My second book for the Book Riot: Read Harder 2019 challenge was much easier than the first! (You can read that first post here.)
For the second book, in the category of “A book by an author of colour set in or about space,” I read Nnedi Okorafor’s book Binti, the first in a trilogy (link is to Shelf Life books). It’s a short book, only 96 pages, and it was fantastic. Okorafor is a Nigamerican author (a term she uses rather than Nigerian-American, as a way to honour her dual heritage). She has won numerous awards – most of her books have won or been nominated for at least one award.
Check out her TED talk on her website, which includes an exerpt from Binti. She says:
As the story progresses, she becomes not other, but more. This idea of leaving but bringing and then becoming more is at one of the hearts of Afrofuturism, or you can simply call it a different kind of science fiction.
Sci fi is one of my first literary loves, and there are, as Okorafor notes, many ancestors of science fiction (though I didn’t recognize this until I was quite a bit older). Not all science fiction comes from white men. (Nor did science fiction originate with white men – Mary Shelley, of course, but even before her One Thousand and One Nights includes proto-science fiction.)
Regardless of the origins, I love science fiction, and one thing that I have learned in a lifetime of reading sci fi and fantasy is that very often, the best authors of speculative fiction are people who look at the world from unexpected angles. And you know who does that very well? People who have experienced oppression and survival under unjust systems. Folks with privilege have more time and support for their writing, but marginalized authors can often more easily imagine stories that move us beyond our standard paradigms.
I feel like I need to preemptively state that obviously straight, white, abled, neurotypical, educated men can write good speculative fiction. I loved the entire Ender series, and when I read Ender’s Game in elementary school it was mind-blowing. (I won’t read the series again, most likely, because Orson Scott Card has politics that are so far outside what I consider just or remotely acceptable, but that didn’t stop me loving his work before I learned about him as a person.)
And, of course, of course, Terry Pratchett’s fiction is profoundly concerned with issues of justice, and Neil Gaiman is always and forever a favourite. American Gods is comfort reading, and so is Neverwhere. And Pratchett’s books have gotten me through more than one depression.
But still. I will give my time and energy and money to marginalized authors, as often as possible, as intentionally as possible. (This is another reason I am so irked at myself for my initial mistake in the first category!)
I loved so much about this book. The vivid descriptions of the material world – the smells, tastes, colours, and especially the textures – were captivating. Binti’s experience of being stereotyped and discriminated against both by her fellow humans and by the alien Meduse was so moving.
Binti is part of the Himba tribe, and one of my favourite details was that the Himba people in the book, based on the Himba in Namibia, excel at mathematics. This feels important, because it directly counters the racist assumptions of the other humans in the book, and it also counters the racist preconceptions of readers regarding Indigenous communities with non-colonial cultures.
I also really appreciated how the book talked about conflict, honour, and how we make assumptions about other cultures. For such a short book, there was so much to reflect on.
It was super good, and I’m hoping to read the rest of the trilogy, too.
(Though next on my list is tackling another category in the challenge. Next up, a book by a woman and/or an author of colour that won a literary award in 2018. I’m already halfway through Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, and I’m loving it.)