Review: Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi

Russ Allbery eagle at
Mon Aug 31 22:16:09 PDT 2020

Riot Baby
by Tochi Onyebuchi

Copyright: January 2020
ISBN:      1-250-21476-9
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     176

>From Ella's childhood, she sees visions of the future. They come at
first with nose bleeds and other physical symptoms, but their worst
aspect is that they're sad and dark. Ella is black, as are those around
her, and their futures are full of shootings and gangs, death and
trouble. As she grows older, she develops her Thing: powers that let
her bend, move, and destroy things with her mind, and later to become
invisible, teleport, and reshape the world. Ella has superpowers.

Ella is not the viewpoint character of most of Riot Baby, however. That
is Kev, her younger brother, the riot baby of the title, born in South
Central on the day of the Rodney King riots. Kev grows up in Harlem
where they move after the destruction from the riots: keeping Ella's
secret, making friends, navigating gang politics, watching people be
harassed by the cops. Growing up black in the United States. Then Ella
sees something awful in the future and disappears, and some time
afterwards Kev ends up in Rikers Island.

One of the problems with writing reviews of every book I read is that
sometimes I read books that I am utterly unqualified to review. This is
one of those books. This novella is about black exhaustion and rage,
about the experience of oppression, about how it feels to be inside the
prison system. It's also a story in dialogue with an argument that
isn't mine, between the patience and suffering of endurance and not
making things worse versus the rage of using all the power that one has
to force a change. Some parts of it sat uncomfortably and the ending
didn't work for me on the first reading, but it's not possible for me
to separate my reactions to the novella from being a white man and
having a far different experience of the world.

I'm writing a review anyway because that's what I do when I read books,
but even more than normal, take this as my personal reaction expressed
in my quiet corner of the Internet. I'm not the person whose opinion of
this story should matter.

In many versions of this novella, Ella would be the main character,
since she's the one with superpowers. She does get some viewpoint
scenes, but most of the focus is on Kev even when the narrative is
following Ella. Kev trying to navigate the world, trying to survive
prison, seeing his friends murdered by the police, and living as the
target of oppression that Ella can escape. This was an excellent
choice. Ella wouldn't have been as interesting of a character if the
story were more focused on her developing powers instead of on the
problems that she cannot solve.

The writing is visceral, immediate, and very evocative. Onyebuchi
builds the narrative with a series of short and vividly-described
moments showing the narrowing of Kev's life and Ella's exploration of
her growing anger and search for a way to support and protect him.

This is not a story about nonviolent resistance or about the arc of the
universe bending towards justice. Ella confronts this directly in a
memorable scene in a church towards the end of the novella that for me
was the emotional heart of the story. The previous generations,
starting with Kev and Ella's mother, preach the gospel of endurance and
survival and looking on the good side. The prison system eventually
provides Kev a path to quiet and a form of peace. Riot Baby is a story
about rejecting that approach to the continuing cycle of violence. Ella
is fed up, tired, angry, and increasingly unconvinced that waiting for
change is working.

I wasn't that positive on this story when I finished it, but it's stuck
with me since I read it and my appreciation for it has grown while
writing this review. It uses the power fantasy both to make a hard
point about the problems power cannot solve and to recast the argument
about pacifism and nonviolence in a challenging way. I'm still not
certain what I think of it, but I'm still thinking about it, which says
a lot. It deserves the positive attention that it's gotten.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-08-31


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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