Katharine Coldiron Reviews Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Riot Baby, Tochi Onyebuchi (Tor.com Publishing 978-1-25021-475-1, $19.99, 176pp, hc) January 2020.

Riot Baby is a good book, an angry book, a useful book. It drenches the reader in cold fire: fury and clarity at once, directed not at individuals but at the systems that make life unfair and treacherous for Black people in America. It wobbles a little when it must create and maintain the alternate near-future reality in which its characters abide – the excellent slipperiness of Tochi Onyebuchi’s storytelling means he can’t quite convince the reader that any concrete details are for real – but it remains firm when characterizing people, mood, and events of national significance.

Kev is the riot baby of the title, a boy born in the midst of the Los Angeles riots of 1992. His sister, Ella, has a telekinetic gift that manifests in multiple ways: she can see the future, she can perform astral projection, and, eventually, she can fly. The plot involves Kev going to prison for burglary, the siblings’ mother dying, and both of them trying to get by in a nation that hates them for their skin color. The book performs like a loose collection of vignettes rather than a novel with a linear plot, and thus its novella length works in its favor. Nearly every scene is breathless, immediate; Onyebuchi’s sentences carry power and activity along with their atmosphere and insight. Here is the opening paragraph, for example:

Before her Thing begins. Before even Kev is born. Before the move to Harlem. Ella on a school bus ambling through a Piru block in Compton and the kids across the aisle from her in blue giggling and throwing up Crip gang signs out the window at the bloods in the low-rider pulling up alongside the bus. Somebody, a kid-poet, scribbling in a Staples composition notebook, head down, dutiful, praying almost. Two girls in front of Ella clapping their hands together in a faster, more intricate patty-cake, bobbing their heads side to side, smiling crescent moons at each other.

Without tolerance for this kind of velocity, a reader will not enjoy Riot Baby. But without this kind of velocity, Riot Baby would not have the power it has to communicate accumulated Black anger. The book name-checks multiple unbearable events in the history of race relations in the United States, from the murder of Philando Castile all the way back to Southern slavery. The result is a fiery fictional version of Between the World and Me: a chronicle of injustice, woven through with a deeply personal story about family and strength.

Sometimes the novel’s lyric runs cause con­fusion. Ella’s powers are large and amorphous enough to create immersive illusions for Kev while he’s in jail. When he moves to Watts after being paroled, the government implants a chip in his thumb that serves as keycard, ankle monitoring bracelet, and pharmaceutical interventionist all at once. The reader wonders at first whether this whole Watts episode is a futuristic fantasy Ella is projecting for Kev. If it is, it offers as many opportunities as the real world for Onyebuchi to hammer home his convictions about Black injustice. Gun turrets and “Guardians” ap­pear on the streets, and a new policing algorithm, “developed in conjunction with extremely smart people in Silicon Valley… has helped reduce crime in the South Side by 18 percent.” In a conversation with a religious leader, Ella points out that fascism is not the best way to safety:

“Look at outside. We don’t have drug dealers on the corners anymore. I can’t remember the last time someone was shot on this block. My churchgoers can come and go in peace.”

“When there isn’t a curfew. Pastor, this isn’t peace. This is order.”

His eyes ask her, “And why would we give that up?”

Riot Baby‘s final implication is that Ella’s pow­ers can be claimed and used by every Black person. The result could be revolution, a reversal of fortune between white and Black: “Apocalypse sweeps the South. Vengeance visits the North…. They’ll feel us in every corner of this country.” This is not a threat, but a plea for change before that change must burn the whole world down and start again: a desire for long-overdue freedom. It comes packaged in a phe­nomenal, explosive little novel, one that folks of all races ought to read and consider. In the widest view, Riot Baby speaks the truth of Black oppression and injustice; in the smallest view, it uses compression and craft to render the reader breathless.

Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.

This review and more like it in the May 2020 issue of Locus.

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