This is November’s reading group response post for Binti, Nnedi Okorafor’s Hugo- and Nebula-winning novella. Here are my thoughts on the piece—let’s continue the conversation in the comments. I also recommend checking out Vajra Chandrasekera’s February 2016 review of the novella in Strange Horizons.
The eponymous character of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti has a notable gift: she’s a harmonizer. The act of harmonizing implies a separation between the objects of that act. For instance, voices in harmony are separate voices, regardless of how well they work together to create a coherent-sounding whole. These separations—these boundaries—drive the story forward, and they should give us, as freethinkers, pause.
Binti, an adolescent girl who is gifted at mathematics, lives these separations during her youth on Earth. Her talents set her apart among her people, the Himba. In fact, she must leave secretly for Oomza University, since leaving her homeland is not the done thing. The Himba are themselves set apart from the majority Khoush population that surrounds them. Binti feels this more acutely in the launch station, where she notes the differences in how she is dressed—in bright colors, as opposed to the black and white clothing of the Khoush—and her braided hair, which, like her skin, is covered in otjize. The Khoush treat her as an oddity, remarking on her appearance and scrutinizing her more thoroughly than one of their own travelers.
At the violation of these boundaries, Binti is irrevocably changed. She violates the boundary between her people and the outside world by leaving for Oomza Uni, and thus risks her station among the Himba and within her family. She inhabits a sort of in-between place: she’s Himba, but she is quickly accepted by the Khoush students aboard ship who see her abilities. She is not Khoush, however; otherwise, the Meduse would have killed her along with the others. In the end, transformed by the Meduse, she becomes something between human and Meduse, able to inhabit both worlds, to communicate with both peoples.
The professors seem to yield to Binti’s request almost too easily, despite her transformation. In fiction, we expect the protagonist to face more resistance during the final conflict, but this isn’t the case in this novella. Perhaps we should question this ease: it foreshadows the change she’s undergone but neither she nor we are readers know about until later. Perhaps Binti has simply been through enough. She’s left her home, and it’s possible she won’t be able to return. She’s witnessed the slaughter of her fellow students aboard ship, ones she considered friends. She’s survived her encounter with the Meduse. Binti is a master harmonizer, after all.
Which brings me to what we can take from the novella in the current US political climate. I’ve heard again and again that we freethinking liberals need to “build bridges” or “make connections” with those who feel marginalized by progressive politics. We need to harmonize, perhaps, in order to work within the system.
Except the system changes—compromises, really—those who must connect with others who view them as somehow “less than.” Binti is caught between the Khoush, who view the Himba as inferior, and the Meduse, who view all humans as Khoush. Though Binti is able to navigate this middle ground, this new identity, and both save Oomza Uni and the Meduse chief’s stinger, she’s exceptional. She survives because of her gifts. But she survives as a different person than she was before.