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Sci-fi author Nnedi Okorafor on creating an interstellar coming-of-age story

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Binti: The Night Masquerade is out on January 16th, 2018

Image: Tor.com

Nnedi Okorafor is one of the most exciting authors writing science fiction and fantasy today, and we really enjoyed her Binti stories when we read them earlier this year. She’s currently an associate professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Buffalo, and has won widespread acclaim for her work, including the World Fantasy, Hugo, and Nebula awards.

The two novellas follow Binti, a bright young woman who leaves her family to travel to a well-known interstellar university called Oomza Uni. On her way there, her spaceship is attacked by the Meduse, a jellyfish-like alien species that have an ax to grind against humans. Binti manages to broker peace between the aliens and humanity, and spends a year at the school before returning home, where she discovers some secrets about her family and heritage. Though the books are short at just a couple of hundred pages apiece, they manage to tell discrete, engrossing adventures. The next installment of the trilogy is Binti: The Night Masquerade, which is set to come out next January.

This next book sees new tensions between the Meduse and the Khoush, who have an ancient rivalry with the aliens. Binti returns home as a new conflict starts, and it’s up to her and a new friend named Mwinyi, to try and reach some sort of peace once again, even as her village elders don’t trust her or her motives. Failure, however, could mean the end of her entire people.

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Okorafor about her books, and got an early look at the cover for the third installment, Binti: The Night Masquerade.

Image: Tor.com

Can you tell me a bit about how you originally conceived Binti? Where did she come from?

Binti was born out of my own personal struggles with family, my own need to pursue my dreams, my need to see Africa in the future, and my experiences of traveling to distant and vastly different parts of the world in a short period of time. And then that concoction was spiced with several layers of fear — from a fear of my own decisions to a fear of outer space.

You've spoken a great deal about your Nigerian heritage. How did this inform Binti's story?

One of Bintis most central conflicts is with her identity. She leaves home, yet brings home with her literally — by wearing red earth on her skin as part of her cultural expression — spiritually and metaphorically. She’s constantly asking the question, “Who am I?” This question grows louder and louder with each novella. It’s a struggle I know very well as a Nigerian-American who closely identifies with both cultures and knows that a new one is created from the synthesis.

Binti has gone through some incredible changes in the last two books, and she's a different person when she returns to her family. What's next for Binti in The Night Masquerade?

It’s often said that one can never return home, because the journey changes you. Binti learns this in a most interesting way. In Binti, Binti leaves home. In Binti: Home, she returns home. In Binti: The Night Masquerade, she deals with “home” on a much larger scale. The Night Masquerade is the finale of the trilogy (though this doesn't mean there won’t be more stories in this universe), and it’s a pretty grand finale.

Are there any stories that particularly influenced these novellas?

I started writing Binti when I was in a deeply bothered state. Much of the Binti series came from personal struggles, narratives, and imaginings. I can’t really name any novels that were a specific influence.

When I look back, I can see flashes of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in Binti. The character of Nausicaä has a lot of similarities to Binti: both are agents of change and mediators. Binti, however, is far more nonviolent. Also, some other elements from the graphic novels and animated films found their way into the DNA of the Binti trilogy. I’m a big fan of Star Wars, and my love for that series and world helped me find the courage to write my own space opera. Lastly, there was a cartoon I loved from the ‘80s called Galaxy High. It was about an intergalactic high school. I loved that cartoon.

One of the things that I noticed while reading these books is that they felt just right for their sizes. They were short, but they didn't overstay their welcome. How does Tor.com Publishing's novella line change the stories that you might have otherwise told if this were a novel?

When I wrote these stories, I wasn’t writing to any length. I would have written these stories in the way that I wrote them no matter what. So I can’t say that Tor.com novella line made them the length they are. The stories came as they would come. However, I can say that the coming of Tor.com’s novella line created a space for the publication of this tale that came to me in such a unique way. What they produced with my Binti trilogy has been all that I could have hoped for — I was given an amazing editor [Lee Harris], beautiful print and electronic editions, lovely covers by an incredible illustrator [David Palumbo], and so on. And if you’ve looked at the other Tor.com novellas, you’ll see I’m in the company of such excellence. It’s a great time for novellas. I had no idea I was on the cusp of this novella renaissance when I wrote Binti, but I’m certainly not complaining.

What else do you have coming up on the horizon?

In October, the sequel to my young adult novel Akata Witch will be released. It’s called Akata Warrior, and I’m so pleased to finally see this novel released. It took me six years. I also have several short stories coming out in the next year, including a Star Wars short story and a science fiction story in the MIT Review’s science fiction anthology. I also have a comic book series coming out next year. It hasn’t been announced yet, so I can’t say much about it other than it’s not set in the United States and it’s unexpected.

Binti: The Night Masquerade comes out on January 16th, 2018.