Book review: Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

I’ve always loved fantasy and liked sci-fi. Fantasy has a special place in my heart, because good swords-and-sorcery fiction is just made of win. There’s a lot to love in the genre, especially when it’s done well (a la Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch).

All my life I’ve been reading these books, and not once have I read an author who looks like me. Almost every book of the genre that I’ve read was by an American author with your typical nerd history (played D&D, huge Star Wars/Star Trek fan), and I think they’re to blame for my geek leanings. I mean, what business has a Ghanaba like me have wishing we had LARP meets in Ghana?

Not once have I read a fantasy or sci-fi book by a black author. I’m sure there are a couple out there, I just never read one. Then I stumbled upon Nnedi Okorafor, and her novella Binti. I saw a picture of the cover art on my Twitter feed, and was immediately intrigued. A black protagonist? A Nigerian name on a sci-fi book? A female Nigerian sci-fi writer? And she’s getting good press? I immediately had to read this book, and so I did. Let me tell you, Binti is a great book. It’s sci-fi, which as I said is a genre I like, but don’t read much of, and so I came to this book with no expectations. I was only hoping for an engaging read and some interesting characters.

Binti is a Nebula Award winning novella that follows the titular character on her journey across space to Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. She is the first of the Himba people to ever be offered a place at Oomza, but her decision to accept the offer upturns her life and is strongly opposed by her family. Binti is willing to acquire knowledge no matter the cost, and determines to make the journey regardless. She had no idea that what was supposed to be a routine flight would take a disastrous turn, and her life would be changed forever.

I’m trying to not spoil much, because I’d rather you read it as I did, with no idea what to expect, and form your own opinions about it. I really, really wanted to love this book totally and completely, with no reservations, and be completely blown away by it, but I wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the writing, the attention to detail, and the effort it takes to craft a great story and a convincing world in under 100 pages, so I’m not being hypercritical. It’s just some things felt a little forced for me, some things did not play out the way they should have (I’m talking about consequences for atrocious actions), and I had a sense there was far more that Nnedi could have done with this. The resolution felt a little too bow-tied and perfect, but the sections in which Binti talks about the history of her people, their suffering and the richness of their culture are amazing. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s not half bad either. I really recommend you pick it up if you can. The sections about the Himba people alone are worth it.

I like this book for another reason. Nnedi Okorafor is an inspiration to me, being Nigerian and yet writing sci-fi. I’ve always had trouble with the fact that African writers seemed to only write a certain kind of book, that was always set in a certain kind of place, and dealt with a certain kind of theme. I don’t like the fact that the phrase “African writer” evokes images of savannas for cover art and themes of colonial oppression and race and hardship. Yes, much of African history is similar in certain regards and many people in many places across the continent have had similar experiences, but I do not believe there is one “African narrative.” We are many things. We are not an undifferentiated mass of shared experience and choices. We should be allowed to tell our stories how we want to, and I believe Nnedi Okorafor did exactly that, in a fresh approach that resonated with me immensely. I really liked this book. My only gripe was with some of the storytelling choices she made. That said, this is a great book that explores themes of importance to us, and the fact that it’s done in a fresh, unconventional format makes this novella a must read.

I give Binti 4/5 stars.

 

 

Binti is available in audio format on audible.com, and I recommend you get the audiobook if you can. I enjoyed it a ton.

Jericho’s Walls

Jericho’s Walls

When I was in high school I remember I saw a ton of scribbles in chalk and charcoal on many walls in my neighbourhood. I thought it was strange, but paid no mind. A few weeks later I saw a man holding a piece of chalk, scribbling on a wall. He wore dirty clothes, was barefoot and looked like what we in Ghana call a madman. I remember I had a subconscious, superstitious fear that if I ever read his scribbles I’d go mad too, so I stayed away from any walls he’d written on. I got to calling him Jericho—get it? He wrote on walls, so they were Jericho’s walls? I’m punny, I know—and thought I’d like to make him a character in a comic who covered the walls of his city with scribbling that no one knew were prophecies of an impending doom, and how they might be saved, apart from an intrepid young lad who cracked his code *wink, wink*.

I thought Jericho was cool, but after a while, I saw Jericho’s scribbles around less and less. Rain washed the walls of his chalk and charcoal prophecies, so I never got to find out whether it was a meteorite or zombie apocalypse that would wipe out my city, or how to find the secret bunker in which he had stashed his supply of phantom-repellent and kaiju poison.

A few days ago on my way to a SASA meeting I saw Jericho scribbling on the pavement at a traffic light. I was immediately seized with a feeling I can’t quite describe. It began as a mildly surprised “Oh! It’s Jericho,” bubbled into an excited “Damn, Jericho! Back at it again with the prophecies!” before petering out into a guilty “Aw man. He’s still not healthy.” My trotro took off soon after, and I made a mental note to get over my damn fear of my heroic destiny and read his prophecies so I know what to wear the day the lizard-people come.

Sitting in the trotro, I kept thinking about Jericho and the mentally ill in general. There is a fundamental hatred for and fear of them in our society. We’ve all been kids who ran away from the neighbourhood madman (you had yours, I’m sure), deathly scared he would eat us. We’re afraid of them because we don’t understand them, and we shun them because we think they’re beyond helping. Frankly, I don’t believe we even want to help them.

There’s a joke we throw about like it’s nothing but I swear it’s dripping with truth; “Many are mad, but few are naked.” We hear that and laugh, because it’s often used to snidely imply that someone’s behavior marks them as a crazy person. Either that, or we think “mad” applies only to the subset of our society that is homeless and has unkempt hair, and we assume the joke is saying something about degrees of madness, some kind of “madder-ness” that’s extra insane and goes about naked, but that is missing the point. I think that’s not all the joke is saying, but I’ll address that in another post. Back to Jericho. This isn’t meant to be heavy. Well, not that heavy.

After my meeting, I got on a trotro and headed straight home. I got off at the traffic light, and walked over to where I’d seen him writing. I had to see what he found so important that he had to write it everywhere. I whipped out my phone, ready to capture the ingredients of the secret formula that would turn me into Captain West Africa. Instead, I saw:

ADABRAKA PRIMARY SCHOOL

KNOCKOUT COCAO NOUNTEEE

UR STILL ATTACH REINHARDBONNZE

KUMAWO SR KIEGGGG OH SAY MOKOLA PUEGEOT

ATTACH GOVERNMENT PROPERTY

and more gibberish that I guess he saw on signs around the city. Maybe it’s a code, but I don’t have the Robert Langdon level skills required to crack this code. Is he saying advertising is evil? Some tool employed by the aliens to lull us into a consumerist stupor that makes us unprepared for their invasion? Maybe there’s something to be said about how flooded our society is with advertising that it’s all that runs through a madman’s mind, but that’s also for another post. Like I said, this is not meant to be heavy.

It was cool to finally read his scribbles, to finally know I’ll have to look elsewhere for instructions on how to survive the attack of the Donald Trump clones. There’s something else I want to unpack here but I don’t know how to do it without being fake-deep. Maybe some other time. Or maybe, I’m the crazy person for thinking there was some deep truth in the scribbling of a madman, but I don’t think that’s likely. Is it? Nah.

Is it?

Maybe Jericho should have written this post. He’d probably make more sense than I did 😀

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Suitcase

He liked cleaning. Anything that forced order on the world was good.

He avoided the corner farthest from the door because that’s where the suitcase was, and whenever he got too close he heard the rattle of his father’s bones, promising that the trip would be the greatest trip ever. He hadn’t kept that promise. It didn’t matter that he’d died two years ago in a car crash days before the trip. He’d had a chance to make up for every prior broken promise, and hadn’t.

He made sure to avoid the corner farthest from the door.

© 2016 k.amoh

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/suitcase/

 

 

Miles and miles of wire

I hate how Dad sounds over the phone lately.

I remember when I was a kid, I thought voices I heard through phones were some compression of the other’s soul, their essence miniaturized and compacted, then shot through miles and miles of wire; the faint static that tinged a voice’s edges was the soul’s frenetic crackling, unable to keep still after having lightninged its way to me.

I know now that’s not the case–mics and speakers convert audio to electricity to audio–but still the image saddens me, because these days my father’s voice sounds far too soft over the phone, as though his soul is fraying at the ends, becoming too weak to travel long distances.

Do you have enough money to last the weekend?

“Yeah,” I say, knowing full well I don’t.

That’s good, that’s good. Are you studying?”

“Yeah, I guess,” I mumble.

He sounds so tired. I am not used to Dad sounding weary.

My dad is not an imposing man. He is slight of frame, not small, but by no means large either. I’ve been taller than him since I was fifteen, yet I remember the night I was being rude and he grabbed me by the front of my shirt and yanked so hard my t-shirt ripped at the seams, and I went to bed shaking and respectful. I’m supposed to be in my prime and he’s a retiree, but I still hand him jars I can’t open. He is seventy kilos of quiet strength.

I fumble through a conversation with him, my mind racing for things to talk about. I don’t want to hang up. I want to have a robust conversation with my father, the kind you hold between both hands and examine from several angles, proud of how full-bodied it is.

Okay,” I hear him say eventually. I panic.

“Are you eating well?” I blurt. He laughs. I can’t help but smile. It’s nice to hear him laugh.

Yes son, I’m taking care of myself. Your mother won’t let me do otherwise.”

“That’s good. I’m happy to hear that.”

He says something about living to be ninety. I whisper a fierce Amen, almost harsh in its force and exuberance.

He laughs again.

Amen. Alright son, we’ll talk later,” he says, and in that moment my hands shake.

How long until there isn’t a later? How long until his face is the memory of a memory of a memory, and I am ashamed that I need to look at pictures of him to remember it?

I swear to myself that next time, next time I see him I will crush him in a hug so tight and bad it’s a vice, and have a long conversation with him. I tell myself I will forget I hate soccer and sit down to watch a game with him. I will look forward to the car rides in which he probes and asks me personal questions and I will not grit my teeth, to cage my words. I will tell him I love him, and I will not feel awkward at all.

I want to tell him now.

It’s on the tip of my tongue. I want to say it. I start to say it.

Instead I say,

“Goodbye, Dad.”

 

© 2016 k.amoh

The Weight of a Breath

They sat under the open sky, at the base of the acacia tree. Night had swept her arms through the heavens, sowing the stars liberally across the expanse, and the pinpricks twinkled mightily, as though to break the dark, like seedlings strived to break the soil. They loved it there under the acacia, in the starlight. It was their own kind of booth, with fireflies for dimmed lights and cicadas for mood music. They came often to talk.

Tonight they got into one of their good-natured arguments, this time about what a ten-second hour might be. He said it was something something time dilation, a pocket of sped-up time. She thought it was a metaphor, for how eternities could fit between seconds. They laughed as they spoke because they both knew it was a question of perspective and didn’t matter at all, but they loved the excuse to talk. Anything to hear each other talk.

For all their words there was some unspoken Thing that hung in the air between them like the silence after prayer; almost tangible, except to disturb it bordered on the unholy. It charged the space between them like a force, the gravity of hearts that yearned for each other. She felt it every time she smiled at him, in the way he let her smile hold his gaze like a mother’s arms hold her babe. He felt it every time she threw her head back and laughed, and his heart beat faster to match her ha ha has. It was a tenuous thing, and they didn’t dare speak of it. It was still barely a spark, too delicate to bear the weight of a breath, and so they talked about everything but this thing. In the pauses between words he would admire her round eyes, the angles of her face, and he would hate that he couldn’t love her yet.

He was afraid to commit to her, because she had the bothersome habit of being less than perfect. Things would be wonderful, then the light would catch her face at an awkward angle and he’d notice some new flaw. It was some of her tics as well, like how she was a tad too loud at times, how she talked snidely about feelings and love and romance and seemed to hold back; he wondered if he could live with that. She didn’t fit his ideals, at all. He was afraid of the day he would look at her and feel nothing but irritation for the things he was blind to now, and her heart would become another promise he couldn’t keep, so he contented himself instead with loving the idea of her. An idea was safe and compliant with his fantasies. He could live with that.

She couldn’t love him because she wasn’t sure she knew how. She’d been infatuated before, but never in love. She’d been told love was like a light in the dark, but from what she’d seen love was a lot more like a worm in the dark. It sought the hidden places of the heart because it reveled in them, fed on pain and secrets and insecurities until it became a bloated, inert mass of memories and baggage and heartache, and one had to resign themselves to its presence. Love meant being vulnerable, entrusting your quivering heart to the indelicate hands of another, and that terrified her. It didn’t help that he was still a boy dreamer, building sandcastles in an hourglass, never committing to any one thing, perpetually chasing some idea or other. Not exactly a paragon of dependability.

They were a cliché and they knew it; the lovers too afraid of making a mistake. They knew once they spoke of this thing there would be no going back. They would have to either commit to it, look each other in the eye and laugh at the rules, or turn away from it, walk away from each other and learn to live with the regret. There were too many questions. There was too much self-doubt and fear of bad timing, saying the wrong thing, ruining what they already had.

Maybe a day would come when they learned love was worth the struggle; that love was not so much the falling as it was the landing; that love was often nothing more than a patch of grass and taking a stand to fight for it, and maybe then they would be ready to address this spark of a thing, to beg and cajole and coax it to full flame.

Tonight under the acacia, they would content themselves with enjoying each other’s company. They would roll the idea of what could be like a ball between their fingers, but that space? They would not fill that space with words. They would hold off speaking about the thing another night, another month, another year. Until they knew better safe was easier than love.

© 2016 k.amoh

 

*thanks for the advice, Vicky!*