Sankofa, The Importance of Returning to Our Roots: A Dialogue with Chibundu Onuzo
Chibundu Onuzo’s first novel, The Spider King’s Daughter, was published by Faber in 2012 and was the winner of a Betty Trask Award, shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and Etisalat Literature Prize. Last year, Dolapo Is Fine, a short film which Chibundu co-wrote and co-produced, won the 2020 American Black Film Festival’s Annual HBO Short Film Competition.
BY SALIHA HADDAD
This interview took place between the UK and Algeria, via Zoom.
Saliha: Good morning Chibundu.
Chibundu: Good morning Saliha.
Saliha: Thank you so much for joining me for this interview, Chibundu.
Chibundu: You are welcome.
Saliha: I keep repeating your name because I love it so much.
Chibundu: (Laughs). Thank you, Saliha.
Saliha: (Laughs). Before I start with the questions, I wanted to say that I fell in love with your story; the premise, the pace, and the surprises along the way as I was reading it. It was hard for me to put the book down. Even before sleeping, I would be thinking, What’s next for Anna? What’s next for Anna?
Chibundu: Thank you very much.
Saliha: Let’s start with the title. It was an unusual title for me. I am accustomed to obvious and common titles. When I looked at the word Sankofa, I wondered what it meant. It already ignited in me some curiosity. So, how did you come up with the title?
Chibundu: It didn’t come to me, actually. It was my sister’s suggestion. I wrote about the concept in the book, because as Anna is going back to find her father, there’s that idea of how to move forward in life. She needs some sort of understanding of where she’s from. So I had already written about the concept of Sankofa in the book, but my sister pointed it out. She felt it was an essential concept in the book, so I thought yeah, that’s a good title.
Saliha: Yeah, that’s what I came to realise, that it means going back to one’s roots, which is what Anna is doing in the book. As you say, we see Anna returning to her father’s country, and she gets in touch with the culture of her ancestors from her father’s side. In a way, there are doubts that those roots are tainted, so I was wondering; is it worth returning to roots even though we have doubts about them? I didn’t get the answer from the novel, did you leave that for the readers to answer by themselves?
Chibundu: Yes, I think that’s something for the readers to decide. If you go back into your family history, you might find things you like, and you might find things you don’t like. But I think it’s important to go back and engage, and then decide for yourself. I think it will always be a mixture of good and bad, just as most things in life.
Saliha: I think the stakes are higher for Anna because of her father’s place in society as a former president, so that’s why it was harder for her to decide.
Chibundu: I suppose for all of us, your parents are your parents (laughs), you know. They’ve made their decisions, they’ve made their choices. Some you may agree with and some not, but for most of us it’s not on the same scale as Kofi. But overall, your parents are your parents.
Saliha: That’s true (laughs). Like I mentioned before, I loved the premise of the novel. First, how did it come to you? Secondly, I found it very entertaining, even though it addresses very serious matters like dictatorship, racism and complicated family relationships. I can even see it being turned into a TV series or a movie.
Chibundu: I hope so.
Saliha: I wanted to know, how do you approach the entertaining aspects of your work while addressing such sensitive subjects?
Chibundu: Oh, that’s a good question. First of all, the idea came from research I was doing. I did my PhD on a group called the West African Students’ Union; African independence leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, quite a handful of them. They came to England to study before they went back to become independence leaders. I did a lot of research on this time of their life where most of them already had political ideas, political dreams and political aspirations but they were still penniless students in London. It was a really interesting time in their lives, and that’s where the idea of the novel came from.
“I have met a lot of people who want to be writers, but they don’t read a lot. For me, wanting to be a writer and not reading is like wanting to be a doctor but not wanting to go to medical school. Books are your training, so read; read widely, read as widely as possibly.“
I also met people like Anna, people who had parents, who had fathers who had come to study, had relationships with their mothers, often white, and then returned back home. Some of them had never seen or heard of them again. Some of them had, some of them hadn’t. I met a lot of people with stories like this, and with the research, it’s where the story sort of came from, from these two things. As for the tone, I think it’s part of my personality, and I suppose also an aspect of Nigerian culture; we can make light of everything, we joke about everything. There’s the serious side of life; it is serious, but you still have to laugh, you know? (Laughs). People still make jokes in the most dire situations, so I think it’s that sort of light and cheer that I am mostly interested in as a writer.
Saliha: It’s actually the same way that Algerians deal with problems. We tend to joke a lot, whether about social problems, political problems or economic problems, we just crack jokes. I think we are like-minded. I want to talk about Anna; in many ways, she made it hard for me to cheer for her. I think it was frustrating at times to cheer for her because she was so undecided; at one time her father confronts her about her paradoxes—judging him but at the same time enjoying what he has to offer—and that’s what I wanted to tell Anna too, so when I read her father telling her that, I was glad. I wanted to know why you made Anna such an undecided character. Is it because of the fact that she is mixed-race and she never found someone to talk to about that anywhere in her environment, not even her mother? Is it why she is such a passive character, especially in the beginning?
Chibundu: To be honest, all of us are sort of undecided. In this age, we all have high ideals that we say we believe in, but don’t say much about them. For example, let’s talk about fashion and fast fashion; we all know that buying too many clothes is bad for the environment because too many clothes are being produced, so many people think that we need to make things greener and more energy-efficient. This would mean not buying too many clothes, yet we walk into the stores and we see items that are on sale and we want to have them. I think that sort of undecidedness is where most people are.
We don’t always live up to our ideals, in the sense that Kofi may have done terrible things in the past but the thinking is then, What can I do about that now? I think these things are wrong but at the same time, it’s nice to be in this nice house and this nice environment. And I think a lot of us would have a crisis of conscience if we interrogated where everything comes from. Are our clothes produced ethically? Is our food produced ethically? If we honestly interrogate the decisions we make for convenience, I think most of us will find that we are all a little bit like Anna.
Saliha: True, and in so many ways it is realistic and being in Anna’s mind shows that. Maybe that frustration I felt about her is a frustration I feel about myself. In a podcast interview for Reading Women in 2018, the interviewers described you as a lively person and your writing as lively as you. I felt the same way reading your novel. Can you talk to me more about your writing style? When did you find your writing voice?
Chibundu: I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, but I do think some of your personality or essence comes into what you write. I think it’s natural, and it’s almost like you don’t choose your speaking voice. Some people do, but for most of us, the way we speak is not conscious, it is part of our personalities. There are people who are quiet; their voices are naturally soft when they speak. Then there are people who are more loud, their voices are louder. Most people don’t consciously choose how they speak; your experiences, your background, your culture, all these things are woven into you, and I think your writing voice is the same. I don’t think I could write a gothic, dark mystery, you know? There must be something light, because we have a saying in Nigeria: “it’s not that serious”. It’s not a conscious thing, but what people read in my writing is a reflection of my personality.
Saliha: I found your YouTube channel, and I watched the last video. I think that it’s important for younger writers that those who have access to opportunities give advice to them, like you did with your last two videos about finding an agent and pitching for The Guardian. And I found that you also had a promotional video for your second novel, Welcome to Lagos. I think that was original. For Sankofa, I have been sent a music video for Good Soil and I just want to say that your voice now lives in my mind; it’s hard not to dance to it. You are a really good singer. I don’t know how you are not a singer too, because your voice is just amazing. How are the song and the novel related? Of course I have my own interpretation, but I want to know your explanation too, I want you to talk to me about it more.
Chibundu: Thank you. I‘ll tell you mine and then you can tell me yours. (Laughs). I knew I wanted to release a single; my friend suggested the idea to me and I thought about this again. I wanted to release a song with the book—I write music generally, but I didn’t know how to write a song that would fit the themes in the book. Then the pandemic happened, and I was spending a lot of time at home. I had this phase of sorts, to think about all the creative things that I wanted to do. When Chadwick Boseman died, you know he was the main actor in Black Panther, it had a really really profound effect on me. Not only his death, but also the reaction to his death and what he meant to many Black people in the world, it just got me thinking about ancestry and legacy and knowing where you come from and whether it’s important not buying into this sort of negative narratives about being Black or being African. And also then that tied with the themes of the book because you know obviously Anna is looking for her identity, she’s looking for her history, family history, her father‘s history in particular. One of her friends says to her in England when she says she was going to west Africa, Oh I hope you enjoy the safari, or something and you know Africa is not just about safaris. Safaris are nice, but there is greatness in our history, there is so much to learn and yeah there are so many contributions we’ve made and yeah I was sort of thinking these ideas when I wrote the song.
Saliha: It’s so beautiful; it was hard for me not to share. I think it will be a hit, because it’s a great work of art of its own. I like to ask this question because I think it’s important for our readers, especially aspiring writers: What would be your advice to upcoming writers? Especially as you are a young writer yourself, and have been nominated for many prizes?
Chibundu: I think the first one is reading. I have met a lot of people who want to be writers, but they don’t read a lot. For me, wanting to be a writer and not reading is like wanting to be a doctor but not wanting to go to medical school. Books are your training, so read; read widely, read as widely as possibly. I think it’s important to read books that reflect your experience. For example, with me it’s my Nigerian experience, my African experience. But also, you know, read outside your culture, read outside your gender. Read outside the genre you want to write in. If you want to write mystery novels, read other titles, read widely so that’s the first and I think this the most important thing actually. And another thing, don’t put it off; you don’t need permission to be a writer. A lot of us are waiting for someone to say Yes, you are good at this. If it comes, that’s great, but you don’t need to wait for anybody. You just need a pen and piece of paper and off you go. Don’t put it off because you feel you are not ready. Just start. This is my advice.
Saliha: Thank you so much. I think you are right about both, especially the second one. I’m taking it a bit personally (laughs). I tend to wait. Finally, I think the novel can have a sequel. I think there are many, many things that could be explored in the novel. And I think we can still follow Anna’s story. Do you think you could write a sequel, because I want to meet Anna again?
Chibundu: (Laughs). You know what’s funny, I have never, ever wanted to write a sequel. This is the third novel, but for the first two I never thought about returning to the story, but I think this is the first one where I have thought about it. This is the first one I had thought about continuing the story. You know, it’s funny you state it, because it’s the first one I thought Hmm, am still quite interested in the story, I don’t want to put it down yet. So, you never know.
Saliha: I will be waiting. For now, are you writing anything else?
Chibundu: I am, actually. I am trying to write for television, so I co-wrote and co-produced a short film called Dolapo Is Fine, and that did quite well. It’s on Netflix, you can watch it there, and I sort of got a taste for film stuff because it’s very different from writing a novel. Sankofa took me four years, if not longer, to write. A film script, a TV script, a TV episode, it’s about hours, it’s about 60 pages. So compared to how many words go into a novel, obviously it’s a different kind of writing. It’s also not easy, but it takes so long to write a novel, but for television it feels like you are reaching that much faster. Yeah I think I actually want to try writing more for television and film so that’s really something that I’m looking at.
Saliha: Thank you so much for the novel, the music video, and for the opportunity to talk to you. Have a nice day.
Chibundu: Thank you so much Saliha.
Photo credit for featured image of Chibundu Onuzo: Blayke Images.
Saliha Haddad is an Algerian part-time teacher of English at university. She graduated in the field of Anglophone Literature and Civilization in 2015. She is an Interviewer for Fiction at the online magazine, Africa in Dialogue. She has written about cultural subjects for the Algerian online platform Dzair World and for the printed and online magazine Ineffable Art and Culture. Her debut creative nonfiction piece has appeared in the African magazine Agbowó.