Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 14, 2019

The Kadaitcha Sung (1990), by Sam Watson

The Kadaitcha Sung is a confronting book, and if I hadn’t declared my intention to read it when I announced the 2019 Indigenous Literature Week, I wouldn’t be drawing attention to it by reviewing it at this time.  My purpose in hosting Indigenous Literature Week every year since 2013 has been to celebrate Indigenous Writing with the aim of promoting reconciliation, but this book does nothing to further those aims.

In fact, I might not even have finished reading it. It’s a nasty book, full of vengeful violence, drunken brawls, racist hate-filled sprays, and brutal exploitative sex against women and gays.

So why then was it awarded the National Indigenous Writer of the Year award in 1991? Why would anyone give such an award to a book that depicts Indigenous people in a way calculated to cause disgust and reinforce negative stereotypes?

The only interpretation I can come up with is that the novel is an allegory for the violence visited on Indigenous people since colonisation.  The horrific way that rape is depicted can be seen as a metaphor for the way White people have treated Indigenous people as objects and discarded them afterwards.  But whatever the author’s intent, the Black characters’ violent treatment of women, both Black and White, is highly problematic and revolting to read, as are the gratuitous details of sadistic homosexual rape by and on characters both Black and White.  Sex as an instrument of power is an ugly thing in any context and the very rare instances of tenderness in this book are mercilessly quashed by the demands of destiny in the plot.

Black on Black male violence is equally problematic.  The vengeance visited on Booka Roth, which is the driving focus of the plot, seems to be a metaphor for the punishment due to Indigenous people who were complicit in the settlement of Australia, people who in a different context would be called quislings.  (Update 24/7/19, you can read more about this here). While The Kadaitcha Sung is an angry book, explicit in its characters’ hatred of White Australians, who are expressly stated to deserve any violence inflicted on them, most (though not all) of the violence is between Blacks.

However I am bereft of ideas to interpret a scene in which a brawl erupts because a cabbie refuses service to a drunken Aboriginal woman who has previously lost control of her bowels and vomited all over his taxi.  This episode only reinforces negative stereotypes.

The book begins with a cosmological myth: I don’t have the resources to know if this is the author’s creation or an authentic myth.  It might be an amalgam of several myths, as the myth underlying the ABC’s Cleverman series apparently was.  Whether authentic or a work of imagination, this prologue features ancestral beings in the kind of power struggle common to ancient myths from around the world, culminating in twin brothers Koobara and Booka vying for a father’s favour and the role of Kadaitcha Man, dispenser of retributive justice and armed with the power of life and death. The rejected one takes up a satanic role in the world, while the supreme being Biamee, unable to act, looks on from afar.  Koobara appears from the prologue to have been vanquished, but unknown to Booka he has fathered a son by a white woman.  This son, Tommy, despite his alienation from his own culture, is destined to become the new Kadaitcha man once he is initiated.

By the time the novel begins in late 20th century Brisbane, Booka’s concept of payback against his own people means that over the centuries since First Contact, he has formed an unholy alliance with the infamous Native Mounted Police, and is directly complicit in the dispossession of Indigenous people in general and massacres in particular. So, just as Booka believes that he is entitled to extract vengeance from those he thinks have wronged him, Tommy, heir of the Kadaitcha man, is commissioned by the ancestral spirits to kill Booka.  To do this Tommy has magical powers, the assistance of a mentor called Ningi, and a priapic death spirit called Junjurrie.  Oh yes, and there’s a set of Kundrie stones which confer power, and Tommy has to retrieve the eighth one from Booka in order to restore powers to Biamee. (In that respect the skeleton elements of this avenger plot seem to follow a Superhero movie script. But Superhero movies are all based on simple binaries from ancient myths about Good v Evil anyway.)

As with books featuring magic realism, the reader has to suspend disbelief every time manifestations of magic occur in the otherwise brutal realism of the plot.  The reader also has to buy into the underlying theme of vengeance as a legitimate driving force for behaviour, and is confronted by the idea that innocent individuals can be marked for death because of the sins of their fathers before they were born. Thus every migloo (White person) is guilty and deserves punishment; any theft is justified because the migloo stole the land; and Black Australians don’t have to recognise White Law because White Australians don’t recognise Black Law. The ‘logic’ of this point of view is expressed by contrasting the capital punishment meted out by a court of law to Bulley for the murder of one White policeman, while the murder of hundreds of Black men, women and children in numerous massacres has gone unpunished.

(Assuming that I have interpreted things as the author intended), I am not sure that all readers will recognise the book as an allegory.  In fact, I doubt if many would persist in reading The Kadaitcha Sung.  I think it’s been written to be horrific because what has happened to Indigenous Australians is horrific, and perhaps Watson felt that readers should know more about the reeking truth of it.  Maybe Watson just couldn’t contain his anger and frustration about the denial of Australia’s Black History and wanted to shock people into recognising it.  Nevertheless I regret that I spent $50 on a hate-filled book that was (for good reasons IMO) out of print and hard to find.

OTOH it would be fascinating to know the inside story of Penguin’s decision to bring it to publication, eh?

You can download a review by Maureen Fuary in the Australian Aboriginal Studies journal (1993, no 2) here. She expresses similar concerns to mine, but recognises the book’s importance.  We part company when she writes that it cannot be dismissed by not reading it.  Indigenous people have every right to be angry about past and present wrongs, but I can’t see any merit in advocating retaliatory racism, hatred and violence, because that offers no solace, no way forward and no hope. To me, The Kadaitcha Sung seems like the literary equivalent of ‘hate speech’.  (It’s for that reason that I haven’t quoted anything to back up my interpretations: I don’t want to offer any means of spreading Watson’s words to extremist groups and the like).

I have, as always, shared my honest response in this review of the book, but I’m aware that as a non-Indigenous person, some might say that I have no right to pass judgement on it in the way that I have.  My response to that could be that I’ve read a great deal of Indigenous literature, but never encountered anything as unpleasant as this novel.  However, I’m open to hosting an Indigenous review of the book, (subject to the review meeting my style guidelines and family-friendly language because this blog is recommended as a resource in many school libraries).  Use the Contact form on the About page if that’s what you’d like to do.

PS Thanks to Titian at Kingston Library, — whose help was above and beyond the call of duty when the reference book I needed was out on loan — I have been able to check the PEN Macquarie Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter) to see if The Kadaitcha Sung is included in it.   Titian enabled me to access a digital version of the relevant page.  An excerpt from the prologue for The Kadaitcha Sung is in the anthology, with a profile of the author, but there is no commentary about the novel to guide its interpretation or explain its significance.

Update 4/6/22 I am reading a biography of Richard Wright in which the biographer Hazel Rowley discusses the publication issues and reception of his ground-breaking novel Native Son. Her analysis suggests that Watson’s novel has some elements in common with Native Son including an unflinching portrayal of African American violence.  Rowley suggests that this negative portrayal in an angry and powerful novel was intended to confront ‘Uncle Tom’ literary stereotypes and to show that structural racism traps its protagonist into patterns of behaviour.  Though the book as first published as a ‘Book of the Month’ was edited significantly to make it less confronting, its reception was mixed.  It became a bestseller but it was controversial.  Pertinent to my response to The Kadaitcha Sung is not the critical response or the commentary by US Whites,  It is the African American response to Native Son that is relevant: there were those who thought it was honest and brave to portray the reality of African American life, and there were those who were appalled because they thought it denigrated African Americans and reinforced negative stereotypes. It seems to me that, as I say in my review, The Kadaitcha Sung is similarly nasty and brutish for a purpose, and its message will likewise be received by readers in a variety of ways that can’t necessarily be attributed to their race.

Since writing my original review, I have also found another perspective to balance mine. at Workers Bush Telegraph.

My offer to host an Indigenous review of this book remains open, subject to the conditions outlined above.

Author: Sam Watson
Title: The Kadaitcha Sung
Publisher: Penguin, 1990, 312 pages
ISBN: 9780140111729
Source: Personal copy, purchased from The Grisly Wife, $50.00

Availability: out of print.


  1. Literary Comrades,

    So, we’ve come to the end of Indigenous Literature Week. I’ve enjoyed reading the blog posts and some of the readers comments. The response to the different book review is just a testament to the great work you’re doing Lisa to promote and celebrate Australian Aboriginal, Maori, and other first-nations literature and writers.

    Activist, educator, and author, Sam Watson, is a respected figure in Australian literature. If I’m not mistaken, his novel The Kadaitcha Sung was recently put back in print. I’ve glimpsed comments on the novel on the Goodreads website. It revealed mixed reviews. One reader thought it was good while others were stunned by the violence, homophobia, racism and sexism. I also skimmed Maureen Fuary’s review of the novel. As you stated Lisa, she also found Watson’s text to be unsettling.

    A writerly strategy that Watson seems to employ effectively is his use of magical realism elements in portraying the ongoing dilemma of good versus evil. I haven’t read the author’s work yet. What is good about the reviews is that it can foster critical discussion on the aftermath of colonization on aborigines in Australia from white, indigenous, and other ethnic readers. As an African American woman of Caribbean ancestry, I feel compelled to read literature that explores the lives and experiences of people whose race, culture, and environment is different from mine. Reading literary texts by Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors informs my understanding of indigeneity where I can draw similarities and distinctions from my living experiences. I’ve learned about environmental and social justice as it pertains to First Nations people globally.

    I’m sorry Lisa that you didn’t have a good experience reading The Kadaitcha Sung. You provide thought-provoking ideas on what Sam Watson’s possible literary, cultural, and political motivations were in tackling issues of race, gender, class, sexuality, colonialism, and violence. I would love to learn from your blog readers who have actually read Watson’s novel think about the issues you identified as problematic Lisa.

    As I read your blog post Lisa, it brought to mind the documentary, Black Panther Woman (2014). The author was featured in the documentary where he briefly discussed his involvement in the Black Panther Party chapter in Australia. He also commented on his regret for not speaking out on the mistreatment of black indigenous women in the Black Power Movement which was due partly to his youth and attention to the social, political, and economic priorities of the party.

    Lisa, your review has prompted me to conduct brief research on Mr. Watson’s activist work and other published writings.

    I hope that reader who aren’t familiar with indigenous literature to consider reading it. They will learn a lot.

    May your work Lisa continue to thrive and draw new readers.


    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks, Sonia – I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I wish you had your own blog because I’d love to read more of your thoughts from the wealth of reading that you do.
    That’s a very interesting bit of information from the Black Panther movement, and it seems relevant to interpreting this one too. I’m not a scholar of Indigenous writing, just someone who’s very interested in it, and I’d love to see what others make of this troubling book. Perhaps if it is more widely available that might yet come to pass.
    This is a good opportunity to thank you, Sonia, for your support of ILW. It really is appreciated:)


  3. I am most interested in your commentary Lisa. This kind of novel is always important because of the issues it raises and can bring knowledge to many even though it is confronting. I remember reading Richard Wright’s Native Son a violent story of a poor African American. Though difficult to engage with it was worthwhile and gave me another view of what it means to be outside the dominant culture. The recognition of our colonising effects on the Aboriginal peoples is well over due and I will try to locate this book. After watching The Final Quarter just yesterday I was shocked by the treatment of Adam Goodes a successful Aboriginal man in the community. Some days it is unbearable to think of the condition of too many of his brothers and sisters.I believe until this country has the courage to face the horror of its colonisation then we are impeding our opportunity to become the best country we can be. You are so generous and brave in your reviews and long may it continue.


    • Fay, I’m very happy to send the book to you, conditional on you posting it onwards if I get an offer from an Indigenous reader to review it. If you’re ok with that, let me know your postal address via anzlitloversatbigponddotcom and it will be on its way.


  4. Sorry Lisa, this was one of a bunch of reviews I put to one side while I was working, and was slow getting back to. It’s difficult to comment when the Indigenous world, and the dysfunctional parts of it in particular are so far outside my experience. I’m guessing Watson wanted to present a warts and all view as he saw and no doubt experienced. I’m only surprised that more Indigenous people aren’t angry about the situation they find themselves in.


    • I agree entirely about anger being justified, but rattling a cage isn’t always an astute thing to do. I don’t think this book would win many friends for the cause.


  5. This is honestly a very disappointing and ignorant review, but unsurprising given that it’s done by a whitefella. Imagine not doing ANY political or historical background research or reading on either this book or Sam Watson, for that matter. The Kaitcha Sung is marketed as “fictional”, but it’s actually depicting the reality of what was happening to Murris in Queensland around the 80s, as well as what the police and politicians were doing at the time. The characters may not be given the names, but anyone active in the political scene in Queensland would be able to point at the politician’s and coppers being parodied and depicted in this novel. The Kadaitcha Sung is heralded as a work of Murri excellence because of its very real depictions of both the racial tensions in QLD at the time, the Aboriginal struggle for freedom, the politician’s and police’s corruption and actions. It contains rape, sex, violence, and brutality because that was what was happening. Watson is not condoning any of it – he’s very clearly depicting what the Queensland political landscape was like and the experiences of the Murri community.

    Calling any novel that isn’t naively expressing some sort of unconditional solidarity “hateful” or full of “hate speech” is pretty immature. Your inability to digest Blakfullas rightful anger, hurt, and – again, I reiterate – retelling of white violence, supremacy, police brutality, and oppression without being personally victimised says more about your own internal racism and compliance than whatever moral failing you believe Sam Watson to hold. Clearly, your misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the book is your own fault – The Kadaitcha Sung was nominated for a Victorian Premier’s Literary award, not something they’d give to a novel filled with mindless violence or hatred. Your ignorance of the historical and political context behind The Kadaitcha Sung is your own failing, and not a burden for Watson or any other Aboriginal person to bear.

    If whitefullas can’t handle us talking about YOUR history and YOUR treatment of us or any piece of literature depicting the real political and historical events and environments that surround political and marginalised communities, might I suggest you stick to Harry Potter and other more palatable and gentle literature.


    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Remy.
      I don’t usually publish comments that are abusive (of me or anyone else), but I’ll let this comment stand and readers can make their own judgements about it.


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