Binti: A Bildungsroman Out of This World

I’m always excited to get my hands on a novel that falls into the New Adult category. “New Adult” is the little known label for books that chronicle the experiences of those who are post high school/secondary education age, and trying to figure out their next step in the world.

bI’d certainly put Binti in this category. Binti is just like any other young girl heading off to university. She is nervous about leaving her family, anxious about breaking with tradition, but also excited to explore her new opportunities. The only difference is that, for Binti, new opportunities means a new planet. Binti is one of the few people to have been accepted at Oomza University, at the other side of the galaxy, and she is certainly one of the first of the Himba people to leave their tribe. It is just not done, and these monumental  firsts play with Binti’s emotions. Of course, when the ship that she is on is suddenly commandeered by an alien, and apparently hostile race, the Meduse, Binti’s situation take a turn for the worse.

Binti is a novella. It is a glimpse of a bigger world, but it is a glimpse so rich and bright that you become wholly immersed in it when reading. I always say this about Okorafor’s writing, but it bears repeating. She has the talent of achieving her world-building while developing her plot. The tendency sci-fi and fantasy novels have to “pause” the plot, while they get their world-building underway is what made me reluctant to read them in the past. With Okorafor this is not the case, and it makes the story all the more realistic.

Binti is a compelling heroine. The general trepidation that young adults feel upon leaving their old world and entering a new one are drawn against a grander background here, but still feel very real and immediate. Binti’s journey of finding herself, of identifying her strengths and weaknesses involve navigating the politics between the people of her planet and the Meduse.

Binti’s anxieties about belonging are also realistically explored. She leaves for Oomza University with the knowledge that in doing so, she is essentially severing her connection to her family and her community. As she is of the Himba people, she has a significant connection to the soil she was born on. It is the practice of the Himba people to cover themselves in otjize paste, a mixture that includes soil from their land. In leaving her place of birth Binti loses this literal connection to her land. This was quite heartbreaking to read, but it’s also interesting to see how Binti tries to accommodate this drastic change in her life.

Binti is intelligent and resourceful, but her confidence and maturity really develop throughout the arc of the story.

I would certainly recommend this novel to everyone. Okorafor’s writing is masterful – it is skilled, but is never bogged down in overwrought descriptions. She is a great storyteller, and I can guarantee she will be able to draw you in. Both sci-fi lovers, and sci-fi noobs (like myself) will enjoy this novel.

Links:

For those, who have already read this novel, here are a couple of interviews with Okorafor from 2016:

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

Finally, finally, finally, I got my hands on a copy of this novel. I’ve been keeping an eye out for it ever since it took the book blogging world by storm. Juliet Takes a Breath stars the titular character, Juliet, a queer, latina college student on a journey that involves discovery of herself, and the world. She is leaving Bronx for Portland to begin an internship with a famous feminist author, Harlowe Brisbane. She’s one who instigated Juliet’s feminist awakening, and of course Juliet can’t help idolising her.

1Before leaving on her trip, however, she has summoned up all her courage to come out to her family. They’re not exactly delighted. In fact, Juliet’s mother retreats into silence, and Juliet leaves for the next stage of her journey, in agony over whether her mother will accept her identity.

Portland, when she does get there, is not without problems. She’s thrown into a whole new world of meanings, and ways of being. She finds that her heroines are not who she thought they were, and that searching for a community of like-minded people who will accept her can be an uphill climb.

Juliet is an endearing character. She is warm, and curious and exactly one of those characters you wish was real so you could be friends with them. Her tone is vivid and effusive. It sort of jumps off the page at you, and you can really hear her in your head. She really is like Holden Caulfield for the contemporary, queer youth, except much less whiny and annoying.  I adored the relationships she had with her younger brother, her aunts, and her cousins. Overall, Juliet’s family seems pretty close, but that intimacy reaches out to her extended family as well, and you can see that a lot of love and warmth are at the heart of it.

However, the characters were also lacking in good development. There could have been a lot more exposition. A lot of it is also due to the fact that there was a lot more telling than showing. So much of the conversation between characters was narrated to me, instead of allowing me to “listen in” on the dialogue. This became a little frustrating because it started to feel like I was reading from a journal, with someone recounting a scene to me, as opposed to me being able to view the scene for myself. This really detracted from the book, especially as it seems to be a title targeted for older Young Adult, or New Adult (adults who are college, and post-college age) audiences. There were also several typos throughout the novel, and it could have probably used another edit or two.

Having mentioned the above, I do appreciate the fact that this book has arrived at a time when there are few like it. It deals with a young, latina character exploring her sexuality, her personal identity, as well as her academic identity. It explores issues of inclusiveness, diversity, and intersectionality. These are all extremely rare things in the world of young adult literature, and for that I’m excited for this novel, for where it has gone, and will continue to go.

I will just include a link to a review here that examines a careless comment made by Juliet regarding the Native American community. Overall, Rivera was quite good about untangling Juliet’s mistaken assumptions, but this one was never addressed, which this reviewer discusses.

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone and everyone. If you see it, pick it up, read it, share it. It deals with a lot of important issues, and shines light on many things that need to be discussed openly.