Astrolabes and Communication: In response to Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘Binti’

Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘Binti’ series tells the story of a young Himba woman — a mathematics prodigy from a family of astrolabe-makers — who finds herself caught up an interplanetary war after defying her traditionalist family to attend university. The final volume of this Afrofuturist novella trilogy was released about 3 weeks ago, and much has already been said about the series’ themes, worldbuilding, and storytelling. I am not here to offer another general review, but I do wish to respond to the representation of astrolabes.
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2018: A new commitment to design

Happy 2018! I hope the new year has been wonderful to you so far.

I greet this year with a new goal: I want to become a designer.

There are many reasons behind this. For one thing, I want a day job that involves more creative work and contact with other people (but with more stability and better working conditions than I’ve found in the arts). For another, I am inspired by the designers who study the deeper significance of historical objects and cultural practices and use this to create items for modern life that are imbued with that spirit. Needless to say, I would love to be involved in such projects.

Yet design is ultimately about turning creativity towards solving problems. So before I commit to any particular direction within design, I want to clarify what kinds of problems I most want to solve. That will take soul-searching, and that’s a major reason why I want to blog about this journey. To capture the process and the struggle, and hopefully benefit from reader interaction along the way.

In that spirit, this year I also want to commit to making — and sharing — more original work, whether that’s art or writing or design projects. I want to be less afraid of doing so, to have a healthier attitude towards failure and overcome perfectionism. I feel I’ve retreated into a shell over the past two years, and while it’s been good for me in some ways, it’s time to re-emerge.

A Sprouting Seed

It should not surprise you that all my work on astrolabes has incurred the desire to make one. So when I found that a local silversmith was offering a jewellery-making class, I signed up right away, thinking this could be the first step in learning the requisite skills. So one late December day, I designed and made (with guidance) this brass and silver pendant. I chose the motif of a sprouting seedling because Persianate astrolabes frequently have retes in the form of leafy plants; my hope is that this experience is the seed that will someday grow into making a full astrolabe.

Below the cut are some in-progress photos from that initial session.
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On ‘Write What You Know’

The most powerful artistic portrayals of anything come from people who have personally experienced those things – and there are portrayals that fail because the writer lacks the life experience. So it makes sense to advise people to stick to what they know.

Then again, many of us who enjoy writing fiction (or acting, or what have you) do so because we want to be not ourselves for a while. To play pretend. The impulse to create is a desire to transcend.

Even if we actually are explicitly looking to tell a personally experienced truth, the objective outward facts may obscure the essence. We may create to present a story with altered outer trappings so that the core can be seen.

Anything we create is a reflection of us, infused as it is with the extent/limits of our knowledge, our emotional state at the time, and the general sense of how our minds work. Anything we make embodies us, whether or not this is an explicit goal.

I don’t think any of us can help but write what we know.

When truth is stranger

Some of the most painful feedback to receive on writing is when you include something based on personal experience, and readers tell you it isn’t believable. You know it’s not an affront, but it can feel like one – an accusation of lying, that somehow you’ve seen or reacted “wrong”.

In academic writing, you cite more sources or present more data or clarify your argument. But in fiction, what can you do?

You can give more or different information, to ground the thing in a context that makes it clearer how, yes, this tiny thing really could have that tremendous an impact (or that this thing could wash over someone altogether, or whatever it is).

Or you can decide that you are writing for those who already share your experience and therefore correctly understand your allusions. Anyone else is not the target audience, and therefore it’s on them to do the extra work.

Are you writing so that people unfamiliar can get a basic sense of you, or to take people who grasp the fundamentals to a higher level?

On Experiencing Illiteracy

There is an irony to spending your day on the minutest details of the written word, only to find yourself illiterate every time you leave the office. But here in this new city, I cannot read the local language at all. My second day, I was alone and hungry and surrounded by restaurants, afraid to order because I couldn’t read any of the menus. And I quickly found that although I could ask some questions (“Does this [pointing to a picture] have [things I can’t eat]?”), I couldn’t understand the answers.

But I am reminded of my grandmother’s aunt, whom I met when I was 19 and she was nearly 90. In her day, education was not free in her country and her parents could not afford to send their 11 children to school. She only learned the alphabet after she got married, and her ability with it remained limited all her life. She could sign her name (she took pride in this – no X on the line for her!), or match a written-down street name to a street-sign. But she could do no more than sound out, painfully and slowly, two or three lines of a postcard written phonetically in her native language.

At the time, my bookwormish teenage self was bewildered that I managed to connect with someone who had never read a book. The adult me marvels that she managed to get by when she couldn’t even read small and practical things: signage, menus, flyers. You don’t even realize how text-filled the world is until you can no longer read the writing all around you. And how did she manage when her children moved abroad and she travelled to see them, making her way in places where her language wasn’t spoken at all?

Right now, as I muddle through this new country, I keep telling myself that she managed, and so can I.

Two Cups

I decided to give myself a “congrats on the new job!” gift of a fancy mug. In a shop selling tea and all the accoutrements, I found these:


I asked the shopkeeper what the inscriptions meant. “Money” she said of the one on the left, and “peace or freedom” for the other. We joked that this felt like one of those folktales where someone has to make a weighty choice, and I was inclined towards the one on the right. “But you’re young!” she said. “Make money now; find peace later.”

So which one do you think I chose?

Airports

these strange liminal spaces
giving closure to one phase of life
and opening the gate to the next
holding equally
our partings and reunions
the promise of adventure and the fear of the unknown

after check-in, conveyor belts, screening, stamping, screen-consulting

long walkways
streams of people
high ceilings
call
for the calm
of a house of worship or a grand museum

until the announcement is yours and the frenzy of boarding

Owning and moving

I’ve just thrown away most of my old notebooks. Strange to think that the photos of marginalia are all I have left of them, though not nearly so strange as how I feel about letting them go. I expected to feel so much more – I mean, I’d kept them for years (some for over a decade) and held them to be especially dear possessions.

But in the end, I went Daenerys on Daario and decided to move on.

After 5 years in Qatar, I have a new job that’s taking me to a country I’ve never been to before. I’ve spent the last 6 weeks getting a headstart on a new language, sorting/packing stuff, and saying farewells. And to avoid the hassles of shipping or finding ways to reclaim things later, I’m giving up anything I can’t fit into two large suitcases, a carry-on case and a laptop bag. It’s always daunting to decide what makes the cut, but after 10+ moves I know I’ve never truly missed anything I’ve let go.

Ownership is a strange beast. The things you own enable you to do things, but they also hold you responsible (for the things themselves, as well as what you do with them). So it’s liberating to have less stuff, yet difficult to disown things. Ownership is both power and burden.

So I realized, going through my notebooks, that I did not want to be owned by them anymore. They’ve been tugging at me, to relearn enough to make sense of old lecture notes or remember the stories behind the marginalia or wonder about people I only remember because their names are scrawled there. But I don’t want to recreate past mental states; I want to give my energy to now and the future. And the most important lessons from the past I carry already, internally.