The Door of No Return by Kwame Alexander: sneak peek

Article | Issue: Feb 2024

KWAME ALEXANDER is a poet, educator, producer and #1 New York Times Bestselling author of 39 books. The Door of No Return is the first book in a trilogy that tells the story of a boy, a village, and the epic odyssey of an African family. Read on for an extract.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

Dreams are today’s answers for tomorrow’s questions.

Eleven-year-old Kofi Offin has dreams of water, of its urgenat whisper that beckons with promises and secrets. He has heard the call on the banks of Upper Kwanta, West Africa, where he lives. He loves these things above all else: his family, the fireside tales of his father’s father, a girl named Ama, and, of course, swimming. But when the unthinkable – a sudden death – occurs during a festival between rival villages, Kofi ends up in a fight for his life. What happens next will send him on a harrowing journey across land and sea, and away from everything he loves. Yet Kofi’s dreams may be the key to his freedom…

EXTRACT

 

Chapter one

The Story of Offin

There was even a time … many seasons ago … when our people were the sole supplier of the purest and most valuable gold in the world … The river was bedded with enough gold to make a century of royal stools for the Asante kings … A thousand shiny bracelets for their wives … Then came the foreigners… Invaders disguised as friends … pretending to be students of our way … with only one lesson to learn … how to steal our fortunes … But we fought them off … protected our rich land, our river … the Offin River … It flows to the east, into the mighty Pra, which travels over 150 miles down to the Coast, where it drains into a vast blue unknown that we call the Big Sea … On the rolling sides of Offin are deep forests and farmlands and villages and a boy of the same name … You see, on the morning of your birth, 11 years ago, your maame squatted at the edge of the water, and … Offin carried her fifth child on its shoulders at first breath … It is true, I was there, that you stopped crying as you floated off like a ship inching toward the horizon … The river Offin grabbed you with an invisible cord wrapped around each moment of your day … held you like a mother cradles a baby … pulled you like the moon does the earth … Ever since, you and the water have been bound … river and son, wave and flutter … That is how you got your name, my grandson…

THE STORYTELLER

There was even a time
is how my papa’s father,
Nana Mosi, the village storyteller,
begins most of his
fireside tales

always starting
in the middle
of a thought
like we were to know
what even came before

always speaking
in slow,
deliberate spurts
about the past
like it lives
in him,
like it still matters

always repeating some things
and pausing at other times,
with a toothy smile

that raises one eyebrow,
right before
the thing he knows
we cannot wait
to hear.

Though he is nearly 80 now
and seldom speaks,
when he does,
I hang on to all his words,
the lulls in between,
and I remember
the stories
like a pigeon remembers
its way home.

IN THE DREAM

I sprint across
the clearing,
past a leopard
teaching her cubs
how to count to 10.

After I grade them,
I dart between the maze
of forest trees
and discover a pot
of boiling plantains
by the river.

Picture me running
over rocks and grass
swept up in the cool breeze
rushing to the water
diving off the back
of a—

SCHOOLED

Offin, how old was
beloved Queen Victoria
when she became heir
to the throne? Mr. Goodluck Phillip, our teacher,
asks,
startling me
out of my dream.

My cousin,
who thinks he is better
than me at everything,
giggles, then shoots
his hand up fast,
but Mr. Phillip is talking
to me, staring
at me, daring
me
to answer incorrectly.
I will like Kofi Offin
to answer the question, please, he says.

Dunwõtwe, I proudly answer,
standing among
my classmates, smiling
like I just bit into
the sweetest mango.

I do not see
the lightning
almost slice
the skin
from my palm,
but I do feel the scorch
of the rod
across my hand
and in my bones.
I even taste its sting
in my mouth.

Queen’s English, please, Mr. Phillip says,
as calm as rain, like
he did not just attack me
with his jagged cane.

Eighteen, I say quickly.
That is correct. The Queen was 18, he adds,
looking at the whole class,
when her uncle died
of pneumonia,
making her the rightful heir.

I am not teaching you
to count in English for nothing.
Sorry, Mr. Goodluck Phillip, I say,
looking down at the purplish welt
burning my sable skin,
and trying not to cry
in front of everyone,
especially Ama,
and my cousin,
who now looks like
he is happily eating
my mango.

OUR TEACHER

Kwaku Ansah
was sent
many, many seasons ago
to Akra
to attend
The Queen’s Missionary School
at Osu for the Propagation
of Better Education
and Improved Language,
and when he returned
he had ‘improved’ his name to
Goodluck Kwaku Phillip,
and insisted
to the Council of Elders
that we needed
to be propagated
as well.

On a Mission

Mr. Phillip seldom smiles,
is lanky and tall,
wears wire-rimmed glasses
and big-collared shirts
with strange bows
around his neck,
frowns when he speaks our Twi,
insists that we call him
by his new names,
does not like
riddles or bean stew
or most things
we are used to
in our village,
and swears
that he has been anointed
to rescue us
from our old selves
and help us discover
our true ones.

MY OLDER BROTHER

Kwasi once told me
that Mr. Phillip informed
his class that
English is regularly spoken
in Akra and on the Coast,
and if we want to become better,
learned men and women,
we must learn
to speak
this mother tongue,
and when a boy responded,

I do not know about your mother, sir,
but my maame speaks Twi

the entire class erupted
in laughter,
including the boy,
until Mr. Phillip’s cane
slashed his buttocks
so hard
he was unable to sit
for three days
and it left
a long, thin gruesome bruise
that swelled
across his buttocks,
making it look
like he was smiling
from behind.

LIGHT SENTENCE

The punishment
for my crime,
for answering
in my own Twi
instead of talking
in the stale, foreign language
that Mr. Goodluck Phillip
makes us speak
in school,
is to stay
after school
so that he can teach me
to read
from The Dramatic Works
of William Shakespeare,
which I enjoy – though
I cannot let him know – but
which I can barely focus on
because I want to be in the river
and my forearm is throbbing
and I cannot stop thinking
about the end of the day
when Ama came up to me
and whispered,
But you knew the correct answer, Kofi,
so do not feel so bad,
and her breath smelled
like honey
and pine
and possibility.

Ama

I have known her
since we were
giggling babies
swathed in cloth
on our maames’ backs
while they sold yams
and cassava
at the market.

We played together,
learned together,
swam together,
even dreamed together
about our futures
until hers was nearly ruined
when her parents died,
leaving her homeless
and alone.

So, now I mainly get
to see her in school,
since she spends
the rest of her time
cleaning
and being the house girl
for her uncle’s family
in exchange for food
and a roof.

AFTER SCHOOL

When we finish reading together,
Mr. Phillip makes me repeat
different English words,
praises my efforts, then says
that if I want to be
a young man of intellect
I should pay attention
to where my tongue lies
when I roll my Rs,
and even though
I hate the taste
of his alien words
on my tongue
I just nod
and say,
Thank you for
the instruction, sir.

WAITING FOR ME

outside
is Ebo,
my best mate,
leading a band
of youngsters
in search
of the few
gold specks
still swimming
in the streets
and ditches
after last night’s
heavy rainfall.

TAKEN

Ama walks
toward me,
carrying a large water pot
on her head,
a bundle of timber
in her arms,
and her baby cousin
draped across
her back.

It will not hurt long if you use this, she says,
placing the timber
on the ground and
taking my arm
in her hand.

She rubs my bruise
with a large, fuzzy, green leaf
and a flash of warmth
rushes through me
like a wave.

I do not feel
my eyes closing, but
I can feel every hair
on my body
jump at the sun.

Is that better, Kofi?
Yes. It. Is.

Now, do not swallow this or you will cough until you
­     die, she says,
handing me the leaf. I cannot tell whether she is
serious or not.

It is a joke. It is just a clove leaf, mainly used to
    make the pain of a bad tooth go away. You will
be fine.
It has the smell of something in my maame’s stew. ..
Thank you, Ama.

Are you and Ebo going to swim now?
If the river is you, I will swim. .. is what I wish I
could say. Instead, I answer, No swimming today.
It is too dark.

WHERE I GO

each day
after school
is both hideout
and oasis.
It is where I am student
and king.
A place that holds me
and my destiny safely
in its deep-blue arms.

The river
where I splash
and splish
and kick
into twilight

until the stars emerge
or Kwasi
comes growling
like a hippo.

KOFI, OUT OF THE WATER, NOW!
      IT IS ALMOST DARK!

Sometimes
I pretend to not hear
him telling me
what to do
just because
he is older
and bigger,
but when it comes
to swimming,
I have to listen,
because all the elders
in my family
and mostly all
the old people
in our village
say that the river
is cursed
at nighttime.

CONVERSATION WITH EBO

CHALE! Ebo hollers, handing me a palm full of red
berries.
Just in time – I can use a sweet snack.

Also, I collected these, he says, showing me a bag of
kola nuts.
What, you are preparing our dinner now, chale? I
say, laughing.

Oh, these are not for you to eat.
What are they for, then?

For you to present to Ama’s uncle when you ask to
      marry her, he adds, laughing.
You are a nut, yourself.

Your obsession is so obvious, Kofi.
I am not obsessed.

You are. And you are afraid to tell her.
I am not.

Then do it, big man, tell her how you feel, he says,
peeling away the kola’s white skin.
How I feel? You sound like my sisters.

Ei! Your sisters are smart. And beautiful, he says,
looking way too excited.
My sisters are married and their husbands will skin
you for thinking those thoughts.

Only two are married. Esi is free, no? She is dark
      and comely. You think she will come to me? he
says with a smirk.
Ebo, you are a fool.

So, tell me, what was Goodluck’s penalty? he says,
chewing away at the kola seeds. Did he make
      you hold a stack of books over your head and say
      your numbers in English?
No, we just read.

Torture.
In truth, it does not bother me. I actually enjoy it.

A witch has cast a spell on you, chale.
To be, or not to be, I say in my best Mr. Phillip
imitation.

Ei! Speak Twi! We are not in class.
Ebo, how much gold did you find?

I promise you, barely a crumb.
At this rate, you will be an old man with a cane and
no hair before you collect even a Benda of gold, I
say, laughing, then turning to leave.

Then I will die rich and happy with my one Benda,
he says, laughing too. Ei! What about the river?
I cannot swim today. I must get home.

I will walk with you, then. In case your cousin and
     his herd are waiting.
And what will you do if they are?

I will run for assistance. HELP! HELP! I will
     scream, he says, laughing.
You are a true friend.

Seriously, do you think I have a chance with your
       sister?
Daabi, I tell him, shaking my head. Not in a
hundred seasons.

TROUBLE

When I arrive
at our compound
Kwasi and Nana Mosi
are seated
on opposite sides
of an ivory game board,
playing Oware.

So focused
on winning, which
no one has ever done
against Nana Mosi,
Kwasi does not
even look up
when he tells me
that everyone
knows of my wrongdoing
because my cousin
came around earlier
singing
like a guinea fowl.

AFTER LOSING

three straight times to our
grandfather, Kwasi finds me
counting in English.

CONVERSATION WITH KWASI

Mr. Goodluck Phillip is still miseducating his
      students, ei?
He says he is on a mission to widen the sea of our
intellect and understanding.

He is on a mission to capsize our culture, I promise
      you.
Nana Mosi beat you again?

Our grandfather has been playing Oware for nearly
      one hundred years. He is unbeatable. This I
      know.
He just needs better competition probably.

You are the one with jokes, he says, laughing. It
      appears that I am not the only one with an
      adversary.
Can you teach me to punch like you?

Fighting is not the answer.
That is easy to say for someone who fights as well as
you do, Kwasi.

You have a sharp mind, little brother. Try using that.
      Outsmart him.
My thoughts are no match for his fast legs, or his
powerful fists.

But there are things you have that are powerful. Use
      these.
What kind of things do you speak of?

Am I to come up with every answer to your problems?
      Figure it out.
.. .

You must face this, head high.
But what if I—

Ei! The bird who dares to fall is the bird who learns
     to fly!
What does that even mean?

It means that Maame is looking for you, and she is
     not pleased, he says, laughing, then tapping me
on the head and walking away. You will be fine.
     With our cousin, I mean. Not with Maame. He
laughs again.
.. .

PUNISHMENT

I am banished
to bed
for the night
without drink
without dinner
by my maame,
who is only silent now
because she plans to wait
to unleash her wrath
on me
when my father,
who is away
mining,
our business,
returns.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kwame-Alexander-author

Image credit: Portia Wiggins Photography

Kwame Alexander is a poet, educator, publisher, Emmy-award winning producer, and #1 New York Times bestselling author of 39 books, including Why Fathers Cry at NightAn American StoryThe Door of No Return, Becoming Muhammad Ali, and more.

Visit Kwame Alexander’s website

Author: Kwame Alexander

Category: Children's, Teenage & educational

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Andersen Press

ISBN: 9781839133077

RRP: $19.99

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