If one is born between worlds, can the worlds be sewn together again?
The questions at the core of Chibundu Onuzo’s “Sankofa” are both broad and personal. They wonder at the tenuous connection of lost family, the ever-present and caustic pall of racism, the rejection or acceptance of one’s heritage.
Anna was born in London to a white mother and an African father. She never knew her father, Francis, a student born in the fictional African country of the Diamond Coast. He left for home unaware of Anna’s existence, leaving nothing for her except a diary, which Anna finds after her mother’s passing.
The dam of the past breaks and a stream, a river of lost memories, comes to Anna. In the swift current of Francis’s writing, she grows to love the man she never knew. He is proper and intelligent but susceptible to the political influences of other students. He finds lodging as a boarder in a white family’s home and meets Anna’s mother, then young and quietly formidable.
In his diary, Francis recounts the romance — the awkwardness and shame of it at first, then the secret and thriving spark of it. But that’s all, a few pages of a man. There must be flesh and blood somewhere, and Anna resolves to find him.
“Sankofa” is straightforward in its structure and voice. We meet Anna in a point of limbo, separated but not divorced from her husband, having lost one parent but discovering another. The arc of the story is clear from the start, from unsettled disconnection to the grasp of self in newfound heritage.
But the novel’s success is in the complications of self perception, the tightrope of race, the image versus flawed reality of family. Anna learns that her father had changed his name to Kofi Adjei, fought for the liberation of his country from British colonialism and led the new nation of Bamana as its first president — or as its dictator. She buys a plane ticket.
“What have you discovered in Bamana?” Anna’s estranged husband asks her on the phone, a week into her trip.
“‘I’m white,’ I said.”
“Obroni. That’s what they call me here. It means white person.”
In England, Anna is Black. But in Bamana she is called “half-caste” and “obroni.” Where she endured slurs and hate in England, here she is treated as white, as culturally ignorant and privileged. She fits in neither world.
The novel builds to the meeting between Anna and her father, now aged and retired from office. It’s a risk to lay so much weight on that single dynamic, but Onuzo plays it gracefully. Kofi Adjei is a powerful, tense figure, bordering on pensivity and violence from one scene to the next.
He rejects Anna at first, saying, “I am almost sorry to see (you) in distress over what is a complete fabrication.” But before she leaves the country, he invites her back, having performed a paternity test with a glass she used at lunch.
And yes, that’s sketchy. He’s a dictator. He’s rumored to have had political enemies murdered. At one point, he prevents Anna from returning to England by having her arrested in the airport and thrown in jail for the night. That’s where one of the guards strikes her.
Every so often, the story does seem absurd. It’s a strange contrast to what is otherwise unaffected prose. But Onuzo heightens the drama to poke at a central question: Can you still find home in a flawed parent?
The man that Anna met in Francis’s diary is changed, replaced by this domineering and strict patriarch. But she knows the other version of him, the past that was once him. In moments he comes through. He speaks of Anna’s mother, how she saw and admired him, unlike others who fetishized him for his race.
“You make her sound like a salve for your ego.”
“Not that. She was a balm to my heart.”
What Anna finds is not unbounded love and renewal, it’s simpler and more real: peace in acceptance. Her father is alive before her. He takes her out to the country, to a spiritual guide who will perform the coming-of-age ceremony she would have had in another life. In a dream state, Anna sees her ancestors on the bank of a stream, her mother and grandfather whom she knew alongside her father’s line she has only now gained.
“Sankofa” may not top any best-of lists this year, but it stands clear and adamant — a success in its story. Occasionally absurd, the novel reads well and asks the right questions.
Daily Arts Writer Julian Wray can be reached by email@example.com.