Academic journal article Antipodes

The Poetics of Ambivalence: A Postcolonial Reading of Kim Mahood's Craft for a Dry Lake

Academic journal article Antipodes

The Poetics of Ambivalence: A Postcolonial Reading of Kim Mahood's Craft for a Dry Lake

Article excerpt

SINCE THE 1990s, A NUMBER OF PERSONAL ACCOUNTS, AUTObiographical narratives, and memoirs by non-Indigenous writers, historians, anthropologists, and cultural critics have attempted to integrate alternative histories and to articulate a troubled sense of belonging in the land that, previously constructed as terra nullius, bears scars of the violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Employing self-reflective and multilayered modes of self-representation, these narratives come to constitute a subgenre that Gillian Whitlock has labeled "white intellectual memoir," positioning this personal turn firmly in the context of the rising whiteness studies in Australia ("Consuming Passions" 13). Such texts incorporate "[w]riting selfconsciously about becoming white, and presenting whiteness as a kind of revelation experienced most powerfully within the self' (Whitlock, "Becoming Migloo" 238).' Not surprisingly, these narratives have emerged in response to an increased production of Aboriginal testimonies (in particular the Stolen Generations accounts) and, as Whitlock further observes, they feature "confessions of estrangement and dislocation, feelings of complicity, shame and guilt, and expressions of contrition and responsibility" (238).2 Contemporary Australian women writers have contributed to this debate by re-thinking the dialectic of whiteness and Indigeneity while foregrounding aspects of gender. Using a particular text, I examine if and how white settler women, who may serve as a bridge between white Australia and Indigenous Australia because of their unique role straddling both privileged and exploited positions, reconcile the sense of "unsettled settlement" through a regenerated engagement with the Australian landscape as well as with the power of Indigenous presence inscribed in it.

Kim Mahood's memoir Craft for a Dry Lake (2000) has been hailed as one of the most complex representations of the Australian Outback (Lynch 75), one that offers a "new history of the frontier" (Ashcroft, Devlin-Glass, and McCredden 167). Framed as a homecoming journey to the Tanami Desert northwest of Alice Springs after her father's death in a helicopter crash, Mahood's narrative begins as a biography of her parents; Joe and Marie Mahood pioneered the region in the 1960s, setting up their own property and cattle business, Mongrel Downs-the "most remote" station in rural Australia (Slater 278). As Mahood drives alone through the country, once intimately familiar yet now estranged due to her long absence, her narrative turns autobiographical. She reflects on a childhood spent on the homestead among her family and both Aboriginal and white staff, and her eventual departure to the city in order to pursue an education and later her artistic career. As she revisits known places, Mahood's perception of the land intensifies, becoming an embodied experience. At the same time, however, her sense of belonging is jeopardized. She becomes acutely aware of the changed political circumstances that, for example, saw the site returned to the custodianship of the Warlpiri people. When she is invited by Tanami Desert Indigenous women to participate in their ceremony, she is confronted with her own understanding of both Indigeneity and femininity. In a cathartic scene, she channels her spatial anxiety into an artistic creation in which she both literally and metaphorically re-maps the exterior as well as her interior landscape. Formally, Mahood's richly intertextual narrative has a palimpsest-like structure that reveals, layer after layer, the intricacies of peoples' relationship to place: the first-person narration of the journey occasionally alternates with fictionalized childhood memories told in the third-person; with fragmented observations (in italics) from Mahood's travel journal; with snatches of her own artwork and family photographs; and with extracts from the diaries of an early explorer and of her own father.

Craft's complexity consists in its ability to simultaneously build upon and write back to several well-established literary traditions. …

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