Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

There are several interconnected themes in Kwaku, among them the struggle for individual expression in a communal society, the conflict between the desire to live in a fictive world and the desire to live honorably and loyally, and the pull of modernity in a traditional culture. Throughout the novel, characters find their lives deeply affected by traditional methods of healing, even when that healing proves ineffective. Kwaku’s relationship with Mr. Barzey develops in the context of the older man’s futile attempts to treat his graying hair yet ends up by centering on the modern art of photography. Later on, Kwaku makes his fortune as a traditional healer. He loses that fortune when the exigencies of the marketplace—the appearance of a rival healer—force him out of the business. Emphasizing the traditional nature of these characters’ lives is the language, sprinkled with Guyanese patois, Heath uses to narrate his story.

Against the backdrop of these traditional beliefs, Heath subtly invokes the economic difficulties created by the modern Guyanese state. Although the novel is not overtly political, there are references to the difficulties of living with an omnipresent ruling party in a country that seems to be on the verge of collapse. Kwaku’s own gradual collapse seems to mirror that of his country, which, like him, is gradually sinking under the weight of its debt. There are rumors that spare parts and cars will no longer be imported into the country. There are people whose traditional occupations have been destroyed by new regulations, such as Kwaku’s dead uncle, a cooper, who was put out of business by the...

(The entire section is 671 words.)