We have just launched our November-December reading theme – Writing Home: Hues of Diaspora in Literature.
Since we are looking for stories that share journeys from one place to another, I thought that this science fiction novella by Nnedi Okorafor which features a brilliant young woman named Binti, traveling from her home city to study in the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy would fit quite well.
Written by: Nnedi Okorafor
Published by: Tor.com Book, 2015
ISBN-10: 0765384469 (ISBN13: 9780765384461) Literary Awards: Hugo Award for Best Novella (2016), Nebula Award for Best Novella (2015), Locus Award Nominee for Best Novella (2016)
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
This is my first Nnedi Okorafor book, and while I would not really call myself a sci-fi geek, I am determined to follow through Binti’s story in this series. This novella is very slim and can most likely be finished within a day by a fast reader. As per usual, I struggled with new terminologies and the world-building aspect, but Okorafor does it quite gently that allows the reader to not be totally lost in her imagined universe that offers higher-learning to the best and the brightest to all species around the galaxy.
I suppose what really made me gravitate towards this narrative is that it featured a highly intelligent young lady who was the first of the Himba people to be offered a place at Oomza University. However, accepting this offer means leaving her family and friends who do not approve of her decision to travel outside her own planet, as her destiny is perceived to be bound to her people. By pursuing her own interests, she is perceived to be abandoning her culture and her rightful place in and obligation to her family. This is how the news of her acceptance to the university was received in her community (I took photos of the pages and edited them using an iPhone app):
And so the first scene had to do with her leaving home and taking this journey on her own, without her family’s knowledge. To make things worse, she is the only Himba among all the students who were accepted in the university traveling in space. She didn’t just stand out because of the dark colour of her skin, but also the Himba’s cultural practices deemed to be strange by the majority culture: the “greasy clay” that covers her skin and hair, in addition to her jingling-jangling steel anklets perceived as odd by fellow students and group leaders aboard the ship. This is how she describes her sense of isolation and alienation:
Yet despite how glaringly different she is from everyone else on the outside, they are all tied by their common objective to understand and unravel the secrets of the universe, united by their thirst for knowledge and their fearless brilliance indicating how they are more similar than different from each other. Yet just as she was making good friends in the ship, it was attacked by creatures (named the Meduse) who managed to wipe out and murder every single person in the ship, except for herself and its pilot. As she was communicating with the Meduse who also loathed her by virtue of her being a different species, I was struck by how human beings often fall prey to this kind of ethnocentrism by virtue of our race and ethnicity – you don’t necessarily have to be a different species altogether to show xenophobia. Here is an excerpt that showed this kind of illumination in Binti’s part:
Okorafor manages to sink her teeth into what is essentially happening in contemporary times while embedding it within a scifi novel – that is masterful. How Binti was able to singlehandedly save the universe, I shall leave for you to discover. This is also how she was received at the university, after she has mediated peace talks between the Meduse and the scholars from Oomza University:
Clearly, people remain judged not so much by what they have done and what it signifies, but by the colour of their skin or where they come from. Everything that one accomplishes (despite its reverberations throughout the galaxy) is deemed as secondary or perceived as an afterthought. Yet, these are all things that one can glimpse through the spaces in the narrative, never really articulated but simply implied. I am looking forward to reading the second book in this series. This will be a good book to share with your sci-fi lovers or those who enjoy high fantasy, or with gifted and culturally different readers as they may see their experiences reflected in this narrative.