Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Image result for riot baby
Thank you to Tor for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review! Riot Baby will be released on January 21st, 2020. 

/r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Cyberpunk (Hard Mode), Afrofuturism (Hard Mode), Novella

Execution: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Enjoyment: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


I am the locusts and the frogs and the rivers of blood. I’m here now.

My reaction on finishing Riot Baby can be summed up with two simple words: Holy shit. This is a novella that I will have to reread at some point. Riot Baby is a humbling, visceral collage of two lives and the system that exists to crush them at every turn. It is a battle cry, a scream, and a sob for the black community. When people talk about #OwnVoices, this is what they mean. 

Everything about this novella clicked for me. It worked, beautifully, painfully. Some novellas try to compress a larger story into something that feels incomplete, leaving the reader dissatisfied and wanting more. Onyebuchi, however, sidesteps that with liberal use of time skips and a vignette format. Each scene is, to some degree, self-contained. To a reader, the end result is that it feels a bit like a living, breathing photo album. It’s a piece of ergodic literature, requiring that the reader actively participate and put together the puzzle pieces, filling in the blanks on their own. The structure is intentional and creative, allowing for a much larger story to be set into a smaller number of pages. 

The prose, too, helped keep things concise and tidy. Each word, each phrase, packs meaning upon meaning into it. The use of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is particularly effective in creating the overall atmosphere and culture depicted. I’m generally very sensitive to vernacular, jargon, or slang that is shoe-horned in as a cheap way of creating a setting, and that was NOT the case here at all. It felt natural, and slotted in beautifully within the overall writing. The setting informed the way of speaking, rather than the way of speaking being used to create a setting. AAVE was used because that’s how the characters speak.

Brooklyn, New York. An underpaid single mother with two kids: Ella, and Kevin. She does everything she can to keep them together, but she only has so much to give – especially when Ella begins to grow into something that neither of them can understand. Ella’s Thing, a magic born of anger and fear, gives her control over the world around her. Her brother, Kevin, is smart, bright, on track to stay in school and have a genuine future… but when Ella can’t control her Thing and must leave the family, this pushes everything off track for Kev. Or, perhaps, everything already was off track – it’s not right that these two kids know that they must hide in the interior closets when cats are gangbangin’ out on their street. It’s not right at these two kids know so many people who have been killed or hurt or assaulted. That, however, is their reality – and their anger at that reality is what Onyebuchi aims to explore in this shattered, fragmented narrative. 

I want to tell Mama about how things were getting better after Ella’s last attack, how I’ve been studying on the side and maybe getting closer to finding out how Ella could do the things she could do and that I’m gonna keep doing that once I get to college and get my degree. I want to tell Mama that we’re healing, that we’re fixing what we can fix and that nothing’s been broken beyond repair and that the only way we can keep whatever’s eating Ella’s insides from devouring her is to stay together. But more sobs come, and I try to get my brain to move toward a solution, figure out what I can build to get her back, to get at whatever’s hurting her, but I can’t think of nothing.

Kev is the titular Riot Baby, as their mother went into labor during the 1992 riots in LA. When she was rushed to the hospital, it was a complicated birth – just like Ella’s. Onyebuchi takes every scene and explores the social context behind it, creating a much larger narrative than seems possible in such a short novella – in this case, we see the ambivalence of the doctors and the way her pain isn’t taken seriously. It doesn’t matter to them if she lives, dies, or if her child is born healthy. All that matters to them is that she inconvenience them as little as possible, and they fail to even read her chart before walking into her room. That is the treatment that every single scene in this novella gets, and each one is just as much of a gut-punch as the one before it. You are present for their pain, and their anger becomes yours as a reader. 

Ella understands all of that. She is growing, constantly, and lives in the minds of those around her. Where Mama was opaque and mysterious to Kev, she’s an open window to Ella. She hates that they’ve moved to Harlem, and to an extent, she hates Mama for having brought them there. She has so, so much anger, and it’s overflowing – she takes it out  on those around her. She’s been hurt, and she doesn’t know how not to cause hurt any more herself. Her Mama tries to reassure her, telling her that God will help her… but Ella can’t have faith in a God who lets her family be shot at every day, who allows school shootings and church shootings and violence at every turn. 

“It’s so bad here,” she whimpers.

“Oh, baby.” A look of helplessness flits across Mama’s face. Desperation, then it passes, and Ella already knows it’s because Mama knows she can’t let Ella see her hopeless, and Ella hates that she has to know that. “Baby, that’s just the Devil at work. But you know there’s more out there than just the Devil.” 

“But everything’s the Devil!” 

“The Devil is busy here.” Mama has taken to smoothing out Ella’s outfit, running her hand down her sleeves. “The gangs, the drugs, all the evil that men do to each other here. Sometimes even the police. That’s the Devil. But you just gotta pray, all right, Ella?”

Time skip. Kev is an adult now, hanging out with the cats who are gangbangin’ in Harlem. He’s at the wrong place, the wrong time, and he ends up in Riker’s awaiting trial. He waits for trial, and waits for trial, and his trial is postponed, and the judge needs more time to prepare, and he stays there becoming more and more violent and more and more out of touch with the outside world for eight years. He never sees a judge. Ella visits him, both in person and using her Thing, but that just makes Ella angrier. The dystopian, science fiction elements of the book begin to slowly creepy in, as the reader begins to get an inkling of the way the police state works in this alternate future. 

This is the other side of what solitary did to him. The agitation, the running straight into painful memories rather than barricading himself against them. Whatever destructive impulses propelled Kev that night of the attempted armed robbery now augmented by what twenty-three hours in a cell alone for six months will do to a man. Kev looks as though he is staring at the sun, intent on blindness. Ella manages to make it onto the Rikers bus heading back into Queens before crying.

Ella begins to view her Thing less as a gift, less as a curse, and more as a responsibility. She will not, cannot, stand by as these injustices continue to take place around her. And as she flits across the world, it occurs to that maybe she’s the one the world has been waiting for. Maybe it’s up to her to fix things. Her Mama is dying, and the world is dying, and everything is wrong – but perhaps she is the one who is right. 

Six shots into the back of a man fleeing arrest on a child support warrant, or two shots ringing out and cops standing over the prone bleeding body of a young man in the midst of protests commemorating the anniversary of another boy killed by a cop. After each one, Ella had Traveled. Straight to the site of the killing, and she’d touched the ground, breathed in the air, and sucked that history deep into her body. Inhaled the violence of the previous hours. Sometimes it felt pornographic. To go to that cul de sac in McKinley, Texas, where black kids younger than her sat on the ground, handcuffed, while their white neighbors jeered and one cop grabbed a girl in a bathing suit by the arm and hurled her to the ground, then dug his knee into her back while she wailed for her mother. She’d returned from every trip with her head in her hands. What if I’m the answer? she had asked herself. What if I’m the one we’ve been praying for?

And, maybe, she is. 


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Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?

Let me know in the comments below!


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