The best short fiction says much in few words. There is no room for tangents, for building a world with incautious words, for long descriptions of breakfast or the meticulous description of a length of hallway (unless that hallway stands for or means something significant, of course). Dr. Okorafor knows her craft and writes short fiction as short fiction rather than as abbreviated novels.
For some people, this novella will act as a window. For others, it is a mirror. Binti depicts the experience of a person who has lived her entire life designated as “other” by most of the people in both her home country and the universe at large. Her people do not even exist in other places; her people are largely invisible.
Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib, the title character, has grown up on our planet. She is the first of her people, the Himba, accepted to Oomza University, though this is not without its challenges. The Himba are an insular people who are obsessed with technology and innovation. They do not leave the tribe.
“We prefer to explore the universe by traveling inward, as opposed to outward.”
Binti herself is a master harmonizer, which is sort of like a magician of mathematics. Most of the humans who space-fare are Khoush, a different people than the Himba. There are some fundamentalist aspects to the Khoush, though I am uncertain from which specific religion they may have originated. This is certainly far in our future. Binti’s people are dark skinned, black haired, and wear otjize, a sort of orange-red clay with healing properties, over their bodies and through their thick hair. The Himba live in a place with little water, and this clay is used as a cleaner, but it also is a cultural symbol, a signifier, a comfort to those who wear it. Binti recalls a time when she and a group of other young women escape into the night to enact something taboo:
“But above all this, outside of the horror of what we’d done, we all felt an awesome glorious…shock. Our hair hung in thick clumps, black in the moonlight. Our skin glistened, dark brown. Glistened. And there had been a breeze that night and it felt amazing on our exposed skin. I thought of this as I applied the otjize to my new growth, covering up the dark brown color of my hair. What if I washed it all off now?”
The story is simple, as befits a short work, and I cannot tell much of it without giving it away. Binti leaves for school, boarding a giant shrimp-like ship that will fly her from our solar system to another. A terrible tragedy occurs on board. She is forced to survive, alone. She must evaluate who she is and what is important, and what she can sacrifice in order to remain alive. The plot? It exists, but I cannot go there. The story is too short to give away many nooks of story.
Though the story is simple, there are many things that need to be unpacked in this novella, things that exist outside of story. The book asks a lot of questions, but the reader is responsible for answering most of them. Do we need to transform ourselves in order to be accepted? Do we always recognize when this change occurs, or is it unperceived? Do we need to let go of that which protects us, that which makes us feel safe, in order to be trusted by others in turn? Can we still retain our culture, our self-identity when we have become something else? Do we ever truly become something else? Do we forgive trespasses against us, or do we respond in like fashion? Do we sometimes avoid speaking with those who are different from us, those who are “other,” because we recognize that speaking will lead to understanding, understanding to empathy, empathy to loving action and acceptance? What does it mean to “belong?”
This is one of the first publications from Tor.com Publishing. Purchase from Amazon HERE.