Kamau, Kwadwo Agymah 1960(?)–
Kwadwo Agymah Kamau 1960(?)–
Kwadwo Agymah Kamau has lived in the United States since the late 1970s, but won acclaim for two novels about his native Barbados published in the 1990s, Flickering Shadows and Pictures of a Dying Man.Kamau’s fiction explores Barbadian tradition and folklore with lyrical prose that recalls the cadences of island dialect, and in a format that echoes West Indian storytelling traditions.
Kamau attended Baruch College of the City University of New York, where he finished magna cum laude in 1981. Between 1983 and 1985 he worked as a research assistant in the New York City Office for Economic Development while pursuing a graduate degree from the same school. He also held a research assistant’s post in international economic and social affairs at the United Nations Secretariat. After earning his master’s degree in 1985, he spent the following year as a statistician with the New York City Department of Investigation. Hired by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance as a senior economist in 1986, he spent three years in its Office of Tax Policy Analysis.
Kamau then made an abrupt career change and decided to enter the fine-arts program at Virginia Commonwealth University, from which he earned his second graduate degree in 1992. He began writing in earnest, serving as an editorial assistant with the New Virginia Review and contributing to a number of publications. His debut novel, Flickering Shadows, appeared in 1996. The work is set on an anonymous Caribbean island, which is in transition from its longtime status as a British possession to that of independent republic. Most of the action is centered in the Hill, a neighborhood of farmers, craftsmen, and dockworkers. “The community is a brilliant microcosm in which ancient wisdom is juxtaposed with modern naivete, lust with love and pettiness with honor,” remarked a Publishers Weekly review.
Flickering Shadows opens with the death of the narrator, a man named Old Cudjoe, and the story is told by his spirit, one of the “flickering shadows” of the title. “Kamau represents the spirit world as continuous with the world of the living,” observed African American Review writer Arlene R. Keizer. “As soon as people in the novel die, their spirits cross over to the narrator’s side and can then intervene at will in the affairs of the living.” Old Cudjoe is concerned about his grandchildren, Cephus and Inez, and their families, but their preoccupation is with the coming election of the new nation’s first prime minister. A former denizen of the Hill, Anthony Roachford, wins at the polls, but proves to be an opportunist who eagerly allows outsiders with economic and religious goals free rein on the island.
Jonathan Bing, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found Flickering Shadows “reverberating with the densely syncopated patois of its hardscrabble Caribbean setting.” As its plot progresses, a hurricane destroys one community, and Roachford orders a new church erected before people’s homes are rebuilt. Some of Old Cudjoe’s descendants take part in a rebellion to stop what they view as their island’s latest
Born in Barbados; became U.S. citizen. Education: Bernard M. Baruch College of the City University of New York, B.B.A. (magna cum laude), 1981, M.S./1985; Virginia Commonwealth University, M.F.A., 1992.
Career: New York City Office for Economic Development, research assistant, 1983-85; United Nations Secretariat, research assistant in international economic and social affairs, 1984; New York City Department of investigation, statistician, 1985-86; New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, Office of Tax Policy Analysis, senior economist, 1986-89; New Virginia Review, editorial assistant, 1991-92;Richmond Free Press, Richmond, VA, copy editor, 1992-93; freelance copy editor and proofreader, 1993-94; writer, 1994-. Virginia Commonwealth University, adjunct professor, 1989-; judge of writing contests.
Awards: Wall Street Journal award, 1981; fellow of Virginia Commission for the Arts, 1992, 1997; writer-in-residence at Centrum and Ucross Foundation, 1998;Pictures of a Dying Man named one of the Voice Literary Supplement’s 25 Favorite Books of 1999.
Addresses: Home —Richmond, VA. Agent-— Faith Childs, Faith Childs Literary Agency, 915 Broadway, Suite 1009, New York, NY 10010.
manifestation of colonialist exploitation. The island’s slave history is told in flashback as some of the characters experience visions of their ancestors’ capture. Throughout the story, the characters’ links with their heritage and ancestry remains strong. “Kamau,” noted Keizer, “leaves us with a smaller comfort: that the ancestors may be able to ‘plant… a name here, reviv[e] a ritual there, try… to keep the line going, the memory, remind … people of who they are, where they came from,’ to teach the New World children to ‘take care of [their] brother[s].’”
Kamau wrote Flickering Shadows in Barbadian Creole, which lent his prose the inflections and cadences of the West Indian vernacular. Review of Contemporary Fiction critic Rick Henry called the debut “a welcome addition to the growing literature of the region,” and observed that it was less a sweeping political novel than one that tackles larger issues because the spirits such as Old Cudjoe’s, are “moved less by moral outrage at the atrocities than by a more abstract sense of imperfect and sporadic justice.”
Kamau’s second noval, Pictures of a Dying Man, appeared in 1999. It received a more favorable critical reception than his debut. Again, it opens with a death on an unnamed Caribbean island: Deputy Prime Minister Gladstone Belle is discovered hanging from the rafters of his home. It initially appears to be a suicide, but those who knew Eielle begin to re-examine his life and the number of enemies he likely accrued. The work is narrated by a local schoolteacher, Vic, who had an affair with Belle’s wife, Isamina. Vic and Ismania begin to recount their memories of the popular reform politician, and they are joined by his parents, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. “Kamau captures the texture of these diverse voices with unaffected prose and great compassion for his characters,” noted the Voice Literary Supplement, whose editors named it one of their “25 Favorite Books of 1999.”
The characters’ recollections present a vastly different portrait of the deceased, and lead to increasing suspicion that the onetime minister of tourism may have been slain. Belle was unfaithful to his wife, and may have even been involved in a murder to cover up a charge of government corruption. Carl, the husband of one of the politician’s mistresses, provides insight into Belle’s life, as does the: politician’s aging father, Sonny-Boy, who moved to Florida and became a janitor. Belle himself once lived in New York City, where he was evicted from his apartment and may have suffered a nervous breakdown. As the work progresses toward resolution, “Kamau imparts wisdom on issues of race, class, political corruption and reform, and moral decay in this multilayered puzzler about a man whom nobody really knew,” noted a Publishers Weekly review. As one character remarks, “Trying to discover who a person is is like trodding down all kinds of dead ends in a maze.”
Pictures of a Dying Man won Kamau solid accolades from literary critics. If the work, noted Review of Contemporary Fiction critic Alan Tinkler, “were simply an exploration of the paradoxes of an individual’s life, it would be a fine novel,” but the book “gains additional resonance through its subtle exploration of cultural identity.”Library Journal reviewer Lisa S. Nussbaum also commended Kamau’s talents as a writer. “Kamau writes in a lilting, unaffected style with real compassion for his characters,” Nussbaum noted, and termed it “a haunting, powerful, beautiful story.”
Flickering Shadows (novel), Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1996.
Pictures of a Dying Man (novel), Coffee House Press, 1999.
African American Review, winter 1999, p. 724.
Library Journal, September 1, 1999, p. 233.
New York Times Book Review, December 15, 1996.
Publishers Weekly, July 29, 1996, p. 71; August 23, 1999, p. 49.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 2000, p. 171.
Voice Literary Supplement, December 1999.
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