Otherwise is a word that names plurality as its core operation, otherwise bespeaks the ongoingness of possibility, of things existing other than what is given, what is known, what is grasped.
—Ashon Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath
A question I repeat: What do I—the reader—need to know to encounter this work? I ask not to be prescriptive, but to situate the terrain of encounter. I am not an expert in SF and I am not an Africanist. I stumble through these fields anticipating encounters. Some anxiety, as there is no guarantee any encounter will be pleasant or benign. History—personal and collective—is an unreliable guide. Always with the question of what I bring to the encounter—half-forgotten phrases, ancestral memories mutated beyond recognition, hungers whose names I have forgotten, frustration from impeding lifeworlds, an ear for the music of the idiosyncratic, a relentless search for the satisfaction Audre Lorde terms erotic, a doomed search for something that might be termed reflection or echo, a word that will let me settle in it for the space of a half-breath: Binti. Binti: Home.
Binti: Home continues the journey started in Binti. In Binti, a young math prodigy runs away from home at 16 to attend the most prestigious off-world university. In Binti: Home, the young math prodigy returns to her home region to discover that home has become something impossible. It is an Afro-diasporic story, as one terrain. It is an Afro-futurist story, as another terrain.
Here, I map one possible scene of encounter between Afro-diaspora and Afro-futurism, not as past meets future or as dispersal meets collectivity, not, that is, with a pre-determined sense of what such an encounter looks like. Instead, with the speculative-subjunctive sense of a would-be observer-dreamer.
My names are:
“I am Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib”
“Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib, that is my name”
“I am Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib”
“This is Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib, the one … the one who survives”
“You may just call me Binti” (Binti)
“My names are” is a Kenyanism—though it might be an Africanism: a way to introduce the multiple embeddings names perform in Kenya, a placing within Afro-modernity, ethno-regionalism, spirituality, and class. A fracture and a weaving. A way of entering a still-unfolding story, where one names a time of day or a season or a relation or an occasion or a promise. My names are fracture and weaving, season and promise. And in Afro-diaspora, the hidden name and the remembered name and the invented name and the inventing name and the secret name and the forgotten name and the forgetting name.
You might linger at these scenes of naming in Binti, to see when and where she names herself and when and where she is named, and by whom. They return in Binti: Home.
“Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaiak of Namib, that is my name”
“Binti of Namib?”
“Binti of Namib?”
“Binti,” she said, “Daughter of Moaoogo Dambu Kaipka Okechukwu Enyi Zinariya”
Where Binti is the insistence produced by dispersal—Afro-diaspora—Binti: Home is the impossible return to something that might be called—but can never be—home. The Binti who left home returns imagining that she might still marry her childhood friend, Dele, still raise a family within her home community, the Himba, only to find that future foreclosed, to find herself thrust into the world of invention—Afro-futurism—where she must begin to imagine a different way of being (in place, perhaps—Binti: Home suspends something that might be called an ending—it is, in this suspending, an opening to otherwise).
Again, a return to Binti before moving to the impossibility of Binti: Home.
Binti introduces us to the possibilities of black hair, and then makes it—and us—otherwise. It starts with hair as an extension into the world, a way that contact is made beyond will, an interruption of space, a touch:
As I moved past seated passengers far too aware of the bushy ends of my plaited hair softly slapping people in the face, I cast my eyes to the floor. Our hair is thick and mine has always been very thick. My old auntie liked to call it “ododo” because it grew wild and dense like ododo grass. Just before leaving, I’d rolled my plaited hair with fresh sweet-smelling otjize I’d made specifically for this trip. Who knew what I looked like to these people who didn’t know my people so well.
It is the enforced contact of public transport—Binti is on a shuttle, traveling to the ship that will take her off-world, to a prestigious university, Oomza University, to a different world. Her hair distinguishes her, announcing her difference—her unspoken names. Soon, this inadvertent touch—her hair making contact she dare not with her eyes or the rest of her body—becomes deliberate:
As I stood in line for boarding security, I felt a tug at my hair.
I winced the first time I read this line.
I wince when I re-read it. It disorients me. I reach for something to ground me.
Sociologist and Surveillance studies scholar Simone Browne has a wonderful chapter titled, “‘What Did TSA Find in Solange’s Fro’? Security Theater At the Airport,” in Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. A few grounding quotations:
security theater at the airport must be understood not only as about the staging of security and the theatrical performance that passengers must successfully comply with in order to pass through screening zones, but also as reflecting the airport screening zone as a military theater of operations.
… certain bodies, particularly those of black women, often get taken up as publicly available for scrutiny and inspection, and also get marked as more threatening, unruly.
Black women, in their places of work, en route to and from their workplaces, sometimes at home and in places of leisure, are subjected to a scrutinizing surveillance.
A reader of Binti will tell me, rightly, that Binti’s hair is not touched, initially, by a security officer. It is touched, initially, by a fellow passenger. The scene must be recounted. I do so reluctantly.
As I stood in line for boarding security, I felt a tug at my hair. I turned around and met the eves of a group of Khoush women. They were staring at me; everyone behind me was staring at me.
The woman who’d tugged my plait was looking at her fingers and rubbing them together, frowning. Her fingertips were orange red with my otjize. She sniffed at them. “It smells like jasmine flowers,” she said to the woman on her left, surprised.
“Not shit?” one woman said. “I hear it smells like shit because it is shit.”
“No, definitely jasmine flowers. It is thick like shit, though.”
There’s more, but I don’t have the stomach to continue. Consider, Binti is 16! The novella does not mention the age of the women who surveil her, but the term “woman” indicates they are older. A group of women gang up on a teenager. Binti hears the problematic proximity of words—she knows the repetition of “shit” as smell and texture is meant to describe her.
Afro-diaspora names the acts of deracination and gathering that make black life endangered and possible, threatened and pleasurable, never pleasurable because threatened—that is obscene—but pleasurable at sites of gathering and affirmation.
Afro-diaspora codes hair differently. One of Binti’s future-to-be-killed classmates points out that she has exactly “twenty-one” braids that are “braided in tessellating triangles,” and asks if it is “some sort of code.”
I wanted to tell him that there was a code, that the patterns spoke my family’s bloodline, culture, and history. That my father had designed the code and my mother and aunties had shown me how to braid it into my hair.
When I read this passage, I thought of Kenyan photographer Osborne Macharia’s Kipipiri 4, an attempt to imagine Kenyan women as freedom fighters. In an interview discussing the shoot, he explains the hair politics:
Every character has a defining element. Without the hair there would be no shoot at all. I explain further on Instagram—Bobo is the leader so she had this thick hair. We made it out of a plant that is used in Kenya’s coastal region that we colored black. You can see a pattern where there are strings of red. The idea was that she hides a road map in her hair which only the second-in-command can interpret. The red lines depict the places that are dangerous.
Maps and those who can read them.
I also thought of Rod Eglash’s study of African fractals—handily summarized in this TED Talk—and how everyday African cultures—the quotidian lives of architecture and decoration and fashion and weaving—demonstrate and use complex math structures. Were I to write more, my innumeracy would be painfully obvious. I confess to it now, and move on.
Away from the security theater of everyday life as it encounters white supremacy, how else might we encounter the beauty and knowledges of black hair?
Afro-futurism opens to otherwise, the production of new forms of sociality and self-understanding.
Briefly: while on the way to Oomza University, the ship is attacked by non-humanoid life forms known as the Meduse. To the extent that comparison can work here, they look like giant floating jellyfish. Binti is the only one who survives the encounter.
As she begins to interact with the Meduse, her hair acts as a mediator:
“You have okuoko.”
I frowned at the unfamiliar word. “What is “ukuoko?”
And that’s when it moved for the first time since I’d awakened. Its long tentacles jiggled playfully and a laugh escaped my mouth before I could stop it … “You mean my hair?” I asked, shaking my thick plaints.
“Okuoko,” yes. It said.
“Okuoko,” I said. I had to admit, I liked the sound of it.
The Meduse mediator, Okwu,—sometimes referred to as “it” and sometimes as “he,” across Binti and Binti: Home—offers Binti another way to think of how her hair communicates. The plaits are translated as okuoko, given the same meaning as living tentacles. This might be the pleasure of encountering an alien people: to be returned to one’s own body as one had not imagined it. To have one’s body extended beyond what one might have imagined.
The Meduse, through a process of bio-engineering, transform Binti’s plaited hair into okuoko, joining her to their collective thinking-feeling-remembering gathering. Consent is a difficult word here. She survives by agreeing to this transformation. Consent might be an impossible word here.
How she lives this transformation is the subject of Binti: Home
[survival: The Meduse do not kill Binti when they massacre the rest of those on the ship with her because she has alien tech that harms them. She survives. Later, they do not kill her because she submits to being transformed—to having her plaited hair transformed into okuoko, to becoming part Meduse. Afro-diasporic narratives are survivor narratives: Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861); Pauline Hopkins, Of One Blood (1902-1903); Angelina Weld Grimké, Rachel (1916); Jessie Fauset, Plum Bun (1928); Nella Larsen, Quicksand (1928); Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha (1953); Flora Nwapa, Efuru (1966); Ama Ata Aidoo, Our Sister Killjoy (1977); Mariama Ba, So Long a Letter (1979); Audre Lorde, Zami (1982); Michelle Cliff, No Telephone to Heaven (1987); Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979); Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring (1998); Rebeka Njau, The Sacred Seed (2003); Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return (2001); Yvonne Owuor, Dust (2015). I am always returning to survival as the work of speculation.
Consider this a form of black annotation.
I was looking for more than the violence of the slave ship, the migrant and refugee ship, the container ship, and the medical ship. I saw that leaf in her hair, and with it I performed my own annotation that might open this image out into a life, however precarious, that was always there. (Christina Sharpe, In the Wake)]
Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics
—Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation
As Binti: Home opens, the now 17-year-old Binti has been at Oomza University for a year, her plaits are living okuoko, she is suffering from post-traumatic shock from seeing the Meduse murder her shipmates, she is experiencing bouts of rage that she can’t explain (we learn this is because of her psychic connection to Okwu, her Meduse classmate and best friend), and she believes that if she can return to her home, among the Himba, and complete a ritual, she will be purified, returned to the person she once was or might have been. All this, in the first few pages of the novella.
I have to keep reminding myself that Binti is barely 17, and of the weight often placed on young characters in SF, as their world and their bodies change.
Binti attempts to return home, accompanied by Okwu, but finds she has been transformed beyond what the home she imagines can accommodate. When she lands on her home planet, she reflects,
I hadn’t told my family about my hair not being hair anymore, that it was now a series of alien tentacles resulting from the Meduse genetics being introduced to mine; that they had sensation and did other things I was still coming to understand. I could hide my okuoko with otjize, especially when I spoke with my family through my astrolabe where they couldn’t see how my okuoko sometimes moved on their own. Won’t be able to hide them for long now, I thought.
Binti struggles to think of how her encounter with the Meduse has changed her, not simply her hair. In this passage, I linger at “a series of alien tentacles” and “they had sensation and did other things I was still coming to understand,” the distance between the “I” who can understand and the okuoko that are still not yet considered part of the I. The gap between “my hair” and “my okuoko.” Yet, a gap that is filled, visually, by the connection between “okuoko” and “otjize.” If we listen, the italics are asking us to think of how these two words connect. We know from Binti that otjize can heal wounded okuoko, that Himba technology—special earth blended with flower oils—can heal Meduse wounds. If the Meduse extend Binti’s worlds and abilities, she also extends theirs by providing healing.
The relationship between Binti and the Meduse in Binti is replicated as Binti discovers the relationship between the Enyi Zinariya, the Desert People who include her paternal grandmother, and the Zinariya, an alien race who genetically modified the Enyi Zinariya in a past before the Himba and other residents of earth had encountered alien cultures. This might be a spoiler.
As far as I can recall, no translation is offered for “Enyi Zinariya.” My familiarity with Kikuyu and Kiswahili suggests it might be translated as “Of the Zinariya.” Whatever the case, ancient alien beings lie at the heart of a culture and people assumed to be removed from the modern. Binti discovers that she is more multiple than she had imagined: not simply Himba, but Himba and Meduse and Enye Zinariya and Zinariya.
I cannot think of an easy way to conclude this writing, so I give the final words to Amal El-Mohtar:
It's difficult to write this review in the midst of everything that's happening: difficult to write of a future in which people of color move unfettered through the stars, befriend aliens, make peace between warring factions. Right now, the fantasy in the Binti novellas, the fiction, isn't the jellyfish-aliens, the magical math or strange artifacts, but the ease with which travel is allowed black and brown people between planets, nations, lives. As futuristic as these books are, every passing day makes them feel farther away. But I cling all the same to what they believe in: love between family members who want different things of each other and the world; communication winning out between warring parties; change enabling friendship and discovery. What Home says, ultimately, is that travelling the galaxy is relatively easy compared to understanding ourselves and each other—and that this is crucial, necessary work.