WIRED Book Club: Nnedi Okorafor Finds Inspiration EverywhereIncluding Jellyfish
Binti: Home doesn’t pick up exactly where its Hugo-winning predecessor left off. In that novella, Binti—a brilliant Himba woman in what is possibly a future Namibia—jets off for the galaxy’s finest university. The trip goes horrifically wrong, but by the end, she’s there, has a new friend, and is ready to start learning. So you might expect the sequel, released yesterday, to cover Binti’s first year at school. Well, author Nnedi Okorafor doesn’t do the expected. As a writer, she tells us, her goal is to challenge convention and empower new kinds of stories. And she finds inspiration everywhere.
You dedicate Binti to a jellyfish. Care to explain?
Oh yeah, the jellyfish. My daughter and I were in the United Arab Emirates, walking along the Khalid Lagoon, when I looked down and saw this blue jellyfish just moving along. It was the first jellyfish I’d ever seen—that was alive. It was cute. Then it became an alien in my stories.
Anyone who follows you on Twitter knows you love and celebrate living things. Where’s that come from?
That interest has been there since I was alive. Not just living things—living things that are odd, and especially small living things. From a very young age I was always looking really closely at the ground. When I see bugs and insects and small creatures, I feel this euphoria, this immense amount of joy.
So you must not be scared of spiders.
I’m terrified of spiders! Absolutely, positively, terrified of spiders. I don’t know what it is; I’ve tried to figure it out. There’s something extremely creepy about them, in particular wolf spiders. I’m not even kidding, I hear a low drumbeat when they move. I can’t, I just can’t.
Does your fascination with Earth’s critters explain the diversity of lifeforms we see at Binti’s Oomza University?
Oomza Uni is new territory for me. Space is new territory for me. Creatures outside of Earth—that’s new territory for me. So when I’m thinking about aliens, my brain goes wild. It’s not so much that I’m thinking about the diversity of Earth creatures. I’m thinking about the idea of what life would be like outside of our context. Once I sat down and started imagining the finest university in the galaxy, it was intense and immense.
But Binti: Home, the new novella, takes place a year later as Binti returns home. Were you trying to get back to Earth as soon as possible?
It was more me dealing with the realism of Binti, dealing with who she is and what kind of family she comes from and what her background is. I could’ve easily had this next part be her at the university. But when I thought about it, I was like, no, she’s totally gonna go home. She has to go home. I’ve had discussions with reviewers about this. They would say Binti abandoned her home. That always bugged me, because she didn’t abandon her home. She wanted to go to this university, and she brought her home, her culture, with her. The main part of the story is the idea of leaving home to explore something, but not in that way where the only way you can grow is to cut off your past and to cut off your family and become something else. I don’t believe in that. That’s not the kind of background I come from. And that’s not where Binti comes from either.
Why did you choose to base Binti’s people, the Himba, on a real people?
I’ve known for years that I wanted to write the Himba in the future. They’re a group of Africans who have maintained their culture so deeply in the midst of modernity. Being Nigerian, being Igbo in particular, that’s a big deal. That’s something my own people have struggled with. When I started thinking about the idea of this girl—and it was always going to be a girl—going to this university in space, the first thing that popped into my head was, oh, I want her to be Himba, I want her to take that with her.
I used to be semi-pro tennis player. There was a term we had: When you were treeing, you were playing out of your mind. Like you can’t do anything wrong, and you feel it. So the idea of treeing, the idea of tapping into something mysterious, played into Binti as well.Nnedi Okorafor
Do Binti’s powers have a basis in science?
A lot of times in science fiction, there’s the scientifically correct, the scientifically possible, and then something will jump the rails. There are times where I’ve jumped the rails. The currents Binti is able to bring up using mathematical equations—those have a somewhat magical quality. But at the same time mathematics exist in everything. Everything can be broken down into mathematics.
Then there’s the meditative state Binti falls into.
I know how I came up with that. When I was growing up, the subjects that I was best at were math and science. And I was best at them when I would not think about it, when I would kind of fall into a meditative state and the answer would come quickly. But if I focused directly on it, I would lose it, it would all fall apart.
I was also thinking about the “treeing” that Binti does. I used to be semi-pro tennis player. There was a term we had: When you were treeing, you were playing out of your mind. Like you can’t do anything wrong, and you feel it. So the idea of treeing, the idea of tapping into something mysterious, played into Binti as well.
How did you decide how much to reveal about Binti’s mysterious object, the edan?
I didn’t really decide what to reveal along the way, because I didn’t know what the hell it was either. There have been several trips I’ve taken to Nigeria where, at the market, I go to the sellers who look a little shady or look a little crazy, who are selling weird things. I’m attracted to those people, so I’m always buying these objects—some of which I shouldn’t have bought because they’re evil. I let time reveal what they are. That’s kind of how I wrote Binti. I experienced it along with her.
Why was it important to have Binti be a girl?
Part of why I started writing was I wanted to tell stories of women and girls—African women and girls. I wanted to empower them, I wanted them to have different endings, I wanted to give them more agency.Nnedi Okorafor
Part of why I started writing was I wanted to tell stories of women and girls—African women and girls. Mind you, one of my favorite authors just passed, Buchi Emecheta. I was devastated about that, because this woman’s work had such a huge impact on my own writing, on why I am a writer. She was writing honest, really hard-hitting stories about African women. She wrote over 20 novels, and I read them one after the other. It made me kinda crazy, because her stories, her narratives, often either didn’t have a happy ending or they were really disturbing. You’d be sweating reading these books; you’d want to punch walls reading these books. Once I started writing, I knew I wanted to tell those kind of narratives too, the narratives of the women that I grew up with. I wanted to empower them, I wanted them to have different endings, I wanted to give them more agency. And so, with Binti, I knew she would be a girl, and that she would not be your typical badass heroine who could kick ass and do all those things. I knew she would have other qualities that would make her special.
Is that part of why the ending of Binti is, for lack of a better word, so nice?
I like nice! Even though some people have accused me of the opposite—yeah yeah, some of my other books have gone dark. But I like happy too. Like, come on, can’t we have one of those? Where everything goes well and it’s nice and shiny? I mean, at the end of Binti, she is changed. She’s gone through something horrible. But I wanted her to come out the way she did.
How did your daughter, whom you thank in your acknowledgments, inspire the plot?
I had written up to where everyone was killed on the ship and Binti was stuck in her room. I was so disturbed by what I had written. My daughter was next to me doing something—playing with her phone or something irritating—and I turned to her and was like, “This is what I’m writing, what should happen next?” And she said something like, “Binti has to go through some trials with the Meduse [the jellyfish aliens], and she has to sacrifice herself.” That’s what my daughter said. She was, like, 10 years old?
Do you consider the loss of Binti’s hair a sacrifice?
I’ve thought about that a lot. It’s a loss, it’s a terrible loss—but it’s also a gain. I had scoliosis, and I had to have this final surgery well into my athletic career. There was a 1 percent chance of paralysis. I got it. This was when I was 19. I ended up having to spend that entire summer learning to walk again; they didn’t know if I would walk again. It’s basically the story of how I became a writer, because I started writing when I was in that hospital. Now I can move around just fine, but I lost that thing that makes you able to move quickly and effortlessly, and I mourn it every day. But I was given this other thing that was wonderful, the writing and the stories. So that’s a theme I have to think about all the time, and it came out when I wrote Binti. Her hair, and the way she could braid her tribal history into her hair, was a part of her identity. She lost that to get these tentacles from a group that killed all these people she loved—but also a group that’s the enemy of the people who see her people as “less than.” It’s very complicated. It’s very culturally complicated.
What can readers expect from Binti: Home?
To continue where it left off. I’d say expect the unexpected, because it doesn’t go in the direction most would expect.
Do you have any sense of why narratives like Binti’s—of a brilliant young person going off to a school or university—endure in fantasy? There’s Earthsea, Harry Potter, Raymond E. Feist, and now you and Patrick Rothfuss…
That’s a good question. The story of the young person who goes off to a university is something a lot of people can already relate to. It has a structure. As far as the brilliant kid, I don’t know. I come from a very academic background. I have a bachelor’s, I have two master’s, I have a PhD, and I’m a professor. So the idea of the university and the school popping up in my own work is inevitable—how can it not? That’s why I’m interested in those things as well. I love Harry Potter, Earthsea, The Name of the Wind. There’s a hero’s journey quality to it, and people love the hero’s journey. It’s a story template that works time and time again.