Nnedi Okorafor's 'BINTI'

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whm: black women shift fiction towards the future

March 15, 2019
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In 1994, Mark Dery defined “Afro-futurism” as the “speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture — and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” The “Afro” didn’t reference Africa but it’s descendants on the American continent. Its themes were specific to Black Americans and its tales advancement of advancement were purely speculative, not speaking to anything close that could or would be.

When I opened Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti for the first time, reading in stupefied awe as I felt the desert heat on my skin and heard the metal ankle bracelets of 16-year-old Binti as she stepped into a genetically modified interstellar fish with three oxygen chambers for passengers and an exoskeleton that withstand the harshness of outer space, honestly, I cried. It was more than realizing that we had lived with a Western, protracted version of Afrofuturism — it was a realization that the bounds of science fiction/fantasy had finally been expanded by Black female voices of African-descent like this Nigerian-American author. It was like rediscovering one of my favorite genre’s again but this time, it was written just for me. Was this what it felt like to be a white man? It must be considering no one could tell me anything once I finished that book.

Here was a Black girl, who, in the words of Ijoema Umebinyuwo, was “too foreign for home, too foreign for here. never enough for both.” On top of being a spot-on encapsulation of the immigrant’s experience, it captured the heart of the Black girl science fiction nerd. Black girls like me who thought that changing our names or wishing we were lighter, whiter and not African would bring us close to universes that did not include us — till now. Even in the novel, Binti acknowledges this hardship when she says “We Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish.” As Black women, our “place” often feels dictated by our own and others but whole new worlds created by minds like Okorafor, whose unflinchingly African science fiction has taken the world by storm.

Okorafor’s exploration of African tradition, culture and people through the lens of “fantastical elements” has defined her brand of science fiction under the umbrella of “Africanfuturism”, exposing audiences to an African perspective in science fiction, it’s uses and its legacy in comparison to traditions that have often felt threatened by it. Her worlds are so thoughtfully and seductively built that one of her books Who Fears Death, a dark post-apocalyptic tale set in a futuristic Sudan, is being turned into an HBO series produced by Game Of Thrones creator George R.R Martin. Okorofar has also lent her writing prowess to the “Black Panther” and “Wakanda Forever” series for Marvel Comics, specifically the story of Shuri, whose Black Panther doesn’t get nearly half the love her brother does. Thank’s to Nnedi and the emerging class of Black female authors in the genre, that is changing.

The New York Times bestseller list has been dominated by Tomi Adeyemi’s – another Nigerian American – Children of Blood and Bone for over 5o weeks, making the 24-year-old Harvard graduate the new poster child for a new age in Young Adult fiction. White media doesn’t know how to appreciate Black storytelling or Black voices without first comparing it so Adeyemi has been hailed as “the next J.K. Rowling” — as someone who used to follow J.K on Twitter, I heartily wish Tomi would be excluded for that narrative. It’s one thing to argue that there is no comparison but what is really happening is that a comparison is being created where there isn’t one.

Children is a story lead by Zelie, a 16-year-old fisherman’s daughter roped into an odyssey that entails bringing magic back to the mythical African kingdom of Orïsha. Zelie had never known such a world, as her generation has grown up in a world without magic, or more so, her generation had been robbed of the knowledge that magic existed so freely in the land she called her home. Its allegories are layered and deep but the metaphor that comes close to home is of Africans (on the continent and throughout the Diaspora) who were robbed of a history before colonization and how we seek to deal with returning to that history if we can at all.

Few can really understand the role of the reluctant protagonist better than the Black woman who has to walk through a world she hasn’t been allowed to shape or take part in — a world that Black women work to improve anyway. It’s completely different from the boyish insouciance of white savior after white savior narrative that the world has had to endure. It goes beyond being “The Chosen One” — it’s a matter of choosing one’s self which is revolutionary for Black women living in the world as it is. Zelie may be “chosen” by circumstance in the form of a runaway princess looking for refuge but when she learns that she could restore magic to her kingdom, she does so with the help of her brother and that princess. She was not rescued from her old world — she stepped fully into her “new” one.

As a South African woman who comes from a few clans in the Xhosa tribe, to read of the Maji Clans in Children was the most African thing I have ever come across in a New York Times bestseller. To see something so natural to me bring depth to a world so seemingly foreign to everything I knew was the direct action I witnessed in the importance of representation. One can never fully predict what possibilities that could open up for storytellers of African descent specifically women, but the exciting aspect is that we are closer to finding out than we ever were before.

“Imagine if Harry Potter had been a Black boy,” Adeyemi asked Refinery 29. “The world might actually be a different place because the boy who everybody was obsessed with would be this Black boy with an afro.” The power of her statement cannot be understated. Harry Potter birthed a generation of people who were more adept at clocking tyranny and supremacy and more willing to stand up to it. We took in protagonists like Katniss Everdeen’s now the youth are standing up to the Coriolanus Snow in the White House. Where would we be in the world if these popular figures were Black, adding the element of racism to these narratives and thus instilling the notion that it too can be defeated? Where would we be? For now, anywhere storytellers like Okorafor and Adeyemi take us in their delectable tales of trial and triumph.

In an interview with KPBS, Okorafor said: “When you see yourself in the future, you know you have a future.” It is a simple yet powerful truth that has been limited to a certain demographic of people for time immemorial. What these Black women are doing to change that is ignoring the “natural progression” of representation — white women and Black men are having a moment that alludes to Black women being “next” – by simply writing themselves into the world Zora-style. I had always believed that I would have to write these kinds of stories of wait for them much longer before I got to see them on bestseller lists and on big/small screens. It is purely the manifesting power of Black women at work. Unyielding, unflinching and visionary in the most magical ways. Oh, what a time it is to be alive.