Imagine growing up knowing nothing about your father except his name. Maybe he’s a doctor or a banker or even a prolific artist. Perhaps, as in the case of Sankofa, he’s kinda sorta a dictator in a faraway country.
This newest offering from Chibundu Onuzo (Welcome to Lagos) follows Anna, a 48-year-old mixed-race British woman. Her adult daughter is living her own life, her cheating husband has moved out of the house and her mother, with whom she was never particularly close, has been dead for six months. Alone and unsure of who she is, Anna decides to dig into her father’s life, and when she goes through an old trunk, discovers his diary, thus beginning a journey into her father's—and her own—identity.
Here, she learns about a man who came from West Africa to London to study in the '70s. Falling in with a crowd of political revolutionaries, he became radicalized, right around the time he met Anna’s mother. Of her father’s friends in London, Anna remarks, “I was suddenly cautious. What if this diary revealed something discreditable? Some crime he had committed, some fraudulent stain from which my mother thought it best to shield me.”
As it turns out, Anna was right to worry. After a brief affair resulting in Anna’s birth, Francis returned to Africa—the fictional country of Bamana, specifically—and began going by Kofi Adjei, a firebrand who founded a liberation group that promptly became labeled as a terrorist organization. After a brief stint in jail, Kofi was elected Bamana’s first prime minister, a position he held for three decades. (“Thirty years in office was too long,” Anna muses. “I did not know much about African politics, but to remain for three decades in power would surely make him some sort of dictator.”)
Still, Anna resolves to travel to Bamana and meet him. There, she gets to know her new family while desperately searching for an identity, all the while, struggling to reconcile the image she had of her father from his diaries with the enigmatic yet charismatic man she’s getting to know now. Sensing her disillusionment, Kofi remarks, “You came to meet a man in the past. There is a mythical bird we have here, Anna. We call it the sankofa. It flies forwards with its head facing back. It’s a poetic image but it cannot work in real life.”
The bi-continental novel explores issues of power, corruption, racism, colorism, colonialism and more. Perhaps most compelling, though, is the way it explores Anna’s mixed-race identity; She is seen in England as Black and in Africa as white.
With echoes of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Sankofa is a vivid exploration of finding one’s place in the world, while confronting the demons brought on by our parentage.