Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 22, 2021

Sankofa (2021), by Chibundu Onuzo

‘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.’ (p.278)

Unlike the fictional African country in which this novel takes place, the sankofa is a real symbol, and has its own Wikipedia page, which explains that the symbol is often associated with a proverb which translates as “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”  In Africa, and in the African Diaspora and African-American context, it asserts that it’s important for Africans to reach back into ancient history for traditions and customs that have been left behind and the need to reflect on the past to build a successful future.

I did not know this when in the pages of this novel I came across this reproof to Anna.  I misread it as an example of a powerful African man wanting to jettison the past in order to move forward, rather than as a man refusing to confront all of his past, not just the deeds which make him feel proud.  Which makes this novel even more interesting!

Anna is a mixed-race Londoner, brought up by her white Welsh single mother who’d told her nothing at all about her African father other than his name and his country of origin, Bamana.  But in an interesting twist in a novel full of interesting twists, Bronwen Bain had kept the diary of her lover Francis Aggrey, and Anna finds it after her mother’s swift and unexpected death.

Anna’s life is in a bit of a mess.  She gave up a potential career as an architect for a ‘shotgun’ marriage, and dabbled in art but abandoned it.  When the novel opens she’s an empty nester with nothing to do now that her daughter Rose is living an independent life.  In the wake of her husband Robert’s affair, divorce is on the cards, but she’s lonely because she has no friends other than Katherine who wants her to join the church.  What is the reason for this?  Late in the novel Anna hints that it might be a lack of confidence, caused perhaps by her mother’s stoic refusal to acknowledge her racial difference.

We couldn’t speak about my childhood without me getting angry.  It puzzled her.  What had she not done?  What had she not given?  A sense of rightness, a sense of self. It was nothing when you had it. You hardly noticed it. But once it was missing, it was like a sliver of fruit on a long sea voyage, the difference between bleeding gums and survival.  (p.103)

(But — nicely ambiguous — Anna also recognises that her mother’s unconditional love gave her other qualities not shared by the step-siblings she meets in Bamana.)

Anna also learns that the mother she had privately patronised as having achieved little in her life had, despite low paid menial work while also supporting Anna’s aspirations, somehow managed to save up and buy the council flat in which they lived.  It turns out that it’s the sale of her mother’s flat that gives her the funds to travel to Bamana.  This gives her the opportunity to travel alone for the first time in her life so that she can ease her curiosity about this long-absent father who, she discovers, was radicalised by other students and went on to play a crucial role in the independence movement in Bamana.

NB Please be aware that quotations from this novel include racist language.

Onuzo uses this plot to explore questions of race and identity, revealing the difficulties that Francis experienced as a young student in London in the Sixties.  From the diary, Anna learns that he became a lodger with Bronwen’s family in the context of numerous racial slurs:

I do not know how to write in a book like this.  I am not used to talking to myself, but where else will I keep my confidences?  A student drowned himself last week.  Ghanaian boy with mother and family back home in Accra, and he threw himself off a bridge because someone called him a n—r. One time is nothing.  N—r, c—n, d—ie — you hear it like a mosquito flying past your ear.  But a year of travelling in a crowded bus with an empty seat next to you, of old landladies opening their doors and quivering at the sight of you, ‘Francis Aggrey? I thought you were a Scotsman’, ‘Francis Aggrey, I thought you were white’, and the bottom of the Thames might begin to look like home. (p.5)

Anna is cautious.  She wonders if her mother has shielded her from something discreditable.  But from the pages of this diary she comes to like this young man, and she has shared some of his experience when walking into an affluent space, a jewellery store for example or a gallery.  

Cue side glances tracking my movement, nervous and on edge.  I tried to explain it to my mother once. ‘Don’t be so sensitive,’ she said. (p.5)

(In another irony, Anna’s high-achieving daughter passes for white, having inherited her philandering father’s pale skin. Anna considers teaching her daughter about her African heritage, but realises she doesn’t know enough about it, and Rose thinks that these days no one cares anyway.)

In London Anna knows about a woman crossing the road to avoid you. A shopkeeper who did not notice you were next in line.  But in Bamana she experiences the flipside:

Everywhere I turned, I was reminded of my relative paleness.  Sellers called out to me, Obroni, obroni, obroni, come and see. I was as conspicuous here as I had been in my childhood. (p.147)

Anna also learns that she has absorbed the Western gaze, interpreting so much of what she sees through the prism of Western judgement.  The father-daughter relationship is difficult and not just because her existence was unknown to him.  She encounters both hostility and friendship from her high-achieving step-siblings, and her father doesn’t recoil from using his power to teach her a lesson he thinks she needs.  It comes as a surprise to both of them that Anna does not need his approval.

He takes every opportunity to show off his achievements, but finds that she is unimpressed:

‘I wanted to show off something I had built.  Something Francis the visionary had built, but even this does not meet with your approval.  It is the obroni way — to always find African attempts wanting.  You said something earlier, that you are not my daughter in the way Afua is my daughter.  What did you mean by that?’

‘I didn’t know you as a child.  I’m not afraid of you.’

‘My children are not afraid of me.’

‘Are they not?’

He smiled.  ‘Always stirring up trouble.  You should have been a revolutionary.’

‘In London I’m a nobody.’

‘I find that hard to believe.  A woman bold enough to fly all this way to meet me, to stay on alone at the request of a stranger, to challenge me at every turn.’ (p.280)

I have noted before that we don’t have a term like bildungsroman or coming-of-age for the experience of mature-age enlightenment.  What I really liked about this novel was the economical way in which Anna learns about herself, her parents, and the way the world is, without the ambiguities falling into false resolution.

Highly recommended.

Author: Chibundu Onuzo
Title: Sankofa
Design by Sophie Harris — LBBG; Sankofa bird illustration by Ethen Fener of Courier Design Co.
Publisher: Virago, 2021
ISBN: 9780349013145, pbk., 294 pages
Source: Kingston Library

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