When Sue Woolfe was writing her latest novel, The Oldest Song In The World, she told her many friends across the world that she might be leaving the country. "I feared anger from all sides from people who felt I have no right to write the story," recalls Woolfe, whose fourth novel, her first in nine years, is a lyrical and somewhat risky exploration of the disconnect between Aboriginal and white culture that was born out of her own experiences living in a desert community for over a year.
"There's been an unspoken prohibition against novelists in particular, setting their novels in desert communities. And I totally respect that Aboriginal people must tell their own stories, but when I got back to the city, I just heard such nonsense talked about desert communities. Memories were burnt into me, so I started to write them down."
Woolfe is no stranger to risk. Ever since she penned her 1996 bestselling Leaning Towards Infinity, she has been regarded as a risk taker on the page. Acclaimed for its lyricism, originality and bravery, Leaning Towards Infinity won the Christina Stead Award for Fiction as well as the 1997 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book South East Asia and South Pacific Region.
Six years later, Woolfe sealed her literary reputation with her 2003 novel, The Secret Cure, which is currently being adapted for opera. In her creative writing classes at the University of Sydney, too, Woolfe is renowned for instructing her students to "write dangerously". Yet when it came to writing The Oldest Song In The World, she says: "I felt I wrote in a kind of terror. But I have my heroine going into the community like I did, a white person knowing only one culture, and being bombarded with amazement by another. And that, I think, is many people's experience."
It also accounts, in part, for the way in which The Oldest Song In The World manages to hold a mirror up to the ongoing thrum of well-meaning, but often ill-informed, comment about "the Aboriginal question" that plays out at dinner tables across the country. Yet at the same time it probes the underlying reasons for that disconnect as it follows the efforts of Kate, a white, 30-something linguistics student, to lay the ghosts of her past to rest.
Mired in the unresolved mysteries of her childhood on the Hawkesbury river, and her struggles for love and recognition in the city, Kate fails at her studies. Given one last chance, she is sent by her professor into the central desert to record the Poor Thing song, a song known only to an unknown dying Aboriginal woman and thought to contain an ancient piece of grammar.
Plying its way between the watery remembered world of the Hawkesbury river, and the luminous dusty beauty of the desert, the novel's genesis dates back to 2005. Woolfe had by then already embarked up what she calls her "river novel", drawing on her own experiences on the Hawkesbury River, when she decided to accompany her 18-year-old daughter into the desert around Alice Springs where she had landed a work experience job in a health clinic.
"She was far too young to go by herself, and I thought, 'I'll write my river novel up there', never thinking of the irony of that. So we went for two weeks and ended up staying for a year-and-a-half."
Even now that her desert memories and her river novel have, thanks to years of assiduous research and writing, coalesced into The Oldest Song in the World, Woolfe speaks of her desert experience as "life changing." So too, is the act of writing fiction. "Its part of how I see things. I write to think through something, I actually live through my characters."
Brought up as the only girl in a family of five boys with a older artist father - "quite Victorian in his ways" - Woolfe says: "I felt I didn't have a right to speak or to write, so I came to writing late. But I had been skirting around it...I was creeping up on my vocation, waiting until I had the courage."
The Oldest Song in the World (Fourth Estate, $29.99).