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Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo
Contemporary fiction

Sankofa

by Chibundu Onuzo

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Quick take

A lyrical story of a woman seeking answers abroad and finding the unexpected: her father, who might just be a dictator.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SocialIssues

    Social issues

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_FamilyDrama

    Family drama

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_International

    International

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_MarriageIssues

    Marriage issues

Synopsis

Masterful in its examination of freedom, prejudice, and personal and public inheritance, Sankofa is a story for anyone who has ever gone looking for a clear identity or home, and found something more complex in its place.

Anna is at a stage of her life when she's beginning to wonder who she really is. She has separated from her husband, her daughter is all grown up, and her mother—the only parent who raised her—is dead.

Searching through her mother's belongings one day, Anna finds clues about the African father she never knew. His student diaries chronicle his involvement in radical politics in 1970s London. Anna discovers that he eventually became the president—some would say dictator—of a small nation in West Africa. And he is still alive...

When Anna decides to track her father down, a journey begins that is disarmingly moving, funny, and fascinating. Like the metaphorical bird that gives the novel its name, Sankofa expresses the importance of reaching back to knowledge gained in the past and bringing it into the present to address universal questions of race and belonging, the overseas experience for the African diaspora, and the search for a family's hidden roots.

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Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of Sankofa.
Sankofa

1

My mother was six months dead when I opened the trunk I found under her bed. I opened the trunk on the same day her headstone was erected. Rose, my daughter, accompanied me to the cemetery. I wore black, like it was a second funeral. Grass had grown over her grave, the earth erasing all memory of its disturbance. The headstone was marble, paid for by my mother’s funeral insurance. Rose chose the gold-lettered inscription.

Bronwen Elizabeth Bain

1951–2018

Beloved Mother, Grandmother, Daughter and Sister

Remember me when I am gone away,

Gone far away into the silent land.

The Rossetti quote was a touch melancholic, but so was my mother and, for that matter, so was Rose. We laid flowers, fresh white chrysanthemums. Rose said a few words, addressing my mother as if she were present. When she finished, she turned to me. I shook my head. The practice felt too foreign and fanciful.

Afterwards, we had lunch near Rose’s office, in what my mother would have called a smart restaurant, a maître d’ by the door, thick cloth napkins on the tables. Rose went back to work, and I returned home to retrieve my mother’s trunk from the storage cupboard. The day’s ritual had left me wanting to touch something that belonged to her.

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Why I love it

The symbol of Sankofa comes to us by way of the Akan people of Ghana. Typically represented by a bird with its head turned backwards— it is a reminder to remain connected to our past to nourish and propel us in the present. It is an altogether fitting namesake for a book as brimming with vim and wisdom as this one.

Sankofa introduces us to its protagonist during a moment of agonizing uncertainty. Anna is feeling adrift and unmoored; her daughter is fully grown and she has recently separated from her husband. As she tries to make sense of how she has arrived at this uneasy juncture, Anna begins to rifle through old family effects, hoping for some answers buried in her past. She soon stumbles upon the diaries of the father she never knew and after following the rabbit hole she has dug for herself finds to her surprise that he is alive . . . and potentially the exiled dictator of a small West African nation. This sends her on a continent spanning journey, but the greatest revelations come from the interior. As Anna uncovers hidden parts of her family history, she begins to piece together a deeper understanding of identity, family, and the meaning of diaspora.

This is a special book that deploys every tool at its disposal to explore the big questions and put its characters (especially its lead) through the wringer. Anna is a fully realized character with all of the flaws, contradictions, and above all charms that that implies. And through her journey of discovery, I would contend, the curious reader may just come away with their own new sense of self-knowledge and a greater awareness of the powerful grip the past can hold on the present.

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Member ratings (1,391)

  • Ann A.

    Sugar Land , TX

    I loved Anna’s journey to meet her father Francis/Kofi and how it led to finding her true self and understanding a part of her she did not previously know. She comes to understand and love her father.

  • Lexi L.

    Nashville, TN

    The “good to know” icons almost threw me off; I thought I was in for a heavy, somber story. But at its heart this book is adventurous, full of discovery and growth by a strong, open-minded woman.

  • Donna K.

    Eureka Springs, AR

    Beautiful story of a woman finding the father she never knew. Many things are brought to mind. Things like prejudice, entitlement, power and looking back while pressing forward. An interesting story!

  • Roberta S.

    Milwaukee, WI

    Uniquely woven story looking for roots in middle age. Multi dimensional brave search, finds wildly unexpected knowledge that brings about the capacity for change. We can't imagine without truly seeing

  • Rebecca A.

    Santa Maria, CA

    Chibundu Onuzo writes a moving and exciting story about a woman searching for answers about her absent father. The woman's search takes her on a journey of self-discovery that is beautiful to follow.

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