“Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs. Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself — but first she has to make it there, alive.” Source: Macmillan.
How I wish I had been reading books like Binti growing up instead of Nancy Drew! While the latter firmly serves to reinforce all stereotypes known to humanity (blonde = beautiful perfection; brunette = chubby side-kick; non-white = ….. [non-existent]; materialism = rah, rah! etc and so on)- Binti unapologetically forges her own path, seeks her own meaning, explodes structural barriers sustained by history for generations: she is, in other words, one fully badass feminist heroine I’d want my (hypothetical) young daughter emulating.
Before I go any further, I really want to give a HUGE shoutout to Bina @ifyoucanreadthis, who first introduced me to Okorafor, to Naz @readdiversebooks for also recommending Okorafor, and in general the #diversebookblogger community for encouraging me to expand my reading selection, and for opening up so many new worlds of books to me.
Ok – back to the review: this slim 2015 Nebula-award winning novella follows Binti, a young woman from the Himba tribe on Earth, who, against all odds, recommendations, and traditions, is accepted to Oomza University, the most prestigious in the galaxy (on another planet). This is just the beginning of her story (the first in a new series): an introduction to the Himba and Khoush people, the Meduse (a seemingly hostile, non-human race), as well as Binti’s spaceship travel to and arrival at Oomza Uni.
The Himbas are a spiritual tribe, intimately connected to their land/place of origin. Their primary occupation is that of “harmonizers” – crafters of astorables for all Earthly races (an astorable is a smart-device that can do pretty much anything, by tapping into the mathematical ‘waves’ of the world). Himbas rarely leave their land, in fact they wear the clay of their home on their skin and hair (in a paste, otjize, featured on the cover), so Binti’s desire to attend Oomza Uni breaks all precedent.
On her journey, Binti forges relationships with both Meduse and with the Khoush people (The Koush are metropolitan dwellers, an affluent race of pale skinned humans that uses the Himbas-everyone needs an astorable!—but does not usually deign to interact or forge relationships with them). She bravely and with youthful sincerity and non-duplicity seeks to understand all those whom she encounters, and uses her harmonizing skills to heal relationships and resolve strife, even violent situations. This is all while being the sole Himba on the spaceship and at Oomza, without the support of family or, at first, fiends.
As other reviewers have written, the science in Binti is not articulated at length, and seems light at times, maybe an afterthought. As a math teacher, well, I definitely wasn’t feeling the “mathematical waves” that Binti tapped into as a harmonizer (but there certainly are physical waves permeating everything, and if you believe string theory, all is constituted of tiny vibrating strings…) So, true, this is not ‘hard’ science-fiction, BUT, these are my two rationalizations for upping the rating to 5 anyway:
(1) This book is for younger people; it could be read as early as 2nd-4th grade I’m guessing for advanced readers (then again I teach math to 12th graders, not primary-school English). I would have still enjoyed it in high-school, and I read it as an adult, but I’m not going to dock off points for the science not being fully worked out as it would be in an adult or even YA novel.
(2) For its intended audience, this is absolutely the most brilliant exploration of race, gender, identity, belonging, social-justice, peace-as-a-solution, and so many more crucial topics I have ever read.
*⌈the ceiling function rounds up to the nearest integer⌉