Book of the Month: Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo

 Welcome to the Book of the Month! Our Book of the Month series on this website is where I take you on the journey of my favorite book that month, or perhaps, it is more accurate to say the most significant book I read that month, or the book that stood out the most. I think of it as TIME's person of the year; it is not always heroes, it can sometimes be a villain. So while I wouldn't necessary include a book I outright hate, I may not alway select the book I loved the most that month. I wonder if that made sense. Welcome. 

I am really hoping for a short and sweet post this month. The book for this month is Chibundu Onuzo's Sankofa. I have always followed her, in the sense of being aware of someone. Interestingly, I have never actually read any of her three books. She is what you call a multi hyphenate creative: she sings, dances, writes, and has a Ph.D. Oh to be young, black, AND gifted. In any case, I was excited to pick up Sankofa.

It is about a biracial woman in her 40s, recently separated from her husband, with a grown-up daughter, and having just buried her white mother (who singlehandedly raised her), in search of identity, family, purpose, and belonging. After she buries her mom, she is searching her mother's belongings when she randomly finds clues about the African father she never knew. His diary as a student chronicles his foray into radical politics in 1970s London. She discovers almost immediately that he eventually became a dictator of a small nation in West Africa and... he is still alive. She decides to track him down, and the entire book takes us on this journey as it opens us to multiple worlds but mainly from Anna's (the protagonist) point of view, as this is written in first person.

This is a beautifully written novel that reminds us of the nuances and complexities of life. I enjoyed the pace and thought the storytelling was both engaging and brilliant. It is interesting to watch Anna stumble, be so timid and confused, but also sometimes be a little fierce and fearlessly. At first, the juxtaposition is a little jarring before you realize a) isn't that life? No one is one thing b) she is finding herself almost at the same time as we are finding her.

Of course, with a story that centers the experiences of a biracial woman in England and Bamana (the fictional West African nation), it is almost impossible to not discuss race and racism. So don't accuse me of making everything "about race". It just is. Unlike most books that pack many themes, this doesn't overwhelm the reader. Instead, you are interested in dissecting these themes alongside the author. One could almost effortlessly guess Bamana was modeled after real life Ghana. I loved the differences in the dialogue, way of life, culture in England versus Bamana. Without giving anything away, I will say there was no overlap in the description of both settings. It takes a good writer to do that.

It's interesting also from the point of view of those who have always been curious about their ancestry or their progenitors or even just a parent, because it's a risky endeavor. What happens when you do find that father or mother you've always been so desperate for and realize they do not meet up to the expectation you had? I'm neither confirming or denying that this was the case for Anna. I'm saying it was a possibility the reader gets to think about as Anna begins the journey. Ultimately, what matters is the core belief that human beings are flawed and to approach everyone with this in mind; thereby extending grace towards them. Our standards are too high nowadays: we want people to be flawless, to have perfect ideologies, to think perfectly. You can both be in awe and disgusted by something. I think about people that condemn extravagance of certain sort but would most likely fall prey to it the moment it's dangled before them or if they taste it. 

There is a part of me that first wondered, to what end? It is tempting to ask the person who continues to seek for an absent parent, why look for someone who doesn't care that you exist? Why glorify an appendage you have very well survived without? Anna's daughter encapsulated the response to this very well:

"Dad says we should leave you alone. We can't understand because we've always had a father."

How apt. Some things you can never understand. You can never understand a child's yearning for a father when you have always had a father. It's why even those wicked absent fathers who dangle their love before their kids—who would sometimes give their children attention and other times withdraw it— still have children who yearn for them. It's why even then such children can't resist their fathers. 

"A child can long for a parent in a way that a parent can never  long for a child. He was fully formed when I was born, while I have always been missing a father."

How brilliant. What a perfect depiction of those who grew up without a parent: the constant yearning which they never ever let go. 

I honestly can't think of something I don't like about this book. It is moving, a little funny, and touches on deeply important subjects

This book would make a great film. But it is written as a book. The author doesn't pander nor does she write this with the hope of it becoming a book someday; it's a novelist's novel. This is especially important nowadays when most writers write their novels with an eye towards a movie deal.  She doesn't do that. She just tells a great story. I love it.  

I hope you do too!