I’ve talked before on this blog about how I need to diversify my reading. One of the steps I’ve taken towards this was buying Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Okorafor’s work is something I have a lot of trouble truly appreciating, because her experiences and her writing approach are very different from what I’m used to — and I want my reaction to change.
In particular, I read her award-winning novel Who Fears Death in 2012 and left it feeling angry, confused, and frustrated. My review of Who Fears Death was not positive: I disliked the pacing, the characters, the ending, and the plot. However, I’m realizing that the problem isn’t her writing, but the fact that I’m not reading with the right mental tools in place.
Now that I’ve read Binti, I’m still not sure I understand all Okorafor’s work has to say, but I “get” a lot more of it than I did before.
Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib is one of the secluded Himba people of Namibia. Like her father, she is a master harmonizer and can “tree”, or reach a meditative state that allows her to commune with the mathematical flow of the universe. Although everyone expects her to take her father’s place and ignore the outside world, Binti has her sights set on greater horizons. Without her family’s knowledge, she’s accepted a full scholarship at Oomza University, one of the most prestigious in the universe. Binti opens as its title character sneaks away from home to the spaceport that will take her to her new life.
She experiences culture shock immediately once she leaves the comfort of her home. Her skin is dark, but both it and the plaits of her hair are covered in otjize, a mix of red clay and essential oil. The people that surround her, like the Khoush women, have rarely seen anything like it. Travel aboard the living ship from Earth to Oomza Uni comes with its own form of culture shock, but the other students on the ship, like her, are mathematically gifted and their enthusiasm and curiosity allow them to build new friendships.
At this point in the story, I was expecting that Binti would follow the well-worn path of Harry Potter and so many other children’s stories. You know: the story of outsiders continually feeling like outsiders — of teasing, of culture shock, of long-term ostracization followed by the triumphant revelation that everyone else was Wrong All Along because Binti is the Special One.
But then the story pivots and does something really interesting: something goes horribly wrong on Binti’s ship, and she’s the only survivor of an attack by the Meduse, an alien race who have long been at war with both humans and other species.
At this point, the story shifts from a fish-out-of-water narrative to a hostage situation. But then it pivots again when the Meduse reveal that they plan to infiltrate the university because a priceless possession belonging to their chief has been stolen, and they want to retrieve it. Because of Binti’s unlikely survival and her ability to communicate with them, she convinces the Meduse to have her act as their ambassador in order to protect the university.
Ultimately, Binti finds an unusual solution to the problems plaguing all parties and helps form a new truce between the humans and the Meduse. She is a kind of Special One after all, but because she was in the right place at the right time, with the right tools — she isn’t necessarily a Chosen One. Even so, her new status as a student and mediator fills her with self-doubt, because she knows that her family will never truly understand the choices she’s made. That sense of alienation and self-doubt is the most strongly sustained emotion throughout the story.
That being said, there are still things I find unsatisfying about this novella, even if it confounds my expectations in the best kind of way. Although Binti manages to convince Oomza University to give back what it stole, how she manages to do this remains mysterious. The revelatory speech that is supposed to be the crux of stories like this ends up falling flat instead, caught up in telling over showing:
I spoke of Okwu and how my otjize had really been what saved me. I spoke of the Meduse’s cold exactness, focus, violence, sense of honor, and willingness to listen. I said things I didn’t know I’d thought about or comprehended. I found words I didn’t even know I knew. And eventually, I told them how they could satisfy the Meduse and prevent a bloodbath in which everyone would lose.
I was sure they would agree. These professors were educated beyond anything I could imagine. Thoughtful. Insightful. United. Individual. The Meduse chief came forward and spoke its piece, as well. It was angry, but thorough, eloquent with a sterile logic. “If you do not give it to us willingly, we have the right to take back what was brutelly stolen from us without provocation,” the chief said.
I’m not 100% sure, but I think this scene has been written the way it is because Okorafor is trying to subvert the script that stories of this type follow. We didn’t get the fish out of water trope at the beginning, and we’re not going to get the rousing/martyred peacekeeper at the end.
There’s a lot going on under the surface of the story — I get the sense that the world of Binti is a wide one, with eons of history behind it that are only hinted at in the plot itself. There are lots of tantalizing storylines left dangling. For example, what exactly is the special device that Binti carries that proves to be her salvation? What is so special about the otzije she wears, and what gives it such healing properties?
Most importantly, exactly how much has humanity advanced when, in this far future, people are still doing the same sort of anthropological, cultural, and historical theft as they are in the world of today?
Like I said, there’s still a lot I’m sure I’m missing, but I think I understand more than I did before.