Tuesday, 21 February 2017

On Books 3: Binti and Binti: Home

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor was exactly the novella I needed to read this week.

It's not only that it's a book about an intelligent, resourceful black woman stopping an interstellar war, though finding it as I did during an upswing in all things white, male, and violent, it was certainly refreshing. Binti and its sequel, Binti: Home, have helped solidify in my head what it is I want from literature right now.

I grew up as a middle-class white girl in the suburban US. I will never truly understand what it's like to be Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Danbury Kaipka, either in the traditions of her ethnic group, the Himba people of the Namibian desert; her grand and terrifying adventure through space to the university planet of Oomza; or (G-d forbid) the post-traumatic stress disorder that follows that adventure. But through the experiences and emotions that I do share with Binti, I can begin to try.

I know what it's like to leave everything you know to go to school far from your family. I have spent much of my life surrounded by people who neither understand nor respect my family's customs. I have wrestled with the idea that I am not becoming the person I expected myself to be, that I have left bits of myself behind on the journey from there to her, and the worry that my family will not accept who I have become. I feel closer to this person who is so different from me, because of the things we have in common.

And I think that's something literature should do: connect readers with types of people they've never thought about. Teach them to care about people who are not like them. Help them to understand others’ lives through their own, and their own lives through those of others.

Binti does these things beautifully. You should read it for yourself. The first half of Binti: Home also does these things well. But in the second half of Home, the story does a couple of things that I really wish literature would not do.

The first is the “maligned tribal people with ancient alien technology” trope. This turns out to be the source of the mysterious artifact that saves Binti’s life in the first book: aliens that visited Earth centuries ago on their way to Oomza (where Binti has become an honors student on a math scholarship) and give their nanotechnology to a group called the Enyi Zinariya, to whom Binti’s grandmother belongs. The Enyi Zinariya are referred to disparagingly as “Desert People” by the Himba. On the one hand, it's a usefully uncomfortable reminder that even minorities have minorities: the Himba are looked down on by the light-skinned Khoush, but also look down on the even darker Enyi Zinariya. It also highlights that, even in Okorafor's high-tech future, skin color is still used as a basis for discrimination. Racism doesn't go away just because we can go to school in space.

In these ways, the ancient aliens trope is useful and important. But I can't read it here without connecting it to a long history of racist and colonialist uses of the trope, from conspiracy theories about the Egyptian pyramids to The Call of Cthulhu to the Precursors in the Assassin's Creed games. So in Binti's world, it seems out of place.

The second thing I wish books did not do that Binti: Home does is end on a cliffhanger. I like stories that give me closure, and cliffhangers always feel like a marketing gimmick, denying that closure so I have to pay for out the next book in the series. (Related: I'm glad my local library had these.) There is a third book available for preorder on Amazon. I am not yet sure whether I will read it. But I know I want to keep the first one handy.

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