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Okorafor’s novella earns two prestigious literary awards

Nnedi Okorafor started writing “Binti” soon after accepting her faculty position at UB in 2014. Photo: Douglas Levere

By BERT GAMBINI

Published September 7, 2016

“You don’t have to cut yourself off from the past, from what made you, in order to explore. ”
Nnedi Okorafor, associate professor
Department of English

UB faculty member Nnedi Okorafor has become only the fourth author in the past 20 years to write a novella that jointly earned Hugo and Nebula awards, two of the science fiction genre’s highest literary honors.

Okorafor’s “Binti,” the story of a mathematically gifted young African woman who must leave her family and customs to attend the galaxy’s most respected university, captured the World Science Fiction Society’s (WSFS) Hugo Award in August and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s (SFWA) Nebula Award for best novella in May.

The dual recognition brings “Binti” praise from both fans and fellow writers. Members of the WSFS who attend Worldcon, the organization’s annual conference, nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards. The more than 1,500 members of the SFWA, many of them leading writers of science fiction and fantasy, nominate and vote for the Nebula Awards.

“It’s still sinking in,” says Okorafor, associate professor in the Department of English. “It’s an honor just to be nominated, but I never looked past that and didn’t once consider that I might win.”

Okorafor started writing “Binti” soon after accepting her faculty position at UB.  To hear her story about leaving Chicago for Buffalo is to hear a terrestrial outline of “Binti’s” interstellar plot. Like the novella’s main character, Okorafor’s dream position required leaving her nuclear family.

“The story started coming together after I arrived in Buffalo in the fall of 2014, about this girl who leaves her family to attend a university across the galaxy,” she says. “That was me dealing with my circumstances. I wanted to be in Buffalo, but my family’s voice and their fears were still in my head.”

Okorafor wanted to explore her family’s fear and what might happen if those fears were realized.

“Binti’s” familial themes transport and redefine the meaning of family and departure. Finding family can involve leaving family, while the distance required in a journey of personal discovery doesn’t have to imply separation, she says.

“I want readers to think of the idea of stepping outside what is comfortable,” Okorafor says. “You don’t have to cut yourself off from the past, from what made you, in order to explore. It’s complicated and there are some negatives, but you can bring your family with you.”

The novella’s critical and popular reception illustrates how well it’s connecting with its audience. The humanity of the story is the humanity of an author searching inside herself.

“Binti’s” inspiration is part of a familiar playbook for Okorafor. She says most of her stories begin with an emotion or a character. It’s always something deep within her, but those beginnings find unique identities once she starts writing. The outcome follows a fluid evolutionary path. Though “Binti” is deeply connected to Okorafor’s life, she says the novella became something quite different than what she set out to do.

But not everything about “Binti” shifted from its original foundation. From the start, Okorafor wanted to write something set in space.

“I detest space,” she says.

What?

“It’s scary,” she says. “You die there; it’s terrifying, but it’s also part of why I had to write this story.”

Those feelings, however, helped drive “Binti” forward. Just as the novella explores the idea of fear, Okorafor confronted her own fears while writing it.

“As a writer, when there’s something that I shy away from — writing either because I’m afraid of it or don’t like it passionately — I usually feel at some point I have to try it. Plus, I also like Star Wars,” she says.

She likes Binti, too. So much so that the story will continue with a second novella scheduled for publication in January 2017, while Part 3 is “already percolating.”

“This world is too much fun,” Okorafor says. “And Binti and the other characters are too interesting.

“I knew from the beginning there was going to be more.”