I was privileged to help launch radical cartographer Kim Mahood’s book Wandering With Intent, in which she hunts and gathers her way through the world, sitting, reading, talking, dreaming and living in various countries scattered through the bush of the Australian hinterland.

Kim dedicated her first book, Craft for a Dry Lake, to her father, and spent a chunk of that extraordinary memoir arguing with her father, and investigating the parts of her father that are also parts of her.

This book, her latest, is dedicated to her mother, and maybe there’s even a hint of that in the title: Her mother, Marie Mahood, was also a writer (and Red Kangaroo, in Alice Springs, to its credit, has long stocked Kim’s mum’s books on its shelves), and one of the names she wrote under was Wanda Sterling, Sterling as in silver.

And here, in Wandering, Kim eventually bumps into Wanda, and argues with her, and investigates the parts of her mother that are also parts of her.  It was tough for Kim to write about her dad.  I suspect it was every bit as tough, maybe even tougher, to write about her mum.

Wandering with Intent is the name of this book of essays, but it could just as easily have been titled Wandering with Intensity – Mahood, as her friends all know, is not particularly interested in trivial matters.

Or even Wandering with Tension –  the tension that comes of choosing to live with a foot in lots of different camps, of not signing up to anyone else’s agenda, of being fiercely independent, of being neither asleep, nor woke.

But it most definitely could not have been called Wandering with Tents: Sure, there’s a lot of camping out bush in these pages, but just about all of it is in a swag, under the stars, not cooped up in a tent.

Quite a few of these essays have been previously published, but the one that a lot of people in this room would have read, because it’s become a bit of a guidebook for whitefellas coming up here to work on a remote community, is “Kardiya are like Toyotas”.

It’s still as wry, dry, acutely sharp and painfully relevant as it was when it first started doing the rounds over a decade ago.  And to my mind, some of the most interesting pieces here explore the ground laid out in “Kardiya are like Toyotas”, as Kim puts it in “Notebooks”, the place “where the cultures meet, abrade, enrich and undo each other”.

This book doesn’t fit comfortably into the genre of reconciliation literature (or for that matter, into any genre):  Kim casts her unflinching gaze on excruciatingly awkward encounters, on cross-cultural tensions no-one likes to talk about, the anxiety of the contact zone, that peculiar condition Craig San Roque has identified as the cultural complex, unpicking and unpacking the provocative and bracing new anthropology of scholars such as Emma Kowal and Tess Lea, but without all their po-mo jargon and all but impenetrable academic discourse style.

Perhaps the most ambitious essay here is “Lost and Found in Translation”.  Kim picks her way carefully and courageously over some very challenging ground, choosing her words with great care.

Spending a long time, as she puts it “in proximity to” Aboriginal people out bush, “can tilt the self into a strange borderland, a hybrid form of consciousness that does not belong in either culture.”  And this in turn leads Kim to speculate that there is “a live thing that has become encrypted in the psyche, implicit in the landscape”, which has been “whispering back ever since Europeans first entered the consciousness of the country”.

There’s lots more too:  The elusive night parrot and the misguided people who are bent on questing for it; an illuminating analysis of the Anangu story of the man in the log, which I’d heard before but never really appreciated until now; heart-wrenching, hilarious bush funerals; and, at the end, Kim finds her way, somehow or other, to the heart of her writing, to her mother the writer, whose voice, we realise, is uncannily like Kim Mahood’s own voice. Clear. Plain. Simple? Not so much.

 

This is the slightly edited launch speech for Kim Mahood’s Wandering with Intent (Scribe, 2022), given at Red Kangaroo Books on 12 November 2022.

Author photo by Sam Druce at Reelwire Productions.

Related reading:

Position Doubtful: revealing excavation of our place and times

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