Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 32, 1992
Edited by Jenny de Reuck & Hugh Webb

Magic Realism as a Postcolonial Strategy: The Kadaitcha Sung

Suzanne Baker

The colonial expansionist programme of the eighteenth century saw white settlers intruding into the landscape and lives of the Aborigines in Australia, altering forever their traditions and their culture. The ideology of colonialism positioned the indigenous occupants of Australia as primitive, pagan and savage, thereby allowing their material and spiritual culture to be denigrated and destroyed by the invaders. In a fairly recent development, Aborigines are now challenging white-constructed versions of history, and attempting to write themselves back into the landscape of Australian life.

In applying the term 'postcolonial' to contemporary Aboriginal writing, one can find oneself being challenged by critics - Hugh Webb1 for example - who problematise the term if it is seen as signifying that the 'colonial' in Australia has ended, something most Aborigines would strongly deny. For the purposes of this paper, however, I use the term 'postcolonial' to imply a position occupied by the Aborigines from which to speak out against the oppressive and tyrannical reign of colonialism - past and present - in Australia. Postcolonial literature not only attacks colonial attitudes, but also seeks for alternative positions for the indigenes to occupy. One effective strategy of this enterprise is the deployment of the device termed 'magic realism'.

As an indigenous minority in a white-dominated society, Aborigines have found themselves taking up the very language of the dominant group in order to speak for themselves, again something which may be regarded as somehow being complicit with the white intruders. However, refusing to use the language of the invaders would see Aborigines continue to be marginalised and silenced - spoken for, and by whites, rather than themselves. The political agenda for any such marginalised group, therefore, is to appropriate the dominant language and use it for their own purposes, while still retaining an indigenous discourse, and many Aboriginal writers have made this particular move.

The majority of early Aboriginal texts were essentially social realist works. This focus on realism in the initial phase of Aboriginal writing was to make a clear statement about the conditions under which Aborigines lived in white Australia: dispossession, violence, poverty, disease, constant harassment by whites, and the day-to-day struggle to survive. In attempting to get this particular message across to white readers, many of these texts were polemical and confrontational, using the mode of realism to make their point explicitly. Robert Bropho's Fringedweller2 is one such example. In the words of Mudrooroo Narogin, many Aboriginal writers are fixated upon showing "what they done to us."3 This is not to suggest that their accounts are exaggerated or untrue, but, as with any diatribe, they often fail in their intended effect. Mudrooroo goes on to claim that Aboriginal writers "shouldn't be so concerned with exposing the crimes of the Europeans any more, it just becomes tedious."4 Other books - Archie Weller's The Day of the Dog5 for example - are bleak and despairing, usually ending in tragedy, and offering little hope to Aborigines for a more positive future.

Mudrooroo is one writer who has expressed his belief in the need for Aboriginal writers to embrace an alternative form of writing to realism as a mode of representation. He suggests that through the Dreaming (the field of creation), a true Aboriginal literature can be developed, and he says:

... I think that in order to create a dynamic Aboriginal literature we have to go back to the very roots of Aboriginal culture, to traditional Aboriginal culture. I feel this is the way to go - that we should be developing our own literature and not just utilising Australian realism ...6.

Certainly Sam Watson, in his first novel The Kadaitcha Sung7 has followed Mudrooroo's advice. In searching for a way to get his message across to white readers, while at the same time offering new and positive paths forward for Aborigines, Watson has indeed gone 'back to the roots of Aboriginal culture', through the use of magic realism. While recognising that Aboriginal texts need to intervene, politically and socially, into the dominant ideology, Watson acknowledges that they also need to be easy to read and understand. In a radio interview with Bob Hume at Murdoch University in June 1990, Watson suggests that works of fiction such as The Kadaitcha Sung should function not only as a message, but should also be enjoyable and entertaining texts. The strategy behind contemporary Aboriginal writing is, thus, to address a popular audience while at the same time to attempt to rehabilitate traditional Aboriginal culture. The mode of magic realism, then, may be one way of doing this.

The term 'magic realism', first used in 1925 in connection with Post-Expressionist art, is more familiarly associated with the Latin-American novel of the 1950s and 1960s. Stephen Slemon points out, however, that magic realism seems to operate, in a literary context:

... in cultures situated at the fringes of mainstream literary traditions ... encoding within it, perhaps, a concept of resistance to the massive imperial centre and its totalizing systems. 8

Slemon also suggests that magic realism can "signify resistance to central assimilation by more stable generic systems and more monumental theories of literary practice."9 It seems then, that magic realism, as an alternative form of literary discourse, may provide Aboriginal writers with a new way of presenting their views. Further, the complex system of mythologies which underpins Aboriginal culture suggests that rather than a conventional European realist mode, with, as Kateryna Arthur observes, "... its linear chronology, its closed plot, its way of presenting character ...",10 magic realism may provide a more appropriate mode of representation for Aboriginal writers.

Magic realism is characterised by two conflicting perspectives, one based on a rational world view, and the other on the acceptance of the irrational as part of everyday reality. Amaryll Chanady11 thus asks why this presentation of two different world views should not be found in any country which contains more than one ethnic or racial group? With its fusion of reality and fantasy, an intertwining of the real and material world with the fantastic and the spiritual, and the implicit suspension of disbelief by the reader, magic realism successfully blurs the distinction between myth and reality. In so doing, magic realism attempts to shake the sense of the normal or rational, opening the way for the reader to question what has previously been accepted as 'real', and therefore 'true'. One of the difficulties previously encountered in presenting Aboriginal mythology as a form of "realism", is that it risked becoming 'exoticised' or reduced to child-like fairy tales. That is, the 'real' mythology of Aboriginal Dreamtime appeared as 'fantastic' to white readers Magic realism, according to Chanady, with its interweaving of realism and fantasy, can avoid this because:

... the presence of a realistic framework ... constitutes the primary difference between magical realism and pure fantasy, such as that found in fairy tales. Not only is the story set in a normal, contemporary world, but it also contains many realistic descriptions of man (sic) and society. 12

Therefore, the juxtaposition of Aboriginal mythology (which functions as the 'fantastic' element), alongside a 'real' history (but presented from an Aboriginal perspective) under the guise of magic realism, may prove to be a more effective technique, both for 'getting the message across' to white readers, and for a revaluing of an Aboriginal past.

The Kadaitcha Sung begins with a sort of epic-like preamble, which outlines the mythical spirit world and the creation of the mortal world, explains the arrival of the white invaders, and links the ancestral spirits to the present-day people. Kevin Gilbert explains that the Dreaming is:

... the first formation, the beginning of the creative process of mobile life/spirit upon and within the land. It is the days of creation when the Great Essence, the Spiritual Entity and minion spirits formed the Aboriginal version of the 'Garden of Eden'.13

This opening, then, is an explanation of the creation myth. The actual story begins with the final initiation ceremony of Tommy Gubba, son of a white mother and Koobara, a Kadaitcha man, into the world of spirits. With Purnung, a giant dingo spirit galloping from cloud to cloud carrying Tommy on his back; Ningi, a bird spirit who talks; and the supernatural powers of Tommy which enable him to walk through rock, the story begins, for the white reader, in the realm of the fantastic. In parallel with the initiation ceremony, however, runs the narrative of three members of the dreaded Native Mounted Police as they describe in horrific detail the killing sprees they have previously been involved in during the Native Wars:

The boongs that we were fighting were real hard nuts ... but we were right on their hammer ... I'd poisoned all their water holes and we kept them on the move so they couldn't get any tucker. Then one morning we struck it lucky and we sprung their gins and piccaninnies. We rode straight in on top of them; there must have been about fifty gins and about twenty of the little fullahs. Well mate, we hit them and we hit hard. (15)

There seems little doubt that this passage signifies the 'real' world rather than an element of fantasy. In true magic realist mode, realistic urban scenes of Brisbane and its surroundings continue to alternate with strong evocations of Aboriginal mythology throughout the book. Realistic detail is essential to magic realism, for without the presence of a realistic framework, the story would become pure fantasy. Descriptions of Brisbane, the police force, the British legal system, and the living conditions of the urban, fringe-dwelling Aborigines, are presented in a straight-forward realist mode. Thus the story is easily recognised as being situated in present-day reality. However, a tolerance for a different perception of the world is asked of the reader. The supernatural is presented without any explanation, as if it were part of our everyday world. It is not even described as something extraordinary: Tommy secretes a death stone within his chest scar and removes it at will; he can read people's minds; he speaks with birds and fish; he levitates, and he can assume the body and mind of another person. To a white reader, the metamorphosis of a man into a goanna is impossible: "the flesh of Bulley Macow glowed even brighter, then dissolved into a pile of black ash from which a black goanna began to take shape." (239) The mode of magic realism, however, allows for the reader's suspension of disbelief. Thus a level of realism coexists with the supernatural from the beginning of the narrative.

As Conniff indicates, magic realism "... has typically been described as an impulse to create a fictive world that can somehow compete with .. actual history."14 So, while The Kadaitcha Sung functions on one level as a kind of 'fantastic' adventure, with Tommy engaging in a quest for the fabled heart of the rainbow serpent; forced to face a wall of blood, "the size of a large door and he knew that he could not touch it or he would perish" (236); overcome the monstrous Bunyatt, "Nearly twice the height of a man ... covered with dull, greyish scale skin ... topped by a flattened, misshapen head from which gleamed red eyes and a mouthful of terrible yellowed teeth" (308); and defeat another Kadaitcha, his uncle Booka; on another level it addresses the 'real' themes of concern for contemporary Aborigines in their day-to-day survival in a white society: constant police harassment, "Coppers grabbed two of our women off the street" (132); deaths in custody, "The black trooper bent over the motionless body of Bulley Macow, took hold of his head and turned it up into the light, 'He dead, boss. He not going to tell us nothing now.'" (239); and poverty and squalid living conditions, "Tommy walked slowly along the edge of Coontown ... his eyes taking in the misery and degradation of the inmates of this perverted asylum. Words of many ancient dialects were thrown drunkenly at him. Blurred faces dulled by cheap wine and starvation passed by in a stream." (109)

If the magic realist text attempts to address not only a white audience but also a black one, the question to ask is how does the Aboriginal author evoke traditional cultural values in a written text? In The Kadaitcha Sung, it is Tommy who raises the question of how to pass on the traditional culture to the new generations:

The tribes had always measured their wealth in the health and abundance of the next generation, who were the guardians and the warriors of tomorrow. Yet children like Poddy had never walked upon their own land and they spoke English too fluently. Their own language was beginning to fade and they knew nothing of their own Dreaming. (261)

Their dreaming was taken from them by the white invaders who mounted a campaign of physical displacement and cultural denigration against the indigenous occupants of Australia. White missionaries introduced a religious faith with a new cosmology in which ancestors and native deities had no place. In the story, for example, what the whites refer to as 'Halley's comet' is, for the Aborigines, the 'Eye of Biamee', but the Jesuit priest dismisses their beliefs as 'rubbish': "These poor devils have only come out of the trees a few generations back, and they still hang on to the old devil-devil taboos ... and we must bring these poor ignorants into the modern age." (89) Mudrooroo points out the inherent cultural differences between the two societies:

As with possibly all conservative communities, the past was the basis for all explanation of the present and the future. This way of placing time and things in a continuum is called mythology by Europeans and is contrasted with the scientific way of thinking which seeks to explain the past from the present. 15

It seems, however, that the mode of magic realism may be particularly appropriate for revitalising the continuum of Aboriginal Dreaming. The reason for this, I believe, lies in the fact that the element of 'unreality' woven into the tale only appears as 'fantasy' or 'magic' to the non-Aboriginal reader. For the Aboriginal reader, it is as 'real' to them as the Christian mythology, with its magical elements of a virgin birth, walking on water, turning water into wine, healing the lame, the sick and the blind, and rising from the dead, is 'real' to white Christians. While the element of the fantastic or supernatural is always evident in the story, the readers still feel that they are in the 'real' world. Thus, while presenting an entertaining tale for white readers, The Kadaitcha Sung renews and revitalises a traditional and 'real' Aboriginal heritage and cosmology.

At the same time, the mode of magic realism provides for an alternative view of history, in this case, from an Aboriginal perspective. After all, as Ariss suggests, the discursive task of Aboriginal discourse is:

... to deconstruct European representations and to represent Australian history as Aboriginal history, history from the perspective of the oppressed, the indigene, rather than the colonialist.16

In The Kadaitcha Sung, what we find is that instead of the classic commentary of the invaders' perceptions of the natives, there is a reversal of perspective, and the whites are described through Aboriginal eyes:

Worimi would never be paid for her labours. Her white lords thought it sufficient that she be given an opportunity to serve the men who had butchered her tribe and delivered her into slavery. (7)

But now that they're settled here and making a permanent camp out of it they rip up the land! They pull down the trees and change the courses of our rivers. This land will be devastated even within our own generation. (132)

The legal system administered within these walls was foreign to the land upon which the court had been built. The migloo ways - their language and their violence - were foreign to the land of Uluru ... a terrible plague that had come upon them with an evil suddenness. (62)

Slemon explains that one of the thematic dimensions in magic realism is the "foreshortening of history so that the time scheme of the novel metaphorically contains the long process of colonization and its aftermath."17 While the main elements of the story take place over a period of just four days, the historical aspects cover the two hundred years of white settlement in Australia. Thus, while the activities of the Native Mounted Police refer to an earlier era (it has been many decades since Queensland had black troopers), the reference to Halley's comet and the trooper's digital watch (19), tie the story to the 1980's. In his radio interview, Watson suggests that this collapsed time frame relates to the Aboriginal Dreamtime, where time and space are nothing, a direct contrast to the European concept of progressive linear time.

Despite the fact that many powerful elements of Aboriginal Dreaming in the book contribute to the aura of the 'fantastic', at least for white readers, the ability of the Aboriginal characters to transform themselves, from tricksters to warriors, and from birds and animals to humans, suggests a superior complex culture compared to that of the whites. There is explicit criticism of those Aborigines who seem to have forsaken their cultural heritage. When Boonger and Tommy see two young black men dancing one of their tribe's "sacred initiation dances" (103) in the pub, they violently attack them. At the same time, however, there is a recognition that some adaptations have occurred simply for the Aborigines to survive:

They do what they have to in order to live. I wouldn't think any less of them for that. (96)

They are still our people. They have just changed their ways so that they can survive. (250)

Even though Aborigines have had to adopt the language of the invaders, it is still mocked: "He used his Jacky-Jacky voice, knowing that it appeased most whites" (59); "They felt far more comfortable with the ancient tongue than they did with English" (97); and "I get tired of talking this mongrel language!" (132).

While The Kadaitch Sung began, as we saw, in the fantastic, it ends in a sense of present-day reality. Tommy, as a reward for regaining the heart of the Rainbow Serpent and destroying Booka, has extracted from the god Biamee, a promise of retribution against the whites:

For every one hundred migloo, there had to be one that would know depthless tragedy and sorrow. That chosen one would be ridden by a hunger that could never be satisfied, that single life would be a lasting sacrifice to the land of the people. (310)

Tommy, however, because of his effrontery to Biamee, is stripped of his powers and hanged for the murder of a white policeman, a murder he did not actually commit:

As Tommy Gubba's mortal body was lowered into the unmarked grave, every black man, woman and child on the Fingal Mission stole away from the reserve and walked north - towards their tribal lands. Jelda travelled on horseback, as she was in the early stages of pregnancy. (312)

Tommy, in truth a spirit, is killed, but the book ends with the 'real' people heading back to their tribal lands, taking with them a strong sense of hope and rebirth through the child Jelda is carrying, the son of Kadaitcha sorcerer, Tommy Gubba. This continuing link with the spiritual world fosters a sense of identification with the ancestral past, offering contemporary Aborigines hope for the future, through a renewal of traditional cultural values.

The Kadaitcha Sung, focusing as it does upon violence and cultural struggles, is clearly an intentional intervention into current debates centred around 'versions' of Australian history. Watson himself claims that his novel was written to entertain initially, and to inform in a subtle way, rather than as a political flag-waving. Hoping to reach a broad white readership, "because they're the decision-makers you have to tap into", Watson believes that "it is through the medium of fiction that they will be given a truer perception of what is really happening with Aboriginal people in today's society." Be that as it may, one of the more potent aspects of magic realism as a strategy of intervention for Aboriginal writers may be, as Conniff observes, that it:

... might allow the writer to create in his work ... a fictive order that might somehow ... affirm life in the face of the most brutal oppression.18

Aboriginal writers today are confronted with the task of aiding their people in a continuing struggle for land rights, social justice, and self-determination. The mode of magic realism offers an imaginative and effective means of showing the 'real' living experience of Aborigines in their day-to-day survival, while expressing the tremendous value and importance of their rich and complex 'magic' cultural heritage which continues to inform their unique sense of Aboriginality.

Murdoch University


1 H. Webb, "Doin' the Post-Colonial Story? Neidjie, Narogin and Aboriginal Narrative Intervention ...", in this issue, SPAN, 1991.

2 R. Bropho, Fringedweller. (Sydney: Alternative Publishing Co-operative, 1980).

3 M. Narogin, in L. Thompson (ed.), Aboriginal Voices: Contemporary Aboriginal Artists, Writers and Performers (Sydney: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p.59.

4 Ibid., p.58

5 A. Weller, The Day of the Dog (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1981).

6 Narogin, op.cit., p.59.

7 S. Watson, The Kadaitcha Sung. (Victoria: Penguin Books, 1990).

8 S. Slemon, "Magic Realism as Post-Colonial Discourse", Canadian Literature, No.116 (Spring 1988), p.10.

9 Ibid., p.10.

10 K. Arthur, "Fiction and the Rewriting of History: A Reading of Colin Johnson", Westerly, No.1 (March, ,1985), p.58.

11 A. Chanady, Magical Realism and The Fantastic: Resolved Versus Unresolved Antinomy. (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1985), p.20.

12 Ibid., p.46.

13 K. Gilbert, Inside Black Australia: An Anthology of Aboriginal Poetry (Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1988), p.xix.

14 B. Conniff, "The Dark Side of Magical Realism: Science, Oppression, and Apocalypse in 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'" Modern Fiction Studies, Vol.36, No.2 (Summer 1990), p.167.

15 M. Narogin, Writing from the Fringe. (Melbourne: Hyland House, 1990), p.5.

16 R. Ariss, "Writing black: the construction of an Aboriginal discourse" in J.R. Beckett (ed.), Past and Present: The Construction of Aboriginality. (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1988), p.134.

17 Slemon, op.cit., p.12.

18 Conniff, op.cit., p.168.

New: 30 December, 1996 | Now: 11 April, 2015