Most science-fiction adventure narratives contrast the familiar with the strange or unknown. Captain Kirk explores strange new planets, the Nostromo finds the alien, the Martians invade. The stories provide you with a stable, normal baseline from which to access the unknown.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series upends that plot. Okorafor is a first generation Nigerian-American, and her books are informed by her own perspective as insider and outsider in multiple cultures. The hero of her series, Binti, comes from the Himba tribe of Namibia. The Himba are not a science-fiction invention, but to Western readers, their customs are very unfamiliar; Himba women spread red clay, or ojitze, over their bodies and in their hair. When Binti leaves her home to travel to a great off-world university to study mathematics, the reader ends up seeing the supposedly familiar through the eyes of a supposed stranger. And when Binti encounters the terrifying alien Meduse, it’s not a case of familiar meeting strange, but of two different cultures, each in some ways familiar and in some ways not, encountering each other.
Binti won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella when it came out in 2015; the sequel Binti: Home was released earlier this year. I spoke to Okorafor by phone about her inspirations for the series.
Were you always intending to write a sequel to Binti?
I knew the world was big and I knew I’d write more, but I also knew I didn’t want any pressure. I wrote the second Binti before the first Binti even came out. Why did I write it? Because the story came to me and it was good. I arrived in Buffalo, NY and boom, the story descended on me. The first Binti came to me in the August of 2014, the second in August 2015, and the third came to me in full in August 2016, but I had to wait until December of 2016 to have time to write it. These three complete the trilogy. I’m not sure if I’ll write more.
Binti is a member of the Himba people, an indigenous people from northern Namibia. What led you to want to write about them?
I had wanted to write about the Himba people for a while. Their culture has always interested me because they’re one of the few African people who really maintained a lot of their traditions, despite modernity coming in. And this is changing too; Namibia has a very rich and problematic history, so you can see how a lot of the younger folk are leaving the community to go find a better life. But their culture has always interested me because it’s so itself.
Have you gotten feedback from Himba people?
There was one Namibian filmmaker who was very interested in filming Binti. So I’m still waiting to hear from him. But not much; I haven’t had much contact with Himba people. Which kind of makes sense, because the people that I am writing about are not that likely to be online. There are whole parts of the world that do not get internet access. I still hope; I’m still waiting.
Where did you get the idea for the Meduse, the aliens who attack Binti’s ship?
The reason I even started writing Binti was first because of the jellyfish I saw in the United Arab Emirates. About two, maybe three years before I wrote Binti, I was in the United Arab Emirates and we were outside. It was hot, it was in the middle of the day. We were there for the Sharjah book festival, and it gets very hot there. There was a lagoon right across the street from our hotel, and in the middle of the day, the hottest part of the day, and in that part of the world, when it gets really hot like that, everyone just disappears, they just go inside.
We were outside, and we probably shouldn’t have been, burning up and really enjoying the sun, and the heat, and I remember we were near the lagoon, and I looked down into the lagoon, and that was when I saw the first jellyfish that I have ever seen that was wild, that was not in an aquarium or something. It was just floating its way through the water and it was blue, and it was just a magical moment for me. And it had a really strong impact. I loved that jellyfish, and I wanted to find a way to honor it — and eventually I did, by turning it into a murderous alien, a murderous tribe of aliens.
Is Binti’s journey away from home based on your own experiences at all?
A lot of my experiences — a lot of what Binti goes through, I’m drawing off of things I have to deal with. Even the genesis of Binti’s story, of her leaving her family to go to the finest university of the galaxy, that whole premise. The plot of Binti started when —I come from a very close knit family. My brother, my sisters, and my mom and then all of our kids were all in Chicago, and my dad when he was alive. We’re very close.
I was teaching at Chicago State University and hating it there. That’s a whole other story. At some point the university of Buffalo dropped out of the sky and was like, “Oh, here we want you to come and be a professor, and we’re going to offer you tenure, and we’re basically going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.” And I couldn’t.
So I accepted the position, and found myself moving to Buffalo, New York, against my family’s wishes. They really, really didn’t want me to go. They were like, listen, you’re breaking up the family, no no no no. They were very much against it. But I went anyway. And when I did that, it caused a really big rift between myself and my family. It was a very difficult time for me, and I remember getting here — my daughter stayed with my mom, so I’d fly back and forth. When I got here to Buffalo, it was in August, [and] I felt completely disconnected. I just felt like I was somewhere else, and I was kind of in a very painful place, and that was when I started writing Binti.
Because I started thinking about, ‘I feel like I’ve just left the planet, and I’ve left my family behind.’ And writing has always been very therapeutic for me. So if I’m in pain, or if I’m having a difficult time, the first thing I do is start writing. So then I started writing a story about this girl, who leaves her very close knit family because she gets into this university on another planet. And then I started thinking about my own family, and my own family’s fears. Why would they not want me to take this awesome position? So I started thinking, what’s the worst thing that can happen?
And that’s where the plot for Binti came from, that’s where… it’s all good, it’s all going really well, and then the worst thing that can possibly happen, happens to her out there in space.
Which is a jellyfish attack.
Yes. And everyone dying brutally right in front of her and she’s still there in space.
Science-fiction often tells colonial stories of exploration and conquest. Yours is almost a reverse colonial story, though; Binti travels from the margins to what’s seen as the universe’s center of culture.
When I’ve read science fiction, it’s often dealing with that issue of colonialism, but for me that’s not my worldview. When I sat down to write a space opera, as you say, it’s the reverse. She’s leaving earth. and it’s not her trying to dominate this group of people, or these people trying to dominate her. No, she’s integrating, and a part of this bigger thing.
When I look at traveling to a different planet, traveling to Mars, the idea of terraforming a planet disgusts me. How are you going to come to this thing that was already existing and change it to suit yourself? I’m more likely to look at myself and change so I can interact with that outside thing. Binti changes, but she also changes those who change her.
One of the ways Binti changes is the Meduse change her hair into tentacles. Why tentacles, which most people find…well, unpleasant?
I think it has to do with the fact that I have dreadlocks. I have very long, thick, free forming dreadlocks, and they look like tentacles. So the idea of tentacles isn’t monstrous to me. It’s normal. So there’s that.
Also, Binti comes from a people where their hair is a certain way: the Himba people, when the woman roll their hair with the ojitze, the red clay they spread on themselves, it does look tenticular. I don’t think this is something I was thinking of consciously when I wrote it.
When I wrote Binti, I was thinking about my own fears, and one of the things I most fear is space. I’ve never written anything set in space, because space is too claustrophobic to me. It’s the place where you’re supposed to die if you’re from earth. If you’re a creature from earth, you die out there. So I was thinking about facing my fears. I’m sure beneath the surface there are all sorts of narratives. I read reviews of Binti where they compare Binti to Ripley in Alien; I’m sure that was somewhere in my subconscious. It has to have been because I see it in there.
What other things are you working on now?
I wrote all the Bintis around the same time each year. The third installment is called the Night Masquerade and that comes out in September. The sequel to Akata Witch, my young adult fantasy, comes out in October. I’m working on a short story, which I just finished, and I have one novel that’s going to come out called Remote Control. I’ve been working on that for a long time. And I have some other projects; I have a five-issue comic book series that’s going to be coming out in 2018, but they haven’t announced that yet so I can’t really talk about it. After that, finally I will be free to do some new things, so I’m really looking forward to that.