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Flickering Shadows.

Kwadwo Agymah Kamau. Flickering Shadows. Minneapolis: Coffee House P, 1996. 298 pp. $21.95 cloth/$13.00 paper.

If I could, I would gather my race in my arms and fly away with them," wrote Ida B. Wells after learning of the lynching of three friends of hers who ran a grocery store in Memphis, Tennessee. In the wake of their deaths, Wells called for a mass exodus from Memphis as a protest, and her call was heeded. Thousands of African Americans packed and moved west out of the city that, like many other Southern towns, threatened their lives. The desire expressed in Wells's statement is the guiding sentiment behind Kwadwo Agymah Kamau's first novel, Flickering Shadows. This novel, set on an unnamed Caribbean island, is narrated by an ancestor who watches over the village in which he once lived and tries to improve the lives of those he left behind. Though the action of the novel takes place over three or four years, its scope feels epic because we witness the

death of the narrator as the story opens and his reappearance in another human body at the story's end. In addition, the novel's tragic finale is linked to the le gacy of slavery, both in a general historical sense and through a series of flashbacks in which characters "remember" or envision the kidnapping of their ancestors during the slave trade.

Kamau's narrator speaks in Barbadian Creole, smoothly rendered. Having the entire tale, both narration and dialogue, told in this "nation language" (to borrow Kamau Brathwaite's phrase) reinforces the sense that this novel is of and for the people. In an article entitled "West Indian Literary History: Literariness, Orality and Periodization," critic Kenneth Ramchand has identified three distinct stages in Caribbean writing in English. There is an early stage in which one sees "the spectacle of the West Indian writer trying to invent an orthography for the dialect while paying service to the notion that he must somehow show that he knows what the 'correct' English would have looked like," a second stage that began to "clos[e] the gap between the voice that told the novel ... and the voice of the characters," and finally a stage in which the Caribbean writer achieves "literary orality." Literary orality can take many forms, and Kamau's creation of a novel that seems to speak is one such form.

Structurally, Kamau also seeks to link his literary text to the traditions of the folk. He invokes the organization of traditional tales by ending the novel with one of the standard closing couplets of the Caribbean folktale: "Step pon the wire and the wire won't bend / That's the way this story end." Because of the tragic nature of the novel, and the fact that the villagers and the ancestors are not, for the most part, able to change the balance of power significantly, this ending is quite jarring. It marks one of the places where the book's stylistic and conceptual innovations come into conflict with its content.

Another site where this conflict takes place is in the representation of the ancestors. Kamau represents the spirit world as continuous with the world of the living. 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. They can show themselves to inspire fear or awe, and they can assist or injure in material as well as psychological or spiritual ways. These "living-dead," as theologian John Mbiti would have called them, have power but are not all-powerful; they are sometimes wise, but often they behave precisely as they would have when they were alive. There is a hierarchy in the spirit world, and spirits have to learn not to meddle too often in human affairs; otherwise, they will be punished by being bound once again to the wheel of life. Kamau's attempt to humanize the ancestors by investing their lives (well, after-lives) with humor, lust, and dissension sometimes lightens the tone of the novel considerably, but al so confuses its message. What are we to make of the fact that, when the narrator intervenes as a deus ex machina at the end of the novel, his action ultimately proves futile? Can the actions of the ancestors change the course of history, or are the ancestors to be relied upon solely for spiritual sustenance? If their main power is in the realm of the spiritual, why is it important for Kamau to represent their power over the material world?

The agents of neo-colonial rule in Flickering Shadows--the black prime minister Anthony Roachford, who sells his people out, and the colonizing, white American missionary Pastor Wright and his sexually loose wife--are drawn more as caricatures than as characters, and this is one of the weaknesses of the novel. These types are too familiar by now for their caricatures to feel revelatory. In general, the novel's political points fall like hammer blows. Kamau has made an important historical move by incorporating into the novel an event clearly modeled after the U.S. invasion of Grenada, and his rendering of the chaos and confusion of this event for the dwellers on the Hill rings true. Unfortunately, the political inevitability of the invasion makes the novel's trajectory feel predictable.

Flickering Shadows owes its largest literary debts to Paule Marshall's The Chosen Place, the Timeless People and George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin, two novels that deal both with the legacy of slavery in the Caribbean and with the social, political, and economic arrangements of neo-colonialism. Kamau's work does not have the same diasporic reach as Marshall's epic, but he clearly makes reference to the colonial and neo-colonial metropoles and the ways in which their influence disrupts the lives of those who call the Caribbean home. One can also sense the license granted writers, in the wake of Toni Morrison's Beloved, to incorporate African-derived spiritual beliefs and traditions fully into representations of people of African descent in the Americas. (In what seems like a nod to Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust, Kamau has the ghosts of two dead children disrupt the technology of photography to reveal the true conditions of poverty in which the villagers live.)

The ancestors in Flickering Shadows clearly wish that they could "gather [their] race in [their] arms and fly away with them," but even for those with supernatural powers, this is not a possibility. Kamau 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]."
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Keizer, Arlene R.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1999
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