On Monday 3rd of August, we met online to discuss Binti (2016), our last text of the year for our theme of Borders. The discussion was hosted on Blackboard Collaborate rather than our usual (for the last four months) platform of Zoom, in preparation for our conference ‘Beyond Borders’ to be held on Collaborate from September 10-12th of this year.
Binti is the first of a trilogy of novellas by Nnedi Okorafor, following the adventures of the young eponymous protagonist. In the first novella, Binti leaves home against her parents’ wishes in order to attend the prestigious university of Oomza on another planet. On the journey to Oomza her ship is attacked by the jellyfish like people, the Meduse, and Binti must resolve the situation using her mathematical talents and diplomacy.
We were joined by an international group of academics and students (one of the great advantages to online reading groups), and the discussion was lively and detailed. I have divided the discussion into four broad themes; ‘university’, ‘culture/science’, ‘body’, and ‘language’, each of which in some way speaks to our theme of borders in sf:
The university as an institution in the novella was read by the group as both a heavily bordered space and a liminal one.
The university is presented as a Utopian space existing between or beyond the conflicts on Binti’s home planet, where her people, the Himba, are treated in a prejudicial manner by the Khoush, and an ongoing conflict periodically flares between the Khoush and the Meduse. The university itself is comprised of many different races and cultures, working together to study the universe. This sense of the university as liminal space was compared with Young Adult fiction in general in which the university is often seen as the space between the troubles of adolescence and adulthood.
Conversely, though the university is not fully problematised by the text, there is an indication that the university contributes to and maintains conflict. The Meduse want to attack Oomza University so they can reclaim a part of their chief that has been stolen by Oomza academics. Binti reminds Okwu, a young Meduse, that the weapons that the Meduse use to fight the Khoush, are developed at the university.
The difference between cultures in Binti is interestingly centred around science and technology, as well as cultural practices.
On Binti’s planet, there appears to be a split in knowledge between the Himba and the Khoush. The Khoush have developed advanced transportation systems, including the fascinating space-fish ship. The Himba are experts in mathematics and produce technology essential for the Khoush infrastructure. The balance of knowledge reverses the colonial trope of colonial techno-dominance. Binti’s people are scientifically superior but still face prejudice from the dominant culture of the planet.
As a master harmonizer, Binti is able to use her mathematical skills to bring an accord between warring nations. It was noted that maths is often a trope of communication between alien species in sf, a kind of universal constant that all can understand. The process of mathematical calculations in the novella, ‘treeing’, was commented upon. ‘Treeing’ appeared to be some sort of trance, and so moved mathematical knowledge away from Eurocentric ideas of the discipline as distanced rationality, instead centering a bodily experience.
It was noted that Binti’s body was both symbolically and literally the site of communication between cultures, and this process of communication transforms her into a hybrid. Her hybrid status allegorises the change necessitated by the plot by her movement from home to university.
Her ability to harmonize means that she is able to bridge the differences between the Khoush and the Meduse, and bring about a peaceful resolution between Oomza Uni and the Meduse chief. At the same time, Bint is physically transformed by the Meduse, so that she will be able to speak on their behalf.
The treatment of hair in the text brought up issues of consent. A Khoush student travelling with Binti to Oomza, touches her hair without asking, reflecting both her alien status to the dominant population of her planet, and also the lived reality of racism in which unwanted hair touching is an everyday experience for BIPOC. Bint’s hair is then transformed into ‘okuoko’, the Meduse word for their hair-like appendages, again without her consent. It was pointed out that Binti becomes ever more violated and hybrid in order to end a conflict that she has nothing to do with. This was linked with the figure of Black women in the work of N. K. Jemisin and Octavia E. Butler, who are often outsiders and negotiators, and perhaps reflects the marginalisation and oppression of BIPOC women in our society.
Often in the discussion we turned to issues of language in sf and in Binti in particular. While mathematics appeared to be a universal language, drawing together all of the species on Oomza Uni planet, the Meduse word for their hair-like appendages, ‘okuoko’, was the only word that could not be translated. What can and cannot pass through universal translators, someone pointed out, is often a way for writers to highlight particular themes. Maths is an underlying universal language in the text, while ‘hair’ is part of language that must be negotiated between different groups.
It was pointed out that the use of Himba terms in the text denaturalized the reader’s worldview, in a manner that we are familiar with the genre of sf. However, often the technique of denaturalization in sf is blunted by the Western reader’s familiarity with the sf megatext of neologisms and novums, and so the estrangement of colonial expectations in Binti was seen particularly welcome and effective.