Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

There’s enough negativity in the world as it is – I don’t need to add my own. For these reviews, I intend to keep the focus on what the author does well: their talents, assets, and best turns of phrase.

I can’t do math. I mean that literally. I think 9’s are p’s and 6’s. I think 2 has a crush on 4 who in turn has a crush on 8 who’s sweet and well meaning but caught between their rude bestie 7 and an unhealthy relationship with 9. But I couldn’t tell you what to do with any of them. I also can’t read clocks or tell left from right. Memorising multiplication times tables was impossible and I missed several lunches until I learned to fudge long division. I failed Algebra II, doodled through Geometry, wrote stories in Trigonometry, skipped Calculus altogether, and I think I might’ve failed Statistics as well. I’d stopped looking at that point.

I think the problem is that most people have a “thing” in their brain that is always oriented that this is left and this is right. It’s probably the same kind of thing that is subconsciously aware of the difference between air and water, or the purpose of a chair. Even if those aren’t things that you have always known, they’re now so much a part of your basic knowledge that you, literate human being reading this post (apologies if you’re blind and listening to it) are so accustomed to the shapes of letters that you can no longer look at a single word and not understand what it means.

The part of my brain that does all that is a little wonky. Since I’m not in school anymore, it doesn’t matter that much, unless I have to give someone a tip, and there are apps for that.

The point of telling you this is that Binti, the eponymous character of last month’s novella, is so good at math that she uses it to calm down. And she can do other things while she does it. She calls it “treeing.”

Yet they were girls who knew what I meant when I spoke of “treeing.” We sat in my room (because, having so few travel items, mine was the emptiest) and challenged each other to look out at the stars and imagine the most complex equation and then split it in half and then in half again and again. When you do math fractals long enough, you kick yourself into treeing just enough to get lost in the shallows of the mathematical sea. – Binti, page 22

If you wanted to impress me, Nnedi Okorafor, you’ve succeeded. Whether this is a thing in the real world or not, it’s an incredible concept. The fact that Binti consistently uses it later in the book in her worst moments as a way for her to separate her mind from an environment that would otherwise be too terrifying or threatening for her to process is such an excellent follow through. It also sounds a lot like stimming, the self-stimulating repetitive movements associated with autism.

The way that math is used in this novella as the reasoning behind the universe is also A++, but I’ll admit I don’t understand it and don’t entirely want to, so let’s move on to Binti as a character. The story starts with her sneaking out of her ancestral home to go to university, the first of her family and her people to do so. Binti is inextricably linked to her people via their traditions and beliefs, but she also desperately wants to learn, and this internal conflict sets the tone for the first 23 pages or so. The strongest part of the story is Binti herself – her intelligence, stubborn nature, and resourcefulness are clear from the first page. Her confidence is a refreshing trait in a female protagonist.

Binti coveer
Cover art for Binti

She’s also a woman of color, although I feel a little strange calling her that, because WoC is a term from our world, and I don’t know how it would fit in the racial discourse of Binti’s world. From our perspective it’s important to acknowledge that this is how we see her, but from her perspective, well, I don’t know. I’ve only just realised that her people, the Himba, are literally the Himba people of our world (in Namibia), but far off in the future. Binti is definitely the subject of bigotry, (and some super uncomfortable microaggressions), but I can’t tell how our real-world institutionalised racism has developed in a future that includes multiple worlds and multiple species. This goes especially when Binti’s people are so isolated and specific in their community.

It’s important, because this is the crux that the story swings on – the way that the Himba are othered by the Khoush through misunderstanding and the assumption that anything that deviates from the “norm” is primitive and barbaric, which is a much older form of xenophobia/psychological warfare/general bigotry than what we call racism today, is reflected back on Binti herself when the would-be villains appear.

Speaking of the would-be villains, what a wild ride they are. I don’t want to say too much about them, but I thought it was truly spectacular the way Binti’s perspective of them, and her own prejudices, were twisted in such surprising ways. There is nothing more that I adore than a peaceful solution to what should be a bloody conflict (trigger warning for body horror in the middle of the novella though – this beast gets hairy real quick).

The biggest problem I had with the novella was the length. It’s such an ambitious world and storyline, and it really deserved the time required to flesh it out. Even so, it’s by far one of the most original and imaginative stories I’ve ever read, and it is the first in a series. I think the best way to describe Binti is to pull a quote from the author’s acknowledgements page:

Lastly, I’d like to thank a jellyfish, someone close to me with deep traditional and tribal beliefs, the lovely Himba people of Namibia, and the futuristic ancient lands of the United Arab Emirates for inspiring me to explore outer space. – Nnedi Okorafor

She even dedicated it to the jellyfish.

 


 

April’s monthly reading is The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

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