Chibundu Onuzo’s Sankofa (Catapult, 2021) is one of the best books I’ve read in 2021. It would have been in my top three but for the last quarter of the novel, which I don’t think carries the same power and charm as the rest of the work. Regardless, it’s a fantastic read about family, belonging, second chances, and finding yourself. It also skillfully captures the African diaspora and the nervous conditions of the individuals who left and never returned as well as those who did return.
Anna is a middle-aged, biracial, soon-to-be divorcee who has just buried her Welsh mother. Her father, Francis Aggrey, is from the fictional Diamond Coast. He’d returned to Africa before she was born, and she’d never even seen a picture of the man until after her mother died. While going through some of her mother’s things, she finds a picture of her father and two books; one is a journal written by Francis while he’s in London, and the other is a scrapbook of newspaper articles, carefully cut out and glued by her mother, about the man Francis became after he returned to Africa. Through her father’s words and the collection of articles gathered by her mother, Anna gets the first real image of the man she has been missing her whole life.
Through his journal, Anna witnesses her father’s spiral into radicalism. She also is given intimate details about his relationship with her mother, though her mother has redacted the spicier parts. When his mother dies, Francis returns to Africa, promising Anna’s mother he will return to her and leaving the journal for her safekeeping. Neither of the young lovers know about the life growing inside.
Francis doesn’t return; the radical politics he’d been involved with while in London are given life in the Diamond Coast. He shakes off the cloak of colonialism by dropping the two bookends of his name and using only Kofi Adjei. Kofi is viewed as a terrorist and jailed following attacks on the diamond mines. When he is released, the Diamond Coast is free. He wins the election by a landslide, becoming the prime minister of a new country, Banama.
Anna struggles with the conflicting sides of the man depicted in the two books. She begins researching her father and Banama, becoming increasingly horrified at how Kofi is not the same dreamer as Francis. Kofi is “the Crocodile” while Francis had been the man who had loved her mother. Anna decides to go to Banama to decide for herself.
It’s an emotional journey to healing the fissures of her childhood and the prejudices she faced, to embracing the blackness that her mother and her own daughter can’t understand, to finding out just who Anna is and who she could be. The title, derived from an African proverb about a bird who flies forward by looking backwards, is perfect. The novel is cathartic and messy and beautiful.
Read this book.