Having grown up in Ethiopia with an avid appreciation for speculative fiction, I've always wondered what that genre would be like were it not written by Westerners with their mythologies and histories. It's now 2018 and I feel like the West is opening its mind (still only just), kicking and screaming, to allow the rest of the world to contribute to this genre.
Back to Binti. I read this while standing in my kitchen and I couldn't be bothered to sit down. I'm late to the game, so as far as reviews go, this is a throw-away post. And yet I wanted to write this because this book is incredibly relevant today.
It's short and packed with an imagination as thick and sweet as Binti's hair. I say that not just as a simile: Binti's hair is a character in the story. If we describe a character as one that another character relies on, develops and changes through the story, then Binti's hair is a character.
The story reads like a rite of passage story and one of independence. Binti, thrilled she's accepted at a prestigious galactic university, decides to run off in the middle of the night to board the ship that will take her there. She the first of her family and people to every get accepted in the university, and the first to actually act on it. Her family and people stay earth-bound; it's their responsibility and duty.
As if leaving home isn't hard, the sense that she shouldn't be doing this isn't only gnawing at her because of what her family has said to her, but it's accentuated by the fact that none of the people at the space station are like her. And there's a point in this kind of a journey where being different is all you can be, which is exactly what Binti does - she owns her differentness because what else can she do? She draws strength from her uniqueness.
Horrible things happen to Binti in space. Just as she makes friends, they die. Adding insult to injury, she survives and is now tasked with saving the university. By the end, Binti is more than Himba. And the question now is what's next.
The story is not about the science fiction. It's about being different and being okay with it. Even more so, it's about fighting for what makes one different when there is incredible pressure to conform. But Okorafor goes one step further by insisting, through Binti's actions and internal dialogue, that what makes one different can be a source of strength, even salvation. Binti reaches for her otjize like a shield and a salve. In doing this, Binti is also rebuffing her family's interpretation of her leaving home - she's not abandoning home and tradition at all. Going to university was never an either/or equation for Binti just as being Himba wasn't.
In a world where differentness is coming under siege, this is a simple story with larger implications and solid encouragement. What's more is that Okorafor has sequels to this story, so the encouragement continues.