By Chibundu Onuzo
“Sankofa,” the third novel by the Nigerian writer Chibundu Onuzo, follows Anna Graham, a 48-year-old, mixed-race Londoner drifting toward middle-aged ennui. Her mother has recently died; she’s separated from her adulterous husband and sleeps in “sexless pajamas … facing the space my husband once occupied”; her workaholic adult daughter may or may not be struggling with bulimia. The novel opens as she discovers, under a false bottom in her mother’s trunk, a decades-old journal kept by a man named Francis Aggrey, the father she’s never known.
Its contents proceed to reshuffle her life, in the same way that an anagram, or “Anna Graham,” reshuffles the letters of a word to make a new meaning. The setup might feel gimmicky were it not for the deftly executed twist: Francis Aggrey, she learns, is the former president of a (fictional) small West African nation, Bamana. He stepped down a decade earlier after 30 years of increasingly authoritarian rule. Anna goes to the British Library to research her father and learns from a man she meets in the cafeteria that Francis was known in Bamana as the “crocodile,” and was alleged to have been involved in the 1988 murder of student activists, the Kinnakro Five.
Anna reads in Francis’ journal about his treatment as a Black African university student in London in the 1960s: being called the N-word, and “old landladies opening their doors and quivering” when they meet him, having expected a Scotsman based on his name. These accounts validate Anna’s own experiences of racism growing up in a council flat in 1970s London, experiences her Welsh mother minimized in a misguided effort to protect her. Something was lacking in Anna’s childhood: “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.”
Francis’ journal goes on to recount his growing politicization under the tutelage of a provocateur by the name of Ras Menelik, who educates him about the exploitation of his countrymen in British-owned mines. Lodging in the house of Menelik’s secretary, Francis strikes up a love affair with her sister — Anna’s mother — until he is called home to his dying mother’s bedside. Back home he becomes politically active in the northern part of the country, where the British diamond mines are located, and he eventually leads the country’s liberation effort. He never learns about Anna’s existence until she travels to Bamana to find him, nearly 50 years later.
Onuzo, who was born in Lagos and lives in London, brings this fictional country and its ex-dictator to life with economy, precision and satirical bite. In the Bamanaian Embassy, cooking smells are “smuggled in clothing and hair.” The skyscrapers in the capital are “javelins aimed at the sun.” On a guided tour through the country’s slave forts, a Bamanaian couple pose inappropriately underneath “the door of no return,” through which the enslaved passed to board the waiting ships to take them to the Americas. Unlike the ancestors of the solemn African American tourists in the group, Anna notes, “our ancestors had not been sold.” She later rides in a golf cart through the theme park Aggrey has built in the middle of the forest, to secure his legacy — complete with “museums, a television studio, a cinema, a zoo, a water park and a cable car ride.”
Part of the novel’s delight lies in Onuzo’s paralleling of stories: Francis Aggrey’s political coming-of-age, documented through excerpts from his journal, runs alongside Anna’s own transformation from suburban housewife to global citizen, growing ever more aware of the murky ethics of power along the way. The novel, named for a mythical bird that flies forward while facing backward, explores the possibilities and limits of evaluating one’s life choices retroactively. After they meet, Aggrey tells her she sees the world like an obroni, a white person, and that she can never understand what it’s like to be African. Anna forces him to acknowledge how far he has strayed from his own youthful idealism. With her anagrammatic take on the experience of the African diaspora, Onuzo’s sneakily breezy, highly entertaining novel leaves the reader rethinking familiar narratives of colonization, inheritance and liberation.