I cannot believe it’s been like, two years, since I read Binti. I really enjoyed it too! But for some reason it just took me forever to pick up this second book. I don’t know. My husband has always been annoyed with me because I can totally leave a show in the middle of a series/season if I’m getting bored or done with it…and never come back to finish it. I’ve never done that with books though. Or at least, I don’t think so. Maybe there are just so many books to read that times goes by and even though I intend to keep going, I get distracted. But I’m back now. And even though I had to look up a summary of the plot in Binti to make sure I was up to speed on all the details before starting this one, I’m ready to go! Oh, and I almost forgot, this is my pick for The Reading Women Challenge 2020, Prompt #7 – Afrofuturism or Africanfuturism.
It’s been about a year since the events of Binti – when Binti was able to use her harmonizing skills, and general communication and compromise, to prevent an inter-species war. She’s been studying during that year at Oomza University, alongside her friend Okwu, and has been successful. But Binti feels that the time has come to revisit her family on Earth, the family she essentially ran away from, without a word, to attend university. She is excited and nervous to be back, and to be bringing Okwu with her, the first of his people to visit Earth in generations (and the first to ever come without intending to start a war). Homecoming ends up very different than Binti imagined though, and she ends up learning quite a bit about her own family history, while also facing the start of a new conflict between humans and Okwu’s species (the Meduse).
I have to start this with similar thoughts as I had with the first novella. I am so impressed with how much Okorafor is able to pack into such a short number of pages. I honestly, still haven’t read any novellas other than this series, so I have very little to compare to, but the culture, emotionality, conflict and world-building that is covered with enough depth to really invite connection, is just…something else. Settings this foreign usually take so many more words to convey understandably, but not for Okorafor! Same as before, I loved so much about it that I would have loved more: a longer piece that would provide more background and exploration of all the peoples, cultures, magics and technologies mentioned. It would be a lie to say I didn’t want more. And yet, again, I still felt like the glimpses I got gave more than enough to be invested in the plot and characters. Since that’s the limitation and the specialty of this shorter medium, and I went into it knowing that, it was spot on.
I did love that, with Binti returning home, we had a chance in this second novella to learn more about her, like what her life was like before leaving for Oomza University, the traditions (and prejudices) of her people, and what her family had expected of her and how they’re reacting to her non-traditional choice of lifestyle/path. With this return to Earth, the Afrofuturism aspects of the novella become even more central than in the first. The interplay of family roles, societal expectations and hierarchies, inter-tribe relations and more all mirror (in a recognizable way) a compilation of African politics and lifestyle features and traditions. But of course, the differences of added alien species, tech-magic communication and a deeper dive into the fascinating math-based energy system Okorafor created, add that fantastic layer of fantasy to it all.
I also want to add a few thoughts about the themes of aliens/others and the limitations of home that Okorafor explores as two of the main themes. When Binti returns home, she faces quite a bit of anger for her tradition-breaking decision to run away to University, as well as disgust/fear about the way her braids (okuoko) have morphed to be like the Meduse tentacles, with a sort of life and movement of their own, and completely foreign (and enemy) to her own people. Okorafor captures the particular pain/sadness of aching for home and returning to find that it’s not quite all you want it to be or remembered it being. In Binti’s case, she has seen and lived so much more than the rest of her family and the distance that creates between her and their more insular lived experience, is difficult for her to understand and adjust to. I think, for many who have left home and grown beyond its confines, that’s a feeling they can deeply empathize with. This same theme sort of bleeds over into the next, which is the numerous and specific prejudices and untruths that people can believe about each other, and be taught to believe, when there is no exposure to another possibility. I love the way it’s written here, where Binti is actually on both sides: frustrated with her family for their treatment of her new “look” and the rest for their reservations about Okwu, while also coming to the realization that she herself still holds many preconceptions/stereotypes about the Desert People. It’s a wonderful and important lesson to readers, that the work of openness of perspective, acceptance, recognizing similarities, celebrating differences, and un-learning/re-learning is lifelong…for us all.
One last thought: I want to recognize Okorafor’s recognition of trauma – the effects it has despite the resilience of people (and, in this case, Binti). In the first novella, she witnesses her entire cohort, new friends, get slaughtered. And even though she perseveres and saves everyone from an inter-planet war, her “heroine” status is not a complete protective shield against the tragedy she experienced. It would have been so easy for the author to move on with the story in this second installation and not address that, but instead, we are able to see a more real picture of the way Binti must deal with flashbacks, panic attacks and other side effects consistent with trauma survivors. It’s so important to see all strong people, all heroes, in this real way…and encourage talking about, treating and coping healthfully with these mental health issues. So just, yea, that was wonderful to read.
This short trip back to Binti’s world was a whirlwind of a trip, but a great one. I enjoyed learning more about Binti, both from her and alongside her, and I’m excited to see how the build-up from this second installment comes to a conclusion in the final novella, as Binti brings together all the different backgrounds she now holds within herself: the Himba, the Meduse and the Enyi Zinariya. The mini cliffhanger this novella ended with (that typical middle book trick), plus the remaining mystery about what Binti’s mysterious edan technology actually is/does, are pushing me to pick up the finale post haste!
A few quotes I marked as I read (listened) to this one:
“Three days passed, as time always does when you are alive, whether you are happy or tortured.”
“‘You people are so brilliant, but your world is too small. […] One of you finally grows beyond your cultural cage and you try to chop her stem. Fascinating.’”
“How different my life would have been if my parents had just let me dance.”
“Having curiosity is the only way to learn.”