An Interview with Alex Award Winner Tochi Onyebuchi, author of Riot Baby

Each year, the Alex Award committee works to select ten titles published for adult readers that might have special appeal to young adults, ages 12-18. One of the 2021 selections is Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi.

Riot Baby is a slim novel, but it is loaded with powerful references, images, and questions centered around Ella and her younger brother, Kev, born during the 1992 riots in L.A. following the acquittal of the officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. Employing plenty of magical realism, Onyebuchi builds fully-fleshed characters with the barest of strokes – an art and a magic all its own. As Ella grapples with her Thing (unexplained powers that she works to harness through the book) and Kev grapples with the distance between who he is and who the world thinks he will be, we see through them glimpses of our past and visions of a possible future, one where freedom means something for all. 

This book will leave readers reeling (in the best ways), and this incredible interview with author Tochi Onyebuchi is likely to do the same. We are indebted to Tochi for his words and work.

photo by Christina Orlando

THE HUB: A drumbeat making itself heard underneath the whole book is anger – who feels it, who’s allowed to show it, how it might manifest. And in your acknowledgments, you write of the gift you received from N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, saying “I did not know how to write angry, the type of angry that still leaves room for love.” What does anger offer you as a writer? And what do you hope it offers your readers?

ONYEBUCHI: It’s liberating. It’s liberation. Surviving oppression, from chattel slavery through the present, has entailed modulating one’s behavior, code-switching, crossing the street to cede sidewalk to a white person, abiding by codes both written and unwritten in order to keep you and your loved ones alive, nevermind safe. It’s not a relic of Jim Crow either. It’s almost a rite of passage these days to be sat down by one or both parents and schooled on exactly how you’re to behave in the presence of a police officer. This spreads to resistance movements where Black Americans are constantly being told (by their oppressors) what the proper mode of protest is, how exactly they should react to their oppression for progress to be on the table. The man with the whip ordering you not to cry else he’ll continue whipping you. And the one thing you’re not permitted, above all else, is anger. Anger is dangerous. It’s a challenge. And it’s, in a very fundamental way, a refusal of the existing order. It’s saying “it shouldn’t be this way,” which is the very last thing the guardians of the status quo want to hear. And this anger can filter into every aspect of your being just how that behavioral modulation once did (or still does). “Will I get published if I write a story about Black people in rebellion?” “Will I get fired if I go to HR to tell about a co-worker’s racism?” “Will I get my life ruined if I’m walking too close to this white woman?” I think seeing a Black character be angry, visibly angry, righteously angry can offer readers a vicarious experience. They can witness what they don’t feel allowed to be just yet in their specific situations, which is one reason why the very last word of Riot Baby is what it is.

Riot Baby Cover Art

THE HUB: There’s the obvious reason that the book is called Riot Baby since Kev is born during the 1992 riots in L.A.; is there another reason that title sings for you?

ONYEBUCHI: I love the sound of words, and I love the song they can make when braided together. And the title was one of those things where it completely matched the content of the book and sang in my ears. I think what stood out most was the juxtaposition of those words. What did the thing they described look like? My hope is that I piqued the prospective reader’s curiosity enough with that question that they’d pick the book up off the shelf and bring it to the checkout counter.

THE HUB: The narrative is non-linear and jumps through time (both with Ella and on its own). Why did this structure seem like the most appropriate expression of this story?

ONYEBUCHI: I wanted discomfort and the type of polyrhythm you get from jazz or the prog metal and djent I love listening to. Just when you feel settled, the entire time signature changes. For me, it was a way of keeping the reader engaged. I wanted none of the book to be skippable. I also wanted to cover a large span of time, and even if I let the book be 850 pages, I could not have told a fully linear version of the story I wanted to tell. I also wanted to dramatize the act of discovery, or, at least, the internal experience of it. As you get older, you learn history. You learn about specific episodes, and knowledge of that thing informs how you move forward. I wanted to dramatize Ella discovering not just American history but her family’s history and that informing how she moved forward, each unveiling giving her more reason to be furious at the world around her and the way it’s been built.

THE HUB: Another throughline in the book is fear – which I see as a close cousin to anger. At times, Kev acknowledges that he is afraid of Ella, and at others he seems to lean into her fearful power. I couldn’t help connecting this whole book, in fact, with Nina Simone and her famous response: “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear!” Would you talk a little about how you responded to the necessity of fear in this narrative?

ONYEBUCHI: Fear is behind much of how Kev survives Rikers. It’s behind much of how a lot of us survive this whole place, to be perfectly honest. And at a certain point, Kev must ask himself what he is more afraid of: the terroristic police and the carceral system that has broken him and refashioned him into a man whose world is essentially limited to his parole community, or the young woman with god-like powers who threatens to tear it all down. As much as Kev fears and hates the white supremacist structures that beat and broke him, there’s security there. It’s what he and so many of his community have gone through. His friends from high school, kids from the block, kids from neighboring blocks. It’s like the weather, but it’s like the weather while living in a coastal community constantly ravaged by floods and hurricanes. You learn how to live there.

THE HUB: There’s a scene where Kev and Ella are playing with a train set which quickly ends up burning because of the power of Ella’s imagination. Do you think imagination must always be linked to destruction?

ONYEBUCHI: No, actually. I think imagination is what powers resistance movements, and the rights-expanding ones operating to improve the conditions of the marginalized in the United States are intrinsically noble enterprises. I think what afflicts Ella in that moment–and what afflicts many if not most of us–is an inability to imagine “repair.” Or, at least a repair that doesn’t replicate our Old, Inadequate Normal. This is why the work of activists and organizers is so necessary. You look at the work that Mariame Kaba and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, for instance, have done on prison abolition and police abolition and what a titanic feat of imagination it is to envision a United States where the police no longer exist as they exist today. How noble. How necessary! I’ve always associated imagination with building, which is why Ella’s story ends where it does. The act of reading is an exercise in complicity, and I want the reader to pick up where Ella’s left off.

At the same time, I do think that imagination can serve the destructive impulse. To so viciously and comprehensively attempt to obliterate the humanity of others as white Americans did during slavery could not have happened without imagination. The same goes for all the different ways the Catholic Church found to punish people and solidify their control during the Spanish Inquisition. Dreaming up laws to disenfranchise Black Americans and prevent them from participating in American democracy requires imagination. Oppression requires imagination just as much as building an equitable future does. But I don’t think that’s where Ella’s mind is at during the episode with the train. I think it’s the place we can all get to sometimes where we’re so caught up in the story we’re telling ourselves, we don’t notice the damage we’ve done around us until it’s almost too late.

THE HUB: The book opens with a series of short sentence fragments, and the punctuated fragment continues to play a role throughout. But there are also these stretched-taffy sentences, lengthening and building tension, like this:

Memories run like shards across her line of sight: the two of them on the outside, he with his crew when he was younger and she with her older cousin, both her and her cousin sporting big hoop earrings with their names in gold, walking back from the movies and passing the boy with his crew and the boy hollering at her and the big cousin telling the boy off in sharp, smooth, knife-blade Spanish.

And after that are several more long, generous sentences. Why are both of these types of sentences so important in your work? What work are they each doing?

ONYEBUCHI: I love prose so much. It’s part of why reading can be a physical experience for me, almost sensual. I remember encountering Faulkner’s sentences in Absalom, Absalom and feeling a visceral warmth radiating from my chest. In college, I spent a summer in Morocco learning Arabic. The center there had a makeshift library that was really just a repository for books left behind by travelers passing through. They had a copy of Little, Big by John Crowley. I’d hoped to take his fiction writing class upon my return to Yale the following fall, so I figured “let me do some homework.” I fell so deeply in love with his prose that I would sneak the book into my afternoon Darija classes and nudge my classmate and point to whatever sentence I was reading and whisper in hushed awe, “isn’t that the most beautiful sentence in the English language?” I love sentences and sentence-strings that pull a physical reaction out of me, and it’s a sensation I’m constantly trying to evoke in my own work. I want to write a paragraph that leaves you quite literally breathless. I want a scene to feel like how a viciously cut series of edits in a movie sequence might feel. And I’m also trying to remain attuned to rhythm. Sometimes when a rapper will do a radio freestyle and they’ll be nodding to the beat trying to figure out what to say, they’ll mumble syllabic placeholders that will slowly turn into the words until they finally go, “all right, let’s go,” and jump onto the beat. I always dug that.

THE HUB: Color also plays at so many edges of this book, with lots of references to gray (Ella’s hair, the sky) but also the blues and reds and browns of life around them. And in a moment of unusual joy, Kev says “The world dissolves in a mess of colors. I’m crying.” What is color doing here, in your mind?

ONYEBUCHI: When I was a younger writer, I figured color as a more utilitarian thing. These shoes are red, these eyes are brown, this sky is blue. And I would leave it at that, not realizing that the way color acted on me in real life could be the way that color acted on my characters in fiction. Color as emotional prompt. It’s why the doula talks with Lanie the way she does, asking her to think of the color that calms her down. Characters can experience the world through their five senses, but it almost seemed as though their experience of color was a sixth sense, an added layer of texture to things. And you can have moments like the one excerpted above where lines, boundaries are overwhelmed by emotion and the world is just colors.

THE HUB: Kev comes to realize the power of stories, both listening to people tell their story and reading stories together. What would you say makes story such a superpower?

ONYEBUCHI: Some of the most fun you can have among Black folk is listening to stories. It’s a way elders can pass down wisdom, but it’s also an exercise in communion. I’ve heard stories as a mode of advice-giving among men trying to deal with their partners. Stories about misadventures at a Spades table. Stories about Freaknik that then prompt others to tell their wild stories about Freaknik, the understanding being that everyone was there. Every Verzuz battle is attended by a waterfall of storytelling from listeners about their personal experiences with whatever song is playing. And inevitably, what gets discovered is that it’s never just them that had that experience. Human beings are pattern-making creatures. It’s why apophenia is such a thing with us. In being able to conceptualize Death as an End to things and Birth as a Beginning to things, we’ve provided a narrative framework for our lives. We tell stories as a way of organizing our universe. In antiquity, the stars were never just stars, they were how God or the gods told us our history, our myth. And I feel that stories unite us. Now, that isn’t to say that the union is categorically noble. Birth of a Nation and the books that movie was based on were examples of storytelling that united white Americans into the terrorist organization that was the Ku Klux Klan. The Lost Cause is a myth told by the military losers of the Civil War to justify the fact that they fought to try and keep chattel slavery enshrined in American law, a myth that powers so much of American politics today. Which speaks to the power of storytelling.

THE HUB: The alt-future world of mechanization and governance by algorithm feels all too possible while still feeling like we slipped into another dimension that really believes technology could be neutral. With little fanfare, you prove that untrue and offer another vision. Why was it important to take this somewhat despairing novel to a place of hope in the end?

ONYEBUCHI: The question I would pose in response is “hope for whom?” If a house is on fire, what hope is there for the people trapped inside? Regarding the technology aspect of things, I merely wrote what was already happening. There already exist algorithms that factor into whether or not you are granted bail by a judge. Palantir has an entire page of their website detailing their work with federal and local law enforcement. Feb. 2021, the NYPD had one of those Boston Dynamics robot dogs patrolling in the Bronx. The future is always tested on the marginalized first. Now, what does it mean that the only way I could envision stemming the tide of this was to have a character quite literally burn it all down? The antagonist of the story is the System (or perhaps a set of systems), but it’s people who operate and maintain those systems. People who make decisions every second of every day to uphold white supremacist structures. It’s people who deny homeownership loans to Black Americans and who consistently undervalue their properties and try to prevent them from building generational wealth. It’s people that shoot unarmed Black kids. It’s people that hire Diversity and Inclusion executives but refuse to give them the funds and authority to do what they’ve ostensibly been hired to do. It’s people that don’t see films and/or television made by Black creators to subsequently nominate them for awards. It’s people who, actively or tacitly, do not promote Black authors with the same vim and vigor as they do their white counterparts. And what does it mean to lose hope that any critical mass of those people would have a Road to Damascus moment and change their ways? Whenever there’s fire, it’s imperative that we think about who is outside looking in and who is trapped inside.

THE HUB: Can we, as the preacher suggested, put “grace and tribulation in the same cupboard”?

ONYEBUCHI: Speaking for myself, I have to. It’s the only way I’m able to organize the universe around belief in an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. On its face, it may be confusing to believe that the same being that organized the universe out of love for me would put hardship in my path, would introduce loss into my life, but one aspect of this project of human existence, for me, has been learning to appreciate a life lived in nine dimensions. I love differently for having experienced loss. This is an albeit self-centered modus operandi, but I think it also allows me to be of service. If I didn’t have answers or at least stop-gaps to my questions about the how’s and why’s of life–my life–I’d be paralyzed by indecision and lack of meaning. I need it all to mean something. It’s all part of the story of me. The grace, the tribulation. I have to accept it all if I’m to tell the story of myself to the fullest, most joyous, most tragic extent possible.