Binti: Home is the eagerly anticipated follow up to Hugo and Nebula-award winning Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. In Binti, Okorafor does a brilliant job of creating a fascinating new universe with its own creatures and conflicts, and establishing a pretty badass lead in the titular Binti. Being a novella though, Binti felt a little too short and the world(s) a little undeveloped to me – I finished the first instalment wanting to know more about the goings on of Oomza University, the many different races and species that inhabit Binti’s world, and the intricacies of the home world she left behind.
The second novella in the series is more intriguing as it expands the foundations laid in the first instalment. We learn that in Oomza University, Weapons Education is examined by pitting students against each other, literally asking them to fight with their newly invented weapons – perhaps a literalization of the increasingly competitive examination methods we see in universities and schools in our own world. We learn how students travel around the huge campus on a solar shuttle made from the moulted cuticle of a giant creature, and how even in the University, seemingly neutral ground, Khoush professors hold a grudge against Meduse students and vice versa. We learn more about the Himba culture: how women must go on a pilgrimage as a rite of initiation into adulthood and how strongly Binti feels the call to undertake it; how inward-looking the Himba community can be; the living legends they believe in like the Night Masquerade, a creature of dried sticks, raffia, leaves and wood, and how by seeing it, something that only men are said to be able to do, Binti once again represents a break from tradition.
However, Binti’s university life is only touched on in the beginning; a year has passed since the events of the first novella and as Binti leaves for home at the beginning, we still have a lot to learn about her life, studies and experiences there. It’s an interesting choice Okorafor makes to send Binti back home instead of having her go off on a space adventure; it suggests how dedicated Okorafor is to character study: Binti’s need to face issues closer to home and confront the problems within far outweigh any new adventure she could be having.
What left a lasting impression on me is the way Okorafor tackles Binti’s PTSD in Binti: Home: the impact of the first book on Binti’s mental and emotional state are neither ignored nor lightened for the sake of plot. While plot driven, space opera style romps are enjoyable, the strength in Binti: Home lies in the struggle and difficult arc of Binti’s character development. In the first novella, Binti witnesses the slaughter of all of her new classmates. It happened in the blink of an eye. Among the slaughtered were the first new friends she made outside her own community, as well as a boy she had begun having romantic feelings for. The trauma of witnessing mass violence isn’t something that goes away – even if a year has passed, and Okorafor tackles that head on.
Binti suffers from panic attacks, and when triggered, the coppery tang of blood and gore is vivid in her mind. She also experiences violent mood swings, an anger she cannot reconcile with, considering it, and herself by association, ‘unclean’. Whilst she treasures her friendship with Okwu, her only friend at the university, she experiences emotional turmoil at the fact that he is a Meduse, a jelly-like tentacled creature, one of her captors and an active participant in the massacre. At the same time, whilst her mathematical treeing abilities are developing at a fast rate, Binti is also trying to figure out her edan – an ancient mysterious stone-like technology – a frustrating and frightening process, as the activity seems to transport her to a different plane of existence or consciousness where an unidentified voice speaks to her.
Binti also feels homesick and the desire to complete her pilgrimage – except to complicate matters, she believes she needs to undertake it in order to cleanse herself and be forgiven by the Seven for the very act of leaving home. She connects her unexpected fury to this ‘unclean’ act. Binti is a giant bundle of complex and layered emotions which pull her in different directions: Okorafor succeeds in making her feel real.
Binti’s guilt for leaving home speaks very much to an important aspect of the immigrant condition: those who move away either feel guilt or are made to feel guilty for leaving behind their lives. As Okorafor demonstrates, returning home can be a contradictory experience, where you want to display or show off the new things you have acquired and experienced – as Binti does by wearing a bright blue dress to their family dinner, a colour not normally worn by the Himba – but you also feel shame, chastisement or regret in the act of doing so, just as Binti does when she recognises too late that the blue dress makes her seem more foreign and emphasises her changed strangeness.
Returning home, Okorafor suggests, is a bittersweet, complicated experience, especially when the receiving home party is resistant to change and new ideas. The intolerance of Binti’s family members and her childhood best friend, while extremely wounding to Binti and to the readers on the same journey as her, highlight an experience familiar to first generation immigrants around the world.
Okorafor explores prejudice from many different angles: no one is exempt from her discerning study, and she highlights how even the best of us with the best intentions fall prey to prejudiced views. Binti herself, despite going to Oomza University halfway across the universe and meeting all manners of creatures and beings, subscribes to the commonly held Himba view that the Desert People are uncultured and barbaric, even though her father was once a member.
The novella charts the changing of Binti’s intolerance: as she meets the Desert People, sees their impressive labyrinthine cave-home, witnesses a scene of harmonizing and sees her own skill mirrored in them, and lastly as she understands the science behind the way they communicate with each other using a form of communal mind-speak. When faced with the complexities, the curiosities and the genius of the Desert People, Binti is forced to reassess everything she thought she knew about them. It is a humbling experience for her, to accept that she is actually a ‘daughter’ of the Desert People – an experience we could all do with too to address any latent and subconscious prejudices we may be harbouring.
Binti’s attitude, and in extension, the attitude of the ‘civilized’ tribes in the area mimics the way the West and the developed nations view the ‘third world’: they are surprised if any innovation, technology or knowledge arises from those regions. There is a sense not only of underestimation but of patronizing infantilization. As such, it is incredibly important that Okorafor chooses to create a first-contact origin story for Enyi Zinariya, referred to Binti as Desert People until she learns the tribe’s proper name and astounding history. Along with Binti, we learn that they are ‘old old Africans’ and how aeons ago they encountered an alien species called the Zinariya who landed in Earth’s desert as a rest stop on their way to Oomza University.
The Zinariya left in the genetic code of the tribe a living organism which allows them even centuries later to communicate with each other in their minds. That aeons ago the tribe knew about Oomza University and encountered alien technology is a fact that Binti has to work hard to wrap her mind around: it forces her to confront her own prejudice. Importantly, it also forces us as readers to realign our own prejudices about science fiction and innovation – and if we are surprised that a desert tribe in Africa could be imbued with alien technology, the novella quietly demands that we interrogate the origin and nature of that surprise. Okorafor presents a refreshing point of view in science fiction which engages very much with prejudices in our own world.
Binti: Home is an engrossing continuation of the first novella, which does important work in challenging readers to think of the nature of prejudice, whilst also ending on a killer cliff hanger. The rivalry between the human Khoush and the Meduse comes to a head with Okwu, unbeknownst to Binti, captured and imprisoned, and Binti racing to go back and save Okwu and her family from whatever is threatening them. You have your heart in your throat when you finish reading, and you immediately want to jump into the next novella – Binti: Home is both an intellectually stimulating and a satisfying read.