Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 22 September 2015
Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.
Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach. If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself – but first she has to make it there, alive.
I was expecting something special from the award-winning author of Lagoon, and I wasn’t disappointed.
In Binti, Okorafor has given us a remarkable young protagonist. Refusing to conform to her family’s traditions, Binti risks lifetime estrangement and leaves the only home she has ever known for the chance to study. She knows exactly what she wants, and channels her quiet but implacable strength of mind into turning her dream of being or doing something more than what her society expects of her into reality. Perhaps even more unusually for a young woman, Binti is aware of and understands her own value; she knows she is intelligent and that she is capable of far more than simply taking over her father’s shop. This is a great message, particularly for young women, who are conditioned to be modest and self-deprecating about their abilities.
Binti’s journey is not made easy by the strangers she meets in her way to the ship she must take to Oomza Uni. Her people, the Himba, are a small, private tribe who tend not to travel. It is clear that many of the people Binti comes into contact with see her as some kind of inferior, sub-human oddity; they make offensive remarks about her culture as if she can’t hear them, and show a lack of respect for her personal boundaries by touching her hair without asking, saying that she smells or dismissing her as “dirty”; while they don’t become physically aggressive or try to prevent her from going about her day, reading about the way Binti is treated due to others’ ignorance and assumptions reminded me of reading about the Little Rock Nine.
Binti is not deterred and soon bonds with the others on the university-bound ship through their shared love of mathematics; but a Meduse attack on the ship threatens to put a swift and brutal end to her journey. This is where Binti really shines. She is put under enormous and protracted pressure, and has every reason to break down mentally and emotionally, to give in to the base and simple desire for revenge, but instead she struggles to rise above it to find another way forward.
A small but exquisite gem of a story (this novella weighs in at a mere 86 pages), Binti is utterly captivating and packed full of uplifting ideas and messages; rather like Binti herself, there is far more to this novella than meets the eye. Through Binti, we explore issues around identity – how much of it is bound up in your culture and appearance, and how important it is to remain true to your own values and principles, even when that comes at great personal cost. It is also a timely reminder that we create our own monsters and our own wars through our actions and treatment of others.
Told in Okorafor’s distinctive visual style, Binti is a wonderful and memorable coming of age story which, to paraphrase Lord of the Rings, shows that one girl can change the course of the galaxy.
GS Blogger: Michaela Gray (@bookiesnacksize)