This book was recommended to me by so many people I trust, including Maureen at By Singing Light, the Book Smugglers and Fangirl Happy Hour that I finally took the radical step of getting it through interlibrary loan, even though neither of my regular libraries owns it. (It won lots of awards, too, though I place less weight on awards than on people whose taste I know is similar to mine.)
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Tor, 2015.
Binti is setting off in the dead of night to go away to university. She’s part of a rural minority African culture, the Himba, and her family doesn’t understand why she would feel the need to go to university at all, let alone university off planet. One of the most notable features of their culture from the outside is that they all cover their skin and hair with a mix of special oil and the red clay of their homeland, reinforcing their connection to their land and home. This tradition will be challenging for Binti to continue in space, obviously, and also marks her as decidedly different from the other people of the majority culture on the transport to the university. But this already challenging journey changes abruptly when the transport is attacked by the alien Meduse, historical enemies of the majority population on the transport. Now Binti’s abilities, including her love for math and engineering, as well as her ability to communicate between cultures, are the only thing keeping her alive.
This novella is short enough to read in an evening, but packed with thought-provoking ideas, as well as characters we get to know surprisingly well in the short time span. The Himba culture described is real, though I’d never heard of it before, which is suddenly striking to me when juxtaposed with the ideas of space transports and large residential stations in outer space, an idea that’s less real and more familiar. (OK, I know there’s an international space station, but it only has humans, and we don’t send our talented young people off to it for university.) Still, this is more a book about what makes home, about maintaining connection to your culture when you’re away from it, and about diplomacy and finding ways to cross large divides. Also, I really enjoyed spending some time getting to know Binti herself.
I can also heartily recommend two of Nnedi Okorafor’s other books (written for a teen or upper middle grade audience), Akata Witch and Zahrah the Windseeker. The difficulty of communicating with very alien species as found in Binti remind me of the middle grade duology Ambassador and Nomad by William Alexander.
Now I just need to make some room in my schedule to read Binti:Home.