The Binti trilogy, by Nnedi Okorafor, is in many ways not just about jellyfish, but also like jellies in each volume's efficiency, swift pace, and deeply penetrative “sting” of questions raised about home, self, and belonging. The first installment, Binti, is dedicated to the blue jellyfish Okorafor saw swimming the Khalid Lagoon in the United Arab Emirates. Jellyfish blooms are a common site as the ocean absorbs the increasing levels of carbon dioxide human activities emit into the air. This is good news for jellies: they thrive in carbon dioxide and warm, acidic waters. It's bad news for us: jellies eat sea creatures we’d rather keep for ourselves and threaten painful stings as they do it, injury to insult. It’s not the jelly’s fault that their thriving, though; it’s ours. Here we circle back to the central question posed by the Binti trilogy: how do we manage and defeat the monsters of our own making? Tor is releasing the trilogy in beautiful hardcovers, so no better time to reread the award-winning series and dive into the jelly-infested vastness of outer space.
Binti is 16 years old when she’s accepted to Oomza Uni, the most prestigious university in the galaxy, inconveniently located many planets away. While some teenagers would leap at the chance to put so much distance between themselves and their parents, in Binti’s Himba culture, children don’t leave. No one leaves; to do so brings shame both on one’s family and themselves. Further complicating her acceptance, Binti has been singled out as the next Master Harmonizer of her community, a recognition of her extraordinary talents for harmonizing and building astrolabes (the future’s version of a smartphone, if smartphones became works of mathematical art). Binti’s father reins as the current Master Harmonizer, and her advancement into his position would allow him to retire while insuring the financial success of the family (even though Binti can’t take ownership of her father’s shop because she’s a girl, so her brother will get that honor by virtue solely of being male).
Despite having a prestigious future within the Himba community primed, Binti can’t stay. Her motivation to leave goes beyond a superficial desire to claim the title of First-Himba-to-Attend-Oomza-Uni, though, rather stemming from motivation far more compelling, and much harder to shirk in the face of familial duty: curiosity.
Greatness – in addition to Binti’s genius – literally fell into her lap. Or, popped up beside it, when she snuck away to pout in the desert after being denied privileges to attend a local dance. It was there, seeking quiet from her packed house to bemoan not being allowed to dance, that Binti found the edan. The edan is a small object made of metal, and not even Binti’s father is quite sure what it does. Binti knows its very old, though, and that the Desert People, a tribe shunned by the “civilized” communities, call it a “God Stone.” To abandon her scholarship to Oomza Uni would mean to abandon the secrets of the edan and all chances of studying it and learning what exactly it is and what it can do. Binti can’t abandon that curiosity and leaves home in the pre-dawn hours to board a living ship bound for Oomza Uni, Third Fish, a ship that will take her farther than any Himba has ever been from home. What Binti can’t anticipate, though, is just how far from herself the journey will take her, or how much her discovery in the desert will change her life and both the lives of her people and their enemies for good.
“When I left my home, I died,” Binti says, but she’s also reborn. In Binti: Home, the second installment of the trilogy, Third Fish is pregnant, but we know it had already given new life to its (surviving) passengers. Binti is not the same girl who left home when she landed on Oomza Uni, nor is she when she returns home a year later with her friend, the belligerent jellyfish-like Meduse named Okwu, to complete a traditional Himba pilgrimage. Once home, things do not go as planned. Explosive tension between herself and her family, between Okwu and humanity, and internally as Binti learns things about herself and her genealogy that she preferred to deny derail her vision of a soul-cleansing homecoming. In book three, Binti: The Night Masquerade, Binti laments:
The Himba “prefer to explore the universe by traveling inward, as opposed to outward,” Binti tells us early in her journey. But education – whether in a classroom or real-world experiences – by nature breaks open an insular existence, letting the big, wide world rush in and expand our perspective. “You people are so brilliant, but your world is too small,” Binti’s grandmother tells her in Home. “One of you finally somehow grows beyond your cultural cage and you try to chop her stem.” Binti’s grandmother tells it like it is, and in seconds obliterates one of the biggest obstacles Binti faces throughout each book: a failure of communication.
Himba culture frowns on counseling and sharing emotion, as does Okwu’s culture. The culture of war and violence also hinges on failures in communication, of othering those we can’t or won’t listen to. Binti is a harmonizer, but continuously fails at effective communication with the people she should be closest to because of her denials of what she knows deep down to be true: anger is a natural emotion that festers if stuffed inside; that prejudice is a potent-enough toxin to splinter families and lead whole nations to war; and that combined, anger and prejudice can lead even a master harmonizer to damage herself and the community she purports to love. It’s difficult to hold on to prejudice, Binti must learn, when one discovers the thing they are prejudiced against is part of the root of their very existence, and that getting to the root of that prejudice could be key to saving everyone and everything she loves.
Okorafor has a good time playing on the word “root.” Binti’s family home is called “The Root,” a house literally rooted into the ground by both plants and a grounding basement. Binti meditates by “treeing,” or dividing mathematical equations into fractals, working from the root of the problem outward to see how many times it can be broken in two. The root of a number is the source from which another number grows, and means “basis." When Binti “trees” with her friends on Third Fish, they “pushed each other to get closer to ‘God.’” To Binti, understanding the most basic elements of an equation, of a number, gets one closer to God. In treeing, though, Binti is also diagramming the origins of life, the endless divisions of one species from another and finding the commonality, the first originator of all life. To Okwu, it’s water. To Binti, it’s the soil, or “Mother,” the main ingredient in otjize, that gives life to the Himba people and that Binti wears like a shield on her body. Binti clings to her physical link to home, her otijize, but even it slowly flakes away (literally) as she breaks out of her own limited understanding of herself. Throughout each book, Binti flakes away layer upon layer of separations, first with the Khoush students she meets on Third Fish, “I stood out as a Himba, but the commonalities shined brighter.” Then between herself and her initial adversary, the Meduse, Okwu. Then between herself and the “savage” desert people, going deeper and deeper into dismantling binaries and understanding the origins of existence to find the commonality that connects all living things.
In Binti’s journey to overcome everything she’s denied about herself – her origins, her abilities – we see ourselves reflected. We live in a country that banks on denial – denial of racism, denial of culpability for the history of how we arrived at where we are, denial of horrors that benefit many of us to this day. Further, our policies and actions deny the destruction of our actions – actions that allow jellyfish blooms to take over oceans, that allow poison gases to seep into our atmosphere and our oceans, actions that allow atrocities to be committed in our names.
In this way, we create our own monsters and then deny our hand in their making, and worse, deny their very existence. How can we win a battle we deny we are even fighting, let alone that we started? The world could use a few more master harmonizers; thank goodness for the Earth-equivalents, authors like Nnedi Okorafor.