It has been a very busy couple months, which has delayed me from sitting down to write up my thoughts on Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti Trilogy. Work, more work, having sleepovers with my niece and nephews, visiting family out of state, hosting parties with friends, and going camping have slowed down my writing considerably. All good things, of course! (Well, except the amount of overtime, maybe.) I actually finished reading the Binti: The Complete Trilogy in May and scribbled down a few thoughts at the time, but it has taken me this long to get them in blog form.
You may have heard of Nnedi Okorafor already because her World Fantasy Award-Winning novel Who Fears Death is in development for an HBO show with George R.R. Martin (of Game of Thrones fame) serving as executive producer. Okorafor is also known for her trilogy of novellas: Binti, Binti: Home, and Binti: The Night Masquerade. Binti was the winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards and The Night Masquerade is currently a nominee for the Hugo, as well. The single volume Binti: The Complete Trilogy also includes a short story that takes place in between the first and second novellas called Binti: Sacred Fire.
Binti is a young woman who lives on the edge of the desert with her family. She is Himba – a member of the African people who live in Namib. (It’s worth noting that although this is a science fiction story, the Himba are an actual indigenous people who live (according to Wikipedia) mostly in northern Namibia.) Himba women wear otjize paste to protect their skin and hair from the harsh weather, which is very important to Binti although it sometimes causes her difficulty when interacting with people who are unfamiliar with the practice. Later in the tale, Okorafor gives otjize certain mystical properties as well. In Binti’s story, the Himba people have a tense and sometimes violent relationship with the Khoush, the dominant people in the area where she lives; according to Okorafor, the Khoush were written as Arab. The Khoush have an even more violent and warring relationship with the Medusae (a jellyfish-like alien species) and Binti’s people may be trampled when that conflict gets closer.
The strong cultural values that pull Binti to stay home and the violence between the Khoush do not stop her though – the story opens with Binti running away in secret to go to Oomza Uni, which requires her to take interstellar travel to get there. She is the first Himba person ever to attend. However, on the journey there, the living spaceship in which she and the other students are traveling is attacked by Medusae and she is the only survivor. She must find a way to convince the people at Oomza Uni to let the ship land with the Medusae on board so they can negotiate and so she can survive. The rest of the stories deal with the fallout from this: her friendship with one of the Medusae, her PTSD, the danger that is brought to her community when she decides to return home for a visit, and the discovery of her mixed heritage with the mystical desert people.
Okorafor does not pull any punches with her writing – it is evocative and beautiful, and at the same time bold and unrelenting. She pulls you into her characters’ experiences to force you to see the effects of violence and oppression. Her characters are equally bold and unrelenting – determined to make a life that is better for themselves and to change the world around them. Usually, their desire to change the world is driven not so much by bright-eyed optimism, but by the knowledge that the alternative to adaptation is death. However, by the end of the story, Binti becomes a variation of “the chosen one” – a trope I am less interested in, lately.
I think Binti’s story would have been better if it was written as a single novel instead of a collection of shorter works; at times Binti’s story felt rushed or truncated. In fact, the last two novellas are really one story and the division between the two feels arbitrary. Okorafor includes many themes of belonging, inter-cultural relations, PTSD, and mathematics/technology, but it all jumbled together and none of them felt as fully realized as they could have been.
I found myself comparing Binti a lot to Who Fears Death and overall, I found Who Fears Death was more interesting and well-developed. Many of the themes in Binti were very similar to those in Who Fears Death, although Binti was ultimately more hopeful and Binti’s solutions were less violent. People who want to avoid depictions of sexual violence will prefer Binti over Who Fears Death. Nnedi Okorafor is an author I highly recommend and Binti is a good introduction to Okorafor’s themes, imagery, and style of writing.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Post script and an apology: I had originally titled this “The Raw Beauty of Nnedi Okorafor’s Afrofuturism: A Review of the Binti Stories”. Nnedi Okorafor does not describe her books as Afrofuturism, but instead Africanfuturism.
Afrofuturism “explores the developing intersection of African Diaspora culture with technology” whereas Okorafor’s books are “often set in a recognizable, future Africa, with African lineages [and] are not cultural hybrids, but rooted in the history and traditions of the continent.” It is a distinction that is very important to her and I did insufficient research into the distinction between the two ahead of time.