Sunday, February 28, 2016

Binti - Nnedi Okorafor

Last year, took the plunge and moved into publishing novellas and short novels. Up to that point their original fiction had mostly been limited to short stories and novelettes and had been available in electronic format only. It seems like this new project is paying off. These works have gotten a lot of attention in the blogsphere and with Binti, one of the first novellas to be published in this new format, the first award nomination is in as well. Okorafor can add another Nebula nomination to her tally. Binti and two other pieces make up half of the nominees in the novella category. I would be surprised if it was the last we'd hear from this awards season.

Binti is a young girl of the Himba people with a gift for mathematics. Her scores are so outstanding that she is invited to study at the Oomza University, the most highly rated institution in the galaxy. It is a rare honour but in order to become the first Himba to attend, she will have to leave her family. The Himba do not leave their homeland. The very idea is so preposterous that nobody seriously believes she will go. Binti won't be held back by tradition though. She sets out on her own to her new life at university. Of course, getting there is harder than she imagined.

As far as I have been able to determine Binti is not related to any of Okorafor's other stories. It is set in a future where humanity has made contact with alien species and has left the planet. Other than that, the story doesn't offer much detail on the world. It is focussed on the main character. The Himba as portrayed in the novella are based on the Himba people of Namibia. I know very little about them, and there is a huge gap between the life as described in the novella and the reality of life in Namibia today. Okorafor has used some key components of their culture in her story though.

Okorafor shows a determined girl in the story, but also one who is very unsure of herself. She is the only Himba on this ship out, and even among the humans she stands out. That she is willing to leave the land of her ancestors doesn't mean she is ready to change who she is however. She meets attitudes ranging from curiosity to rudeness to outright hostility, but also plain indifference. Soon she makes friends however, who seem to accept her. The range of emotions she goes through, fear, determination, joy and excitement and how she uses her experiences in the later part of the story make Binti a very well rounded character. Although Okorafor delivers a complete story, she is the kind of protagonist you want to read more about.

The story has more to offer than a strong main character. Another layer of poor treatment of other cultures is added when Binti meets the Meduse. This strand of the story reminded me of the countless artefacts and body parts still in the collection of western musea, collected in colonial times from 'primitive' cultures all over the world. A symbol of the lack of respect for these cultures and a reminder of how these peoples were once considered inhuman. It's a legacy that really should be properly and respectfully dealt with.The Meduse, as it turns out,  have reasons for their actions and make their point very brutally. If Binti is to arrive at the university in one piece she will have to find a way to address their grievances.

I very much liked the emphasis on cultural differences in this story but the climax of the novella, does feel a bit convenient. In one rousing performance, Binti manages to make peace between two species long at war with each other. If it were quite that simple, the UN would have achieved world peace decades ago. I can still see why this novella attracted so many positive reviews though. Binti is a quick but intense read. Okorafor cleverly uses the parallel between Binti's situation and that of the Meduse to keep things moving along quickly. Personally I wouldn't have minded if this story had been fleshed out a bit further, perhaps with a bit more convincing solution to the problem Binti faces, but as it is, it's a very interesting novella.

Book Details
Title: Binti
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Pages: 90
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-00-7653-8525-3
First published: 2015

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