Harmonious connections

Sue Woolfe spent one and a half years among indigenous people in the Northern Territory, having set out for what should have been a two-week sojourn.
Sue Woolfe spent one and a half years among indigenous people in the Northern Territory, having set out for what should have been a two-week sojourn.

TO THE untrained eye, the central Australian desert is as empty of hope and joy as the car park of a shopping mall after closing time. But give it time, Sue Woolfe advises, and the eye comes to discern its contours.

A spindly gum stands, a lone wrinkle in the dazzling blue distance; in morning sun an ant crosses the desert's sandy floor, its minute frame dwarfed by its long-legged shadow.

The desert insinuates itself, Woolfe says, in a way city people who rule their landscape can never understand. The breathless noon heat smites speech and energy. In the silence it's possible to hear the rustle of a snake, and the desert colours - golds, russets and mauves - are so extraordinarily vivid they stick fast like flour and water to memory.

''I was only saying to somebody the other day, there are several things in your life which are real turning points,'' says Woolfe, a blonde, pixie-faced woman wearing strawberry-festooned gumboots. ''Well, for me, it was when I first went to university because suddenly I was not only permitted to read books but I was expected to, when I first fell sexually in love, when I became a parent, when I became a writer and when I went to the desert.''

The extremities of Australia's interior and the blunderings of well-intentioned whites salt Woolfe's fourth novel, The Oldest Song in the World, a departure of backdrop and topic for the award-winning novelist who has tended towards familiar urban settings in her long fascination with frustrated genius and the bonds between mothers and daughters.

Woolfe's first novel in nine years begins as a familiar fish-out-of-water tale before gradually opening out into a novelistic exploration of the disconnection between black and white cultures via a heroine marooned by personal adversity. Woolfe's Kate is a student linguist sent to a remote Aboriginal settlement to record the Poor Thing song, a hymn from the Dreamtime known only to an unidentified dying woman and thought by Kate's university to contain ancient fossilised grammar.

Knowing only a single word of the Djemiranga language, Kate stumbles in her early attempts to discover the identity of her deathbed singer, clashing with Adrian, a well-intentioned if tyrannical maverick, with whom she suspects a childhood connection.

''I had that same culture shock,'' Woolfe says. ''I was saying those same awkward and bizarre things that Kate does. There's a lot out there in the desert but you have to have the patience to see it.

''The problem is that white people blunder into these communities, like I did, without any preparation whatsoever. After a long while, many of them learn a few words but learning a language is not learning a few words, it's a whole way of thinking.

''Many white people go out there wanting to do good, and ashamed and saddened by the poverty, and then find this astounding antique culture where the people are so non-materialistic and generous and sharing that their white notions of how to alleviate poverty are thrown out the window.''

The interior first beckoned in 2005, two years after publication of her third novel, The Secret Cure, while on sabbatical from the University of Sydney, where she teaches creative writing. Her daughter, Kitty, had been offered work experience in a remote Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory and Woolfe accompanied her for an initial two-week sojourn, then stayed for more than 1½ years.

In that dry brush country, nursing children in her lap, Woolfe would muse for hours on what drew the eyes of indigenous women to the horizon, how greatly Aboriginal culture valued companionable silence over idle chit-chat, and the complex web of kin that leaves little room for friendships.

All the while Woolfe wrote, without once inciting curiosity from the locals about what she put down on paper. It occurred to Woolfe that this was a truly non-materialistic, paperless culture.

''I remember walking up the road and it was a sunny afternoon, not too hot, and all the women of the family were lying on a verandah, a lot of undulating bodies, and they were chatting about this and that, and I had this immense sense of what a lonely society we are,'' she says.

In the red desert, Woolfe wrote of a girl whose childhood is lapped by the currents of a broad silver tidal river. Returning to her holiday home beside the Hawkesbury River, the author's pen would follow her roaming thoughts into the desert sands. It would not be for another five years, however, that the narrative for The Oldest Song in the World would reveal itself, drawing together these disconnected fragments.

Such intuitive storytelling creates an ''anxiety-making process'', says Woolfe, who credits her partner, Gordon Graham, for urging her on.

''I'm never thinking about plot until very late in the piece,'' she says. ''In fact, with Leaning Towards Infinity, the plot wasn't finalised until four days before the printing.

''The plot was there but not the overarching idea that it was a woman writing a biography of her mother. With The Oldest Song in the World, it wasn't until I was in the back of a ''troopie'', travelling back from Wadeye with two linguists, one a song specialist, that I asked, 'What if one of the songs you recorded was the oldest song in the world?' I just said it speculatively as we were bouncing along, then I thought, 'That's what my heroine does'.''

Woolfe made her name as a novelist bringing her keen intellect to the absorbing field of maths and neuroscience. Leaning Towards Infinity, about an untrained female mathematician who discovers a new number, remains her most successful book, having won the NSW Premier's Prize for fiction and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best book in the Asia-Pacific region.

Praise was less consequential to her than the permission Leaning Towards Infinity gave Woolfe to write. Seven years later came The Secret Cure, an eclectic tale of a scientist disguising herself as a cleaner at an Australian laboratory to research a cure for her daughter's autism.''I'm not one of those people who believe I have a right to write,'' Woolfe says.

''I suppose what you try to do while you are writing is feel legitimate about doing this ridiculous, time-consuming and apparently useless activity that consumes most of your waking life. If people say, 'That's all right, that's OK', you're relieved because they probably won't insist you do something more useful.''

It is the discipline of linguistics that fires Woolfe's imagination in The Oldest Song in the World. Woolfe is convinced that as language is a mirror of cultural distinction, it is a key, though not the entire answer, to forging mutual respect between the cultures and potentially improving health and educational outcomes.

''Who do you think will be angry with me?'' she asks, acknowledging the trepidation of any writer traversing curly black-and-white issues. She need not fear. If Woolfe presents a sympathetic view of the disempowered Aboriginal population and portrays whites as a mix of do-gooders and cultural carpetbaggers it is because, she says, she wrote only from what she saw or heard about.

Having overcome dyslexia and narrow working-class expectations of women, Woolfe knows better than anyone the totemic importance of words.

''I was the dopey kid who couldn't read until I was about eight. Somehow I didn't get the connection that a mark symbolised a sound. I hadn't told my parents this terribly humiliating thing that I was always sent down to the back of the class to play with teddy bears.

''One day I said, 'Dad, I cannot read' and he sat me up on his knee and took out his art pad and he drew an apple and said, 'Ahh'. By the time he got to 'carrot' it was such an epiphany. It seemed to be almost on that very day that I made those connections I thought I wanted to be one of those people who told those stories.''

After university, Woolfe taught English at high school and then worked in journalism, advertising, film subtitling and filmmaking, and wrote textbooks and documentary scripts either in shy avoidance of writing her own stories or in waiting for the grand book idea to arrive fully formed in her head. It never did, and her first novel, Painted Woman (1989), was started in a whitewashed hotel room on a Greek mountainside, a project of studied ''purposelessness''.

The mystery of writing, which Woolfe explores in The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: A Writer Looks at Creativity and Neuroscience, lies in wrestling words, any words, onto paper. For this reason, Woolfe never has a contract with a publisher: ''I need to let the book take as long as it needs.''

The Oldest Song in the World is published by Fourth Estate at $29.99.

This story Harmonious connections first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.