Binti

Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka is of the Himba, the African people who apply otjize to their skin and hair. In a world where the people of Earth are connected to other planets, the Himba people stand apart. The Khoush, as they are called, expanded outward and send their brightest children to the center of higher learning in the galaxy, Oomza Uni, while the Himba stay put, free of the conflicts created by Khoush expansion, while exploring the universe by traveling inward. That is, until Binti tests into Oomza Uni and runs away from home in order to study mathematics.

The bulk of Nnedi Okorafor’s slim novella takes place on Binti’s flight from Earth to Oomza Uni aboard “Third Fish…a Miri 12, a type of ship closely related to a shrimp.” Other than Binti’s sense of wonder at everything new, the voyage is uneventful until, abruptly, Meduse raiders attack the ship because this extra-terrestrial race is at war with the Khoush. They sweep through the ship with “the Great Wave,” slaughtering everyone except Binti who is protected by her edan, a strange metallic device that damages the Meduse and allows her to talk to them.

Binti barricades herself in her room, only to learn that the Meduse haven’t come for blood, but to infiltrate Oomza Uni and recover their leader’s stinger that has been lodged there for years.

I entirely understand why this book won awards for best novella. It is a delightful read with a purity of purpose as it tackles issues of isolationism, war, fear, revenge, and colonialism. Binti’s special power is to be a “harmonizer,” and her survival gives an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange. The Meduse hate the edan, but are intrigued her “okuoko,” the Meduse word for their tentacles, as they interpret the thick strands formed by her hair covered in otjize, which, it turns out, can also heal the burns formed by the edan. In turn, Binti learns of the root of their conflict with the Khoush and promises to help if it will stop further bloodshed.

In short, this is a book with a gleaming heart that pulses with optimism, projecting the evils of colonialism into space in order to demonstrate the possibilities of diversity and empathy.

But to my eye, this optimism was also its glaring weakness. In a desperate gambit to create peace, Binti declares “Let me be…let me speak for the Meduse. The people in Oomza Uni are academics, so they’ll understand honor and history and symbolism and matters of the body.” Subsequently she admits that this is a hope, rather than something she knows, but she is confident in her ability to harmonize anywhere––and the academics only took the stinger out of ignorance.

This is a great sentiment, of course, and perhaps it works in this sort of fiction where people are endowed with unique gifts, but inasmuch as Binti serves as a parable about colonialism, it very much did not. Institutions of higher education embedded with the legacies of colonial and racial exploitation and, too often, when both they and the institutions are challenged on these grounds, the response is to become defensive. Rarely do they turn over the artifacts, as the resistance to returning the Parthenon Marbles should suggest, leave alone when the artifacts come from Africa.

My favorite example, and one that I use in my World History class, is the so-called Benin Bronzes, which are these beautiful brass plaques that a British punitive expedition looted in the 19th century. Despite the unambiguous record of ownership—they were looted in a war, not bought (from a legitimate seller or not) like the Parthenon Marbles—western museums have repeatedly ignored requests from Nigeria for their return and have only begun to change their stance in the last decade.

These examples on scratch the surface of these sorts of problems. Too frequently, institutions of higher education have a way of creating and replicating privilege around race, class, and gender, and the systems designed to protect academic freedom imbue them with the attitude of “I’ve got mine” made worse by perpetual austerity and provide a platform that lend legitimacy to prejudices that reflect society as a whole.

Perhaps the point of Binti is to show a world as it should exist, not free of prejudices but where enlightenment is possible. And yet, as someone laboring within the system as it is now, this point seemed as implausible as a shrimp-like vessel capable of interstellar travel.

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This is the second post catching up on a backlog that, includes Day of the Oprichnik, Sugar Street, Sudden Death, and A Gathering of Shadows, and I am now reading David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

Who Fears Death

It turns out that exhaustion can beat my best intentions to get back to writing about the books I read. That said, I genuinely like wrestling with my thoughts about books and the process of reviewing them, so, despite the prospect of another busy year, one of my resolutions for the year is to get back to writing these posts.

Racial prejudice defines one corner of a post-apocalyptic Africa. According to the Great Book, the dark-skinned Okeke are naturally inferior and therefore ought to be subservient to the light-skinned Nuru. Both groups believe that any mixed offspring must be born of violence and rape and therefore the offspring, called Ewu, are naturally corrupted. On the first count, at least, they are usually not wrong.

The title character of Who Fears Death, Onyesonwu, is the product of such a violation. A powerful Nuru sorcerer following a prophecy about rewriting the book forever led Nuru soldiers into Okeke villages and using his powers to enhance their ability to rape and kill. Every Okeke man died and every Okeke woman was raped repeatedly before dying, save only the sorcerer’s victim, Najeeba, who he is convinced will bear him the son destined. Except Najeeba bears a daughter, fleeing far into the east to Jwahir where she seeks refuge, raising her daughter with a new husband there.

Of course, life isn’t easy for Onyesonwu in Jwahir. She is Ewu, but also her mother doesn’t hold with the town’s superstitions such as the Eleventh Rite (female circumcision), and Aro, the local sorcerer, refuses to consider teaching her magic despite her obvious skill and the mortal threat posed to her by her father. Still, this headstrong girl makes her own decisions, which wins her friends among the other girls her own age and with Mwita, Aro’s Ewu apprentice. The question is whether these friendships will be enough when Onyesonwu leaves Jwahir to challenge her biological father.

At its best, Who Fears Death is a careful exploration of these relationships and issues through a very tightly focalized viewpoint coming through Onyesonwu’s eyes. This meant particularly moving (if often harrowing) explorations of female circumcision, one character who is sexually abused by her father, and the interplay between magic, prejudice, and menstruation and pregnancy that doesn’t always come up in male-authored fantasy. Similarly, I was quite touched by the way in which the shared history in Jwahir and different experiences with the outside world informed the dynamics of this group that sets off ostensibly to save the world they all live in.

However, for all that Okorafor does well and all that I liked, I came away from Who Fears Death strangely dissatisfied––the way one does when expecting to be blown away and receiving satisfactory. Who Fears Death is a competent book that confronts serious issues head-on, but the same features that allow it to do this convincingly does not leave much room for exploration of the post-apocalyptic setting, which provides a few touches but did not strike me as a particularly necessary part of this story. I could say much the same about the “Africa” side of the equation, which could have as easily been an invented world.

(I have been critical of invented worlds that too bluntly followed modern analogs, but Who Fears Death doesn’t have a map and with the historical backdrop largely lost in the apocalypse, those critiques are dramatically reduced.)

But the tight focus on Onyesonwu and her story also caused the ending to fall somewhat flat for me. The actual execution, which involves her awareness of her eventual fate, is adequately executed, but I somehow wanted more because it came off as either too neat or too ambiguous. For me this once again came back to the choice to push this world to the background. Committing to Who Fears Death as the story of Onyesonwu allowed the emotional notes to land, but, at least for me, caused overall arc of the story to fall short.

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My reading has gotten a bit ahead of my writing, as is wont to happen, so I have also finished V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and Alyson Hagy’s Scribe. I haven’t decided what I’m reading next, but since I have read nothing but books by women so far this month, I might as well finish it out the same way.