Listening is harder than you think
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 19: Re-imagining Australia
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Kim Mahood
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Kim Mahood's biography and other articles by this writer
On the varnished surface of the table at which I sit to write someone has scored the three quarter view of a naked girl looking over her shoulder. It has a certain copyist facility; the hand spread coquettishly on the hip is surprisingly well drawn, proportionally correct, with the angled jut of wrist-bones allowing for the space between forearm and hand that is left out by amateurs. The artist has botched the face with too much detail, the mouth too high and pursed, the nose a shapeless blob. He has given up altogether with the eyes, producing a kind of lewd squint. Beside the figure the word ‘CUNT' has been scratched in scrawling capitals.
The annexe in which I stay when I live in the community was built several years ago as temporary accommodation for the builders contracted to erect a number of new houses. When I first moved in there was a poster on the wall, larger than life size, of a pouting blonde in flimsy underwear, airbrushed to such saccharine perfection that she might have been created for a comic strip. For a time I left her there, companion to the nude inscribed on the table, twin genius loci of generic male fantasy and a reminder of the contradictions of this place. The young women here are black-skinned, dark-haired, already overweight from fat and sugar, underemployment and early pregnancy. In the end the pouting blonde's vacuity irritated me too much, and I used her to light my winter fire-drum, watching with satisfaction the vapid blue eyes flame briefly before curling into ash.
In the distance I can hear the hum of the generator and the unmuffled roar of a vehicle driving up the hill. I can guess who it belongs to, leaving the community at this hour of the morning. Over time one develops the ability to identify individual vehicles by their roars, whines, squeals and clunks.
‘Community' is shorthand for Aboriginal community. I have just returned for the fourth year to spend several months here, my compromise between the need to revisit and my inability to live in this world. As always the first days are daunting, my body registering its revolt by becoming sluggish and sleepless, my mind dissolving into helpless ennui. As always I ask why I put myself through this dislocation. Why can I not be content with the life I've created half a continent away, anchored in friendships, work, camaraderie, the rhythm of gardens and seasons, conversations that arc and segue through the architecture of ideas. To leave that and return to this is like leaving a good marriage to revisit the troubled passion of a consuming love affair. Except that this passion pre-empted the marriage, a blueprint laid down in childhood, irreconcilable and inescapable.
Fifteen years ago I made what amounted to a pilgrimage back to this country in which I'd lived as a child and teenager. Precipitated by my father's death, it was a journey into grief, memory, and a confrontingly changed present. The grief and memory found their resolution through the book I subsequently wrote. But the present remained insistent, my sense of being implicated in it re-ignited by the power of the country and the recognition that for me a life without Aboriginal people in it was a life that lacked a central core. That presence was not an abstraction. It was the families and individuals with whom I had old connections and the places that infused their lives with meaning, as they had infused mine when I was growing up.
At least part of the motivation for these return journeys is the search for an authentic voice to tell the story lodged at the centre of my preoccupations as an artist and a writer. Thoreau wrote, ‘Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still.' This is my bone. It feels sometimes as if it is attached to my own body, that I am gnawing through meat and sinew to reach it. It is buried under the skin of the country and embedded in the flesh of its people.
How does place construct the psychology of the people who live in it? And what happens at the interface between a people whose lineage goes back to the ancestral beings who created country, and a settler people whose ancestry belongs to another hemisphere?
It seems to me that this is at the heart of Australian cultural reality, pushed further here than in any other country because the gap is so much greater. And yet, and yet ... all of us have in the lineaments of our nervous system and the infrastructure of our bodies the legacy of ancestors whose survival and sense of being were inextricably bound to their capacity to interpret place.