Though a short work, Nnedi Okorafor’s 2015 novella Binti became one of the most decorated of the author’s career, earning both Hugo and Nebula awards. Given the number of prizes collected by the author, it’s surprising to realize her career is relatively young. Though she began writing for children and young adults in the early 2000s, her first adult novel, Who Fears Death, came out just six years ago. All of which is to say, any new work from Okorafor is worth anticipating, even more so her newest: Binti: Home, a sequel that follows the titular traveller back to the place of her family.
The first novella tells the story of a young Himba woman defying her parents and siblings in order to accept an offered slot at Oomza University, a prestigious intergalactic academy that brings together the brightest and most promising minds from around the galaxy. Binti’s people aren’t generally xenophobic, but they do tend to resist interaction with the outside world, being more interested in quiet and scholarly pursuits at home. Binti’s journey is viewed as rebellious, though confident, yet shy Binti hardly makes for a likely rebel. Her quiet self-assuredness leads her from her isolated home to a massive, living ship full of people who find her an oddity. The ship is soon overtaken by the Meduse, a species who have chosen this moment to break a treaty and enact violent revenge upon Binti’s fellow travelers. Before long, it’s her very outsider status that makes her ideally suited to bring an end to the carnage.
Binti is, pardon the pun, a universal story. She journeys from home to what feels like a big-city airport. Though her people are intelligent and technologically adept (brilliantly so), their inward-looking natures and lack of ostentation makes them targets of intense derision from neighbors, particularly the Khoush people. To much of the outside world, the Himba are little more than hicks, charmingly quaint (mirroring a modern-day view often painting sub-saharan Africans as novel, but uncivilized). Her trip to the spaceport evokes feelings of inadequacy to which anyone can relate: Binti is confident in her intelligence, and proud of her family, but she knows that her clothes and, particularly, her hair, mark her as an outsider, and someone unaccustomed to navigating in a more “sophisticated” world.
Okorafor makes a particularly astute choice in having Binti represent the Himba, a real indigenous group in the north of modern-day Namibia. The Himba are, perhaps, best known for the perfumed and ochre-colored otjize paste used, particularly by women, to keep clean and protect the skin and hair from dry conditions and insects. It’s a distinctive feature that provides Binti with unique and complex physical characteristics. Her hair, in particular (a fraught feature for many black women) is similarly rolled with otjize; Binti knows it is a mark of pride, literally braided with the history of her people in a mathematically precise fashion, imbued with the land itself. She also knows it’s a curious eccentricity to those outside of her tribe; they see only a people who choose to coat themselves with dirt and mud. Her hair becomes increasingly important as the story progresses, providing a point of commonality with the Meduse, whose heads are covered in snakelike tendrils. When Binti’s shuttle is overtaken by the vengeful Meduse, a mysterious object of ancient technology she’s been carrying as a good luck charm makes her of interest to them, but it is her hair that unexpectedly opens the door to communication between the species. In a short span of pages, the story packs in complex social messages alongside a gripping plot: the notion that one smart, honorable, and determined girl (a black girl, no less) can change the world entirely; or the very timely idea that communication and understanding are possible under even extreme circumstances.
When we first meet Binti, she sees herself as the rube; she’s hopelessly uncivilized to foreign eyes, and sometimes to her own in reflection. Though confident in her abilities, she struggles to maintain a strong self-image in the face of strangers, friends, and even family who are only interested in seeing what they expect to see. The original doesn’t demand a sequel, necessarily, but it does raise intriguing questions: what does Binti have to look forward to at Oomza University? How will her family respond—to her secretive leaving, to her physical changes (her contact with the Meduse having transformed her quite literally into something alien), and to her newfound importance? Her family is open-minded, but open-mindedness only extends so far when your daughter’s hair is now a living thing, and when she’s brought along a friend: the alien that helped to slaughter everyone on her shuttle out. The sequel mirrors the immigrant story of the original, as the wanderer returns home.
As Binti struggles to make sense of her new life in the center of her old one, we’re presented with another group, called only Desert People, nomads generally looked down upon by the Himba in the same way theHimba are scorned by the neighboring Khoush. The Desert People have an unexpected connection Binti’s family history, however, and knowledge of the ancient technology Binti has been working to unlock and understand. Though the Himba are looked down upon despite vast reserves of culture and technology, they do the same to the Desert People who also have hidden depths. Binti’s first journey took her away from her family and from Earth; the return trip takes her deeper into her own land and history. What she finds is no less alien.
I’m thrilled Okorafor has continued this story, and planted the seeds for a longer, more epic work. Binti’s adventures thus far blend high-concept science fiction ideas with genuine heart and humanity, but most of all, they showcase one of the richest, most compelling characters in recent sci-fi. Word is that there is at least one more story to come. I can’t wait to follow along with Binti as she takes her next steps.