Review: “Flying Forward with Your Head Facing Back” – Chibundu Onuzo’s ‘Sankofa’

AiW Guest: Zahra Banday

AiW note: Our Guest Reviewer, Zahra Banday, appraises award-winning writer Chibundu Onuzo’s third novel, Sankofa, which was published by Virago Books and went on sale on 3 June 2021. Sankofa has been described by Sefi Atta as ‘a fantastic novel about a woman’s search for her personal, familial and national identity.’ You can find Banday’s previous reviews of Chika Unigwe’s short story collection, Better Never Than Late, and of Irenosen Okojie’s 2020 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing winning story ‘Grace Jones’, here and here.

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“There is a mythical bird we have here, Anna. We call it sankofa. It flies forward with its head facing back. It’s a poetic image but it can’t work in real life.” 

Chibundu Onuzo’s latest novel Sankofa captures, with acerbic wit and Sankofa cover charismatic prose, one woman’s journey to find her identity. The plot follows Anna, a mixed-race British woman who, amidst divorcing her husband and reeling from her mother’s death, finds diaries written by the father she has never known — Francis Aggrey — a man who chronicled his life as a student involved in radical politics in 1970s London. 

From then on, we see Anna — Graham, nee Bain — go on a journey to find this elusive father and, for the first time in her life, explore who she really is and what her identity means to her. 

Anna’s story is written with an astute understanding of how her mixed identity and heritage is perceived by others. Early on in the novel Anna describes disciplining her own young daughter, Rose, in public:

“‘I pulled her to her feet and swiped her bottom…’ ‘Does her mother know you hit her?’ a woman said, marching up to me with her own matching blonde child in tow. ‘Yes she does,’ I replied, too stunned to claim my daughter'” (p. 64).

Throughout, Anna recounts incidents like these that she has subsequently placed within the dark recesses of her mind, while she begins pulling at and ultimately unravelling their threads that have been kept wound tight for so many years.

Anna’s relationship with her own mother is tumultuous, the stormy prompt for the narrative’s detailed, searching journey between her past and the narrative’s present. Flashbacks to her childhood as the only black child in a white family are stark markers of her being othered by the society she has grown up in. That Anna was made to feel painfully aware of her difference is encapsulated by an early scene in which, as a child, she asks her mother if she would have rather given her up at birth. 

Her mother’s response — “You’re just the same as me, Anna…” — gives her a difficult insight into the heart of her parentage, a chasm which she tries to later fill with her absent father: “It was her lie, her special fantasy. Francis Aggrey would have known I was different, would have been proud of it” (p. 20).

Unlike her mother’s ‘fantasy’, borne out of denial and suppression for an easier life, the father Anna constructs for herself would have not pretended those differences didn’t exist: her ‘Francis Aggrey’ would have allowed her to do what her mother did not, embrace those differences, that part that was core to herself, and to welcome them in like an old friend.

Anna is finally able to decide to open that door herself, and this is when the plot builds to its dizzying crescendo:

“To find out at forty-eight [years-old] that my father was alive and a six-hour flight away. I felt giddy, like I had stood up too fast after sitting down for hours” (p. 47).

She does journey to meet Francis Aggrey, now Kofi Adjei — fugitive, freedom fighter, politician with a 30-year rule — on his home ground of Bamana, a country he has helped to build through the very liberation politics she recognises from his 70s London diaries, and whose government she notes in advance of her arrival as being recognisably “nearer North Korea than Sweden” (p. 78).

More dualities abound then through the singular one that Anna must confront in Francis/Kofi. After exhaustive research in UK libraries and universities, Anna is now face-to-face with a man she has only known through scribbles on a page. That “clean-shaven, smooth-skinned” man (p. 4), who had once looked down upon a “gaggle of Englishmen playing revolutionaries”, part of the “bourgeoisie they are trying to destroy” (p. 11), now stood before her with “thick silver hair”:

“…something in his posture was beginning to bend…His accent was upper-class British, a BBC announcer from a certain era. He walked like a soldier with his hands clasped behind his back” (p. 161).

Of the two men she must reconcile as her dad, ‘Francis’ has lived in Anna’s mind growing up; it is his absence she has always felt. ‘Kofi’ is a jarring stranger in his place, her only context for him being the internet, intellectualised research, and the violent and bloody words written about him. 

The sentiment that comes across most ardently in his first words to her is that their meeting is anti-climactic:

“‘Pleasure to meet you, Anna Bain.’ The surname meant nothing to him. We shook hands. I touched my father for the first time” (p. 161).

There is no dramatic display of love from a father who embraces his long-lost child, no tears or cries. In her middle-age, Anna touches her father only to find that he feels like any other man. 

In an earlier, characteristically deadpan scene, Anna recounts to this man her experience of joining the Afro-Caribbean society at university: “they said I talked like a white person, thought like one and worst of all, I danced white” (p. 181). He responds that she is not white. Yet this, a longed-for affirmation, is later withdrawn and contradicted. Angry with Anna for questioning him about the ethical implications of his wealth and involvement in a politically motivated and brutal murder of a group known as the Kinnakro Five, he bites back: “you are my daughter, but at the end of the day you are still an obroni (p. 218); and later, more knowing and so more condemning, “It is the obroni way – to always find African attempts wanting” (p. 280). 

It is also through the lens of the bathetic first meeting that we see “Africa” perceived and experienced from another of Anna’s outsider perspectives, as she negotiates the distance between where she finds herself and the place she has considered her home all her life up until then. From her own Welsh heritage to the London she struggles to belong in, from the colonial England of Francis’ 1970s diaries to the liberated and politicised spaces of Bamana, Onuzo allows us to navigate, with her, Anna’s shifting topographical and metaphorical map. Language, names, labelling, and the associated ways Anna has to discuss these geographies are deployed to further our sense of her naivety when looking for her place in relation to the realities of her newly found father. 

Self-aware of her liminal position in Bamana as his guest, Anna knows that her “wanderings were cliched”; that she is still “a traveller hungry for an authentic experience” (p. 176), for an event that would turn her from an outsider into an insider, a door that she could step through and become Bamanaian, even though she knows that no such door exists.

This is only heightened when she has to navigate the removal of her passport, her questioning and detainment as she attempts to fly ‘home’ from the landscape still so unknown to her, seeing the hand of Kofi — also Francis, her father — is at its very heart.

Reflecting wider mixed-race experiences and the longing for place, Onuzo deftly delivers the blow of its long burden of doubt: there will always be those, even your own parents, who will position you into the service of debate, a binary one — how much of one race you are compared to the other, which given name you most embody, where your heritage really is as opposed to where it is not, and, finally, where your allegiances will come down. 

Accepting that she has spent most of her life confused as to where she might fit, Anna learns to find some resolution. Her most prominent moment of healing comes during the rite of passage ceremony sprung on her by her dad, offered to all of his daughters: she thanks her mother for doing her best — “There had been no one to teach her how to raise a black child…she had dared to keep me where others gave up” (p. 212). She also begins to see herself in relation to the absence she has known: “He was fully formed when I was born, while I have always been missing a father” (p. 265).

Although Anna does become less of a ‘tourist’, she still wishes, in incredibly human and tenderly relatable ways, to simply belong with ease. Without the identifiable and regularised markers of belonging that are so accepted as to be unthought, without the capacity they hold to really recognise oneself in others and to be recognised in turn, real acceptance will only ever come from within. 

Like the proverbial Sankofa bird, Anna has been flying forward while facing the past. She concludes that she must accept and reconfigure the pieces of herself before anyone else will be able to, and turn to the future while leaving the past behind. It is with this newfound perspective that Anna reaches out to her own daughter, Rose, at the end of the novel, inviting her to Bamana to meet “Papa or Sir Kofi” for the first time, as his oldest grandchild. 

Sankofa is a fresh, funny and moving take on the theme of identity and place. Onuzo plunges you into Anna’s acts of self-knowing, crafted with gentle care but harbouring brutal realities. Exploring the markers from which a person makes who they are, Sankofa moves forward to illustrate what we then are able to give and pass on. A fantastic story with a complex understanding of the many narratives that we embody and that give us our places in society, Sankofa is a welcome addition to Onuzo’s deservedly acclaimed oeuvre.

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Chibundu OnuzoChibundu Onuzo grew up in Lagos, the youngest of four children to doctor parents. After graduating from King’s College London with a bachelor’s degree, she received a master’s degree in political science from University College London.

Her first novel, The Spider King’s Daughter (2012), the tale of an unlikely friendship between a male street hawker and a daughter of the corrupt elite that struggles to establish itself amidst the prejudices of Nigerian society, won the Betty Trask Award, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Commonwealth Book Prize, and was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Etisalat Prize for Literature. Her second novel, Welcome to Lagos (2016), follows two soldiers during the Niger Delta conflict. It was published by Faber in 2017 and shortlisted for the RSL Encore Award. Sankofa is her third novel.

In 2018, Chibundu was awarded a PhD in History from King’s College London, and elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, as part of its “40 Under 40” initiative.When not writing, Chibundu can be found playing the piano or singing.

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Zahra Banday is a graduate of English Literature at SOAS, University ofzahra-banday London. 

She works in Advertising, helping global clients find new and interesting ways to promote and enhance their brands. Literature, film and art are some of her great loves.

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Hardcover, eBook and downloadable audiobook copies of Sankofa can be ordered here. Watch this space for more to come on Sankofa, Onuzo’s single for the book, “Good Soil” and chats about process…

Chibundu tweet



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