Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor
Posted October 12, 2015on:
published Sept 2015
where I got it: purchased new
In a way, Binti is a completely traditional scifi/hero’s journey story – young woman gets an opportunity to leave home, does so, finds herself in a situation far beyond her control, and ends up single handedly stopping an interstellar war. A perfect dove-tailing of tribal and futuristic, of sentient space ships and ancient cultural traditions, Binti was a beautiful story to read. For some of you, this will just be a story that you read and forget about two days later. For others of you, it will be a door that opens and never closes. File me under “others of you”.
Binti is from Earth, from a traditional family in a traditional village. Her people are curious, but they don’t travel. Her family is famously innovative, but inward looking. Her acceptance to a prestigious university is as thrilling to her as it is horrifying to her family. She leaves in the middle of the night. Just by leaving she has shamed her family, so she might as well go all the way and get on the damn shuttle.
She wasn’t surprised to learn she was the only Himba on the shuttle, nor is she surprised to be the only Himba student at the university. However it was a shocked, shameful silence that blanketed her when strangers poked and prodded her protective hairstyle – can I touch it, does it smell, why do you put mud in your hair, that’s so weird, don’t let the mud touch anything on the ship. What they are telling her is that she is different from them, and that she should be ashamed of her difference. That to be accepted, she needs to assimilate, and look and act like them. That when she reaches civilization, she’ll understand. Yes, all that in a facial expression and a few words spoken at her, not to her. People are just this crass in real life, too.
There’s plenty of science fiction in Binti – space travel, anti-grav technology, learning trances, aliens, the world almost has an old school Star Wars feel. But the important stuff is very real. Binti is a Himba from Namibia, and it’s who she is and where she’s from that allows this story to happen in the first place. Due to scarcity of available drinking water, the Himba people have the brilliant solution of making a paste of oils and local clay that they put on their hair and skin. A protectant borne of the earth that sustains them, it is the texture and smell of home. Binti wears her hair in the traditional manner, and hopes she brought enough otjize with her. Will the planet she’s traveling to have the right clay to make more?
(I really want to go off on a huge tangent about hair and culture and acceptance and western standards of beauty right now. But then this review would be all about hair, and not about the novella.)
How to explain otjize and its deep connection to Binti’s heritage? The closest analog I can come up with is a Mezuzah. If you don’t know what the word means you can wikipedia it, but if you do know what it means, you know it’s more than a word, more than a physical object. It’s a conversation that’s had before the door is even opened. Binti’s otjize is a little bit like that but far more so – it’s a private conversation held by her people, one shaped by their culture and the ecology of where they live. It doesn’t need explaining, it’s a part of daily life, it’s a conversation that doesn’t end, and she feels naked and lost and homeless without it.
Binti ends up being the hero of the story, but it’s not because she’s imbued with any special powers or talents. Yes, she is a brilliant mathematician, but it’s not her math skills that saves her life. What she does to stop an interstellar war is something anyone from her family and village could easily do. But she was the only one who left the village, so she’s the one who ends up being in the right (wrong?) place at the wrong (right?) time.
There’s also this whole subtle underlying inner story of how once you leave home, you can never go back. It sounds so final, doesn’t it? Simply by being away from home, by being away from your family, you change. You have new experiences, your worldview widens. When you do go home, you’re a different person. More you -shaped perhaps, but to your family you have become a stranger who wears your face. Binti fears facing her family again. She has shamed them by leaving. How will they view her when she comes home? It doesn’t matter that she stopped a war that had nothing to do with her tribe, her family doesn’t care about interstellar war, doesn’t care about the political fights of other peoples. She’s the best daughter the Earth could have ever asked for, but after what’s happens, she knows she’ll never be accepted again as a true Himba.
So much happening in this skinny little novella. I was so focused on the edges that are actually the center, I never told you about the plot (it was awesome, by the way). I’d love for Okorafor to expand this into a novel. I want Binti to travel the galaxy, I want to know how other Earth peoples and non-Earth peoples react to her, I want to live among the Meduse, I want to spend more time in this universe.
My enjoyment of Binti is two-fold – first, the straight up gorgeous prose and all that good writing craft stuff that make it a joy to read in an afternoon. And second, I felt an affinity with Binti. I’ve never done things she’s done, of course, but still, for personal reasons I don’t feel like detailing, the affinity is there and it runs deep.