“Master harmonizers”: Making Connections in the Post-Disaster World of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti Novella Series
Rosi Braidotti, contemplating the implications of human and non-human agents’ interrelations laid bare by globalization and capitalism, states in The Posthuman (2013) that the “unity [of these agents] tends to be of the negative kind, as a shared form of vulnerability, that is to say a global sense of inter-connection between the human and the non-human environment in the face of common threats” (50). Emphasizing the urgency of the environmental crises that the world is embroiled in, this statement also expresses concerns about the perception and attitudes, construed through the discourse of interconnectedness visible and incontestable due to these crises. While the recognition of these connections is vital and integral to boosting awareness of the necessary shift in environmental policies, coming from the premise of a looming threat to human survival casts these connections as “negative” and “reactive” (50), locating non-human agents in relation to the central human figure. The human figure dominating the discourse is equated to a specimen of an endangered species, which anthropomorphizes the non-human species and diminishes them by failing to recognize their significance independently of the human. This paper draws on the theoretical framework set forth by Donna J. Haraway in When Species Meet (2008) and Staying with the Trouble (2016), Rosi Braidotti in The Posthuman (2013), and by Anna Tsing in “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species” (2012). They advocate a transformation of this reactive bond by shifting the focus from the human and seeing these relations as an intricately connected whole without a hierarchical center, treating organic and non-organic companion species in a compassionate and respectful manner (Haraway Species 262-263; Braidotti Posthuman 101; Tsing 144). But what would it look like in practical terms? How can this inevitable interconnectedness be revised in an affirmative manner without falling into the trap of anthropocentrism?
Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti novella series (2015-2019) presents a compelling, if utopian, model of establishing relations between the interconnected human and non-human agents in a post-disaster world. These relations are based on listening and responding to various others, becoming a part of the flow of shifting matter entailing mental, spiritual, and even physical changes and acting with respect and compassion to all human and non-human persons. Dustin Crowley in “Binti’s R/evolutionary Cosmopolitan Ecologies” (2019) notes that Okorafor employs the elements of African animism (238) in the novella, introducing the non-hierarchical and non-dualistic paradigm of relations with human and non-human others. This paradigm that can be traced throughout the series is consonant with critical posthumanism, a theoretical approach contemplating “what it means to be human under the conditions of globalization, technoscience, late capitalism and climate change” and “non-dialectical relationships between human and posthuman (as well as their dependence on the nonhuman)” (Braidotti “Critical Posthumanism” 94, emphasis original). The eponymous protagonist approaches communication with human and non-human agents through harmonization, a process of making contact peacefully and considerately, blurring the traditional boundaries between the natural and the artificial, the born and the manufactured, the human and the non-human. “Harmonization,” a talent and skill that Binti inherits from her family, enables communication between the human, technology, aliens, and non-human animals, laying bare the irrelevance of borders between them and offering a way to challenge the consumerist and oppressive regime that the existence of these borders sustains. The process of harmonization and its implications are discussed later in the essay.
The series does not give a detailed explanation on how the environmental conditions of the post-disaster world emerged. Okorafor does not delineate a clear line between the present-day Earth and the future and does not mention a natural catastrophe or connect the environmental conditions of the future with a war, though the war with Meduse comprises an essential part of the plot. Likewise, the differences in the ecological conditions of our world and the world of the series do not become the focus of the Binti novella series. They are mentioned in passing: the intensity of Sun radiation that requires tinted glass for a fair-skinned person to endure it (Okorafor Binti 10), portable water capture stations (87), energy from solely renewable sources both for domestic and industrial needs, as well as only two climate varieties – desert and snow – in describing the future Earth. All these details contribute to the picture of different climate conditions, which are portrayed in a deliberately oblique manner. This creates a dynamic of the world that has not changed overnight due to a single event, be it a natural disaster or a catastrophic event; the process of transformation has been gradual, like the sea level rising by millimeters to cause the destruction of whole habitats, like a single species extinction that destroys the balance of an ecosystem that deteriorates day by day losing biodiversity, like global temperature rising by fractions to inevitably change the climate conditions of the planet. This approach to the portrayal of the post-climate change world instigates the feeling of urgency. No single disastrous event is necessary; the environment is already on the verge of collapse due to anthropogenic influence. In Staying With The Trouble (2016), Haraway accentuates that multiple factors caused by and connected to human activities threaten “major system collapse” right now (100), revealing the urgency of the problems and the necessity of the systematic changes to at least attempt to solve them. Okorafor’s depiction of the world transformed by climate change echoes the gradual decay of modernity, showing how these negative changes accumulate and transform landscapes and habitats to make them unrecognizable. In this manner, the urgency of the shift in the vision of the world and the necessity to challenge anthropocentric views is articulated as vividly as in disaster narratives, which tend to concentrate on a catastrophe that leads to an environmental crisis.
Harmonization, a skill, and process which Binti is gifted at, suggests a way to contemplate the relations between human and non-human agents from a non-anthropocentric perspective. Harmonization, initially presented through Binti’s capacity for mathematical thinking and engineering, is not limited to science and technology; when the ship taking her to Oomza University, a prestigious intergalactic institution, is attacked by the Meduse, a combative alien race, she uses harmonization techniques to communicate with them. Mwinyi, a young male of Enyi Zinariya, an imaginary tribe getting their name from their contact with another group of aliens, is also a harmonizer and uses his gift and skill to communicate with non-human animals and to provide for the safety whenever a need to travel through the desert arises. The expansion of the meaning of harmonization from technological skill based on individual talent to alien species and non-human animals resonates with the posthumanist vision of the unstable boundaries habitually infringed upon in complicated entanglements and shows how decentering the human harbors the potential of a peaceful co-existence in the interconnected universe. The capacity of harmonization to achieve understanding between different species echoes Tsing’s vision of “interspecies species being” (144). Tsing states that “most species […] – including humans – live in complex relations of dependency and interdependence” (144), pondering the processes of globalization and the division of domesticated and wild species; she emphasizes the importance of respecting these connections and understanding the implications and consequences of one’s actions from the point of view of mutual impact. While harmonization, unlike Tsing’s analysis, is grounded in a fictional universe, it depicts a necessary shift in the worldview for the respectful and peaceful co-existence of different human, non-human, and alien species.
Harmonization is first introduced in the novella series as a hereditary trade and gift in Binti’s family allowing them to produce intricate devices, astrolabes that resemble modern-day phones. These devices are in high demand not only among the Himba, a real ethnic group and the one to which Binti belongs, but also among the Khoush, a fictional majority in the series. Joshua Yu. Burnett describes Okorafor’s representation of the Himba as technological experts thus challenging the image of traditional cultures left behind by the progress and lacking access to advanced technology (127). The association of Western culture with science and technology development is no longer valid for Okorafor’s future; the Himba in the series are not conflicted by creating computational devices receiving universal acclaim and following traditional patterns of governance, family structures, as well as wearing otjize on their skin and hair. The erasure of the perceived interdependence of technological progress and Westernization conveyed through the relations between the Himba and technology in the series also aims to eliminate the association of technological progress and the destructive consequences of technological intervention driven by the consumerist approach to the colonized territories and ethnicities in Africa, associated with Western colonization practices.
Locating technological expertise in the Indigenous African environment, Okorafor conveys a different vision of technology – it originates in negotiation and cooperation with natural forces that are a part of the environment, its logical continuation, not a detrimental factor triggering environmental decay and natural disasters. The manufacturing process is a process of making contact and connection, based on the recognition of non-human agency; it entails “communicat[ing] with the spirit flow and convinc[ing] them to become one current” (Okorafor Binti 16), rejecting the idea of mastering the nature and imposing a purpose on inert matter. Technology, created and used by the Himba in general and Binti in particular, becomes a “full partner,” not only mediating the relations of the human with the world, but also revealing its own agential power (Haraway Species 249). Technology, both an agent and a product of negotiating with natural forces, is rendered inseparable from the natural world, which dissolves the dichotomy of the natural and the artificial. This vision of technology rejects a division of interconnected phenomena into separate ontological categories with clear boundaries and embraces the interdependence of agents, processes, and the environment. This vision is crucial for the post-climate change world where the methods of interaction between the human and the environment must be revised and reformulated to avoid further destruction and to sustain the fragile balance. The Binti novella series presents a vividly optimistic image of technology, but this technology is unhinged from the habitual associations with progress, Westernization, and globalization; it emerges from the deep connection with the environment and relies on the expertise of Indigenous people to respectfully communicate with the environment rather than assume control over it.
A deep awareness of the connection with the environment in the series manifests itself not only in relations between the human and technology, but it also spreads to the relations with non-human animals. The skill of harmonization as practiced by Mwinyi opens communication channels with non-human animals. In contrast to Binti who learns harmonization from her father, Mwinyi discovers his talent in an encounter with elephants, who are notorious for killing humans on sight but spare him because he can talk to them. It activates the reversal of the colonial discourse when the colonizers refuse to acknowledge the agency of the colonized based on their inability to understand the colonizers’ language (Burnett 124). Here on the contrary, the human colonizers of the natural world are threatened by their inability to listen and converse, and Mwinyi, enabled by his talent to initiate a conversation, is rewarded not only by surviving the encounter, but also by being able to advance his innate ability with his elephant friend’s help. Mwinyi’s learning of harmonization skill from a non-human agent results in a revelation for Binti: “An elephant taught him to harmonize and instead of using it to guide current and mathematics, she’d taught him to speak to all people. The type of harmonizer one was depended on one’s teacher’s worldview” (Okorafor Binti 230). The worldview that Mwinyi shares with his teacher allows them to form a bond that is mutually beneficial and promotes their understanding of each other, allowing them to live side by side peacefully, regardless of the initial animosity that elephants have to humans. The relations based on negative reciprocity, that grow out of the interactions between species in the “contact zones” (Haraway Species 264), are transformed through communication and recognition of agency that all the participants of the interaction possess. This transformation is rooted in African animism, which runs through other works by Okorafor as well. She describes the mysticism in Who Fears Death by the “golden rule” of “welcoming and tolerance” that promotes the peaceful co-existence of species (Okorafor “Writing”24). This concept is interwoven into the plot of the Binti novella series as well and is expressed through the multiple connections that Binti shares with technology, human others, non-human animals, and aliens.
The communication between Binti and the Meduse is the main driver of the plot of the series, which starts on her journey to Oomza University and eventually brings her back home to her roots and to new revelations about herself. The ship, itinerant to Oomza University, is attacked by the Meduse who kill everybody on the ship except for the pilot, who they need to get to Oomza, and Binti, who is unexpectedly protected from them by her “edan” – a piece of ancient and alien technology that Binti attempts to decipher during the series (Okorafor Binti 6). The edan also acts as Binti’s translating device invoking once again the colonizer-colonized discourse and reiterating the significance of language as a means of communication and making contact in the imagery of the series. Communication, assisted by harmonization, becomes a way to prevent the imminent massacre at Oomza; as a master-harmonizer, Binti first gets to the bottom of the Meduse’s attack and then becomes the mediator between the Meduse and the University’s governing body. Binti, a member of the marginalized Himba minority, becomes a speaker for the marginalized alien race who used to reject contacts with the intergalactic community and have no interest in integrating into its shared culture. They even refuse to attend Oomza University before they encounter Binti. The successful resolution of this conflict exemplifies the importance attributed by the series to listening to marginalized voices and recognizing their capacity to show new ways of tackling complicated situations that otherwise can lead to bloodshed. Only when all the voices are heard and all interests are heeded can the peaceful cooperation and mutually beneficial development between species and races ensue.
However, to represent the interest of the Meduse Binti must give up her edan temporarily and suffer a Meduse sting that introduces alien genes into her genome, which not only allows her to understand the Meduse without her edan, but also changes her appearance. Her dreadlocks turn into tentacles, leaving a visible trace of contact and the transformation it entails. Haraway, speaking about the interactions between companion species, contemplates the mutual changes on the chemical, genetic, and microbial levels that emerge through interaction and communication with each other (Species 16). Being a companion, sharing a meal, and making kin entails intimate changes and recognizing it facilitates understanding of the nature of communication, an action that transforms the participants in meaningful ways, no matter how big or small these changes are. Binti’s metamorphosis is radical in a SF fashion. Representing the Meduse in the negotiation with humans and other alien races entails becoming a part of their “family through battle,” a human-Meduse hybrid (Okorafor Binti 56). It reiterates the inevitable changes that communication brings to all participants. Reflecting them on the bodily level makes them conspicuous and challenges the perception of communicants as separate entities, accentuating the reciprocal nature of communication on more than one level.
Binti’s physical transformations are not limited to becoming partially Meduse. In the last installment of the series, she dies in the Meduse-Khoush conflict reignited by Binti and her Meduse companion’s visit to the Earth. Binti is saved by New Fish, a sentient spaceship that is genetically close to a shrimp and houses a plant garden in its intestines that produces oxygen both for itself and its passengers. The young spaceship’s microbiome, flourishing in the plant garden, is in its active developmental stage and possesses the power to revive Binti’s dead body. However, Binti’s revival comes at a price for both her and the spaceship: they need to be physically close to each other to keep Binti alive. These relations, though formed to save a human life, do not place the human into the center. New Fish will live much longer than Binti and chooses to sustain Binti’s life by staying next to her; it is a gift and a reward for Binti’s ability to listen and respect others’ voices. It is given willingly rather than taken forcefully without considering the agency and aspirations of the other. Binti is still a receiving party in this exchange mirroring the real-world relations between the humans and non-human animals and bringing to light the underlying mechanism of interdependence: humans are critically dependent on those from whom they take and those with whom they engage in a mutual evolutionary process; the impact of these relations on all parties is difficult to underestimate.
The concept of harmonization in the series connects the human, the non-human animal, and technology with the bonds of communication, creating a complex network of agential interactions rather than separate individuals acting independently to achieve their goals. This network does not have a defined center, it does not allocate any agent with a special place or power, which challenges human exceptionalism. The representation of communication between different agents in the series resonates with posthumanist theory, which counters the ideas of human centrality, analyzing interactions between different entities including individuals, species, environments, and humans from the point of view of their interdependence (Tsing 144). Approaching the environment from the point of view of human hegemony has already brought the world on the verge of disaster and has proven to be a dangerous misconception (Haraway Staying 100). The future of the Binti series shows the consequence: the climate of the Earth is irreversibly changed and the relations between species are bound to change as well. The human participants representing the results of this transformative process are located outside the Western paradigm among Indigenous people, like the Himba; their vision, rooted in a different culture, is key to a peaceful co-existence between species, technologies, and environment. African animism endows non-human agents with a pronounced individuality and the ability to engage in a dialogue with each other and humans, which influences the vocabulary of the series where all animals, both human and non-human, and aliens are referred to as “persons” (Okorafor, Binti 82). This reference implies their equal contribution to the process of living and working together in the interconnected world that requires equal respect for each agent. Endowing personhood to the humans, non-human animals, and aliens blurs the traditional boundaries between the human and the non-human, expanding the ideas of who can be considered sentient and,consequently, whose interests should be considered in political decision-making, which makes the choice of vocabulary a purposeful declaration of the political stance towards non-human others.
The dichotomic boundaries are blurred not only in the human/the non-human dichotomy. The boundaries between the born/the manufactured, the human/the animal, and nature/culture are habitually broken in the interactions between the protagonist and other agents. The clear distinction between these categories underpins the hierarchy that the human envisions in both nature and in human society; the instability of these borders undermines these hierarchical structures, leading to decentering the human and questioning the treatment of those who are classified as ontologically different from the self (Braidotti, Posthuman 96). Harmonization becomes a fictional tool dissolving these boundaries. Using it the protagonist is capable of traversing strikingly different landscapes, like a desert on Earth, a spaceship travelling through planetary systems and a planet-sized university campus accommodating various alien peoples, and making a connection with various agents, without approaching them from the hegemonic position of anthropocentricity. But an even more striking challenge to boundaries comes with the physiological transformations that Binti undergoes: the Meduse genes and New Fish’s microbiome. These changes transfer the broken boundaries from mental space into corporeality, infringing upon the boundaries that define an individual. Binti’s body is the illustration of a contact zone where different genomes, microbial organisms, and other species meet and come into a complex entanglement. These multiple transboundary encounters, experiences, and transformations reiterate the interconnected essence of the world where pulling one string has an impact on others and where meeting in the nodes – contact zones – leaves traces on those who and which meet. Comprehending this essence and its implications opens a different perspective on how humans can navigate their relations with other species. The different perspective on the interspecies relations in the Binti novella series rooted in African animism and cosmology branches out to the posthumanist vision of fluid boundaries and non-hierarchical relations, where the self is not divided from the environment but becomes a part of an intricate system of connections and where it can form multiple contacts with others and get transformed through this connection. Both the Binti series and posthumanist theory invites us to reconsider the hegemony of the Western paradigm depicting vivid images of global interconnectedness. This invitation is valid not only for a post-disaster world but the contemporary situation where ecological balance is under a constant anthropogenic threat.
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Iuliia Ibragimova is a PhD student at Dublin City University