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Chibundu Onuzo’s Sankofa Sparks Self-Discovery and Reinvention

Bareerah Y. Ghani

Chibundu Onuzo’s new novel, Sankofa, is poignant and perceptive in its exploration of grief, family bonds and the intersectionality of race, ancestry and identity. Forty-eight-year-old Anna Bain has recently separated from her philandering husband and lost her mother to cancer. Grief and loneliness lap at her feet until Anna discovers a diary that unveils the student life of a young Francis K. Aggrey, her African father. As Anna reads, her affinity for the man she never knew grows. 

Eager to connect with her African heritage, Anna searches for him, and learns that after abruptly leaving London for his home country, Bamana, her father adopted his middle name: Kofi Adjei. In the years that followed, he went from terrorist to president – and eventually dictator – of Bamana. The more she digs into his past, the more she realizes she is simultaneously “repelled by Kofi and drawn to Francis.” She is also aware that it is Kofi who is alive now – not Francis – and that he is “to be feared, not sought out.” However, Anna is desperate to rediscover herself as more than a housewife, and for her, traveling to Bamana is not just about finding who she is but also proving to herself, her daughter and her almost-ex-husband that she is quite capable of being on her own. What follows is an interesting journey that continues to test Anna’s tenacity to find herself by looking her past in the eye and embracing the present in its light – her resilience to embody Sankofa, the mythical bird that “flies forwards with its head facing back.” 

There are a few elements of the narrative that are underwhelming, such as the lack of exploration of Anna’s experience growing up as a woman of color in Britain, or the insertion of Ken, a man Anna meets during her journey, and his significance to the plot. However, Onuzo makes up for this with her striking prose and an authentic portrayal of what it means to be part of a family. She is judicious in her exploration of the lingering impact of parental abandonment. Indeed, Anna’s wounded inner child is rendered sharply in her voice, and her low self-esteem is well-reflected in her inability to finalize the divorce. This lends Anna a veracity which can only be credited to Onuzo and her skill for deftly breathing life into a character who – in other hands – might fail to command the reader’s attention. Not only did Onuzo keep me invested in Anna’s journey, but she had me feeling the full range of emotions, including surprise at moments when I – a woman of color – could see parts of myself in her. 

Sankofa will do that to you – have you lie in bed at 2 am, feeling all that Anna’s feeling. It’s more than a simple narrative of a daughter looking for her father. It’s a tale of resilience, self-discovery, and a winding search for home. For anyone feeling lost and in search of hope to reinvent themselves, Sankofa is a highly recommended read for this year! 

Chibundu Onuzo

is a Nigerian novelist whose works have been listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Commonwealth Book Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize, and the Etisalat Prize for Literature. She has been named for the Hay Festival’s Africa 29 list as one of the top Sub-Saharan African writers of her generation, and as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in its 40 Under 40 Initiative. Sankofa, her third novel, was published in 2021 by Virago (UK), Catapult (USA), and Narrative Landscape (Nigeria), and is available here. Follow Onuzo on twitter @chibunduonuzo 

Bareerah Y. Ghani

is an MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University. You can follow her on Twitter @Bareera_yg where she usually whines about first drafts and the stress of having an ever-growing TBR list. When she’s not reading, writing or obsessively finding journals to submit her work to, she’s usually watching reruns of The Office or finding new tunes to play on her guitar.

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