Review: Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

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Rooted in foundational loss and the hope that can live in anger, Riot Baby is both a global dystopian narrative an intimate family story with quietly devastating things to say about love, fury, and the black American experience.

Ella and Kev are brother and sister, both gifted with extraordinary power. Their childhoods are defined and destroyed by structural racism and brutality. Their futures might alter the world. When Kev is incarcerated for the crime of being a young black man in America, Ella—through visits both mundane and supernatural—tries to show him the way to a revolution that could burn it all down.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

            “Freedom. I see freedom,” writes Toni Onyebuchi to close his book, and for a moment after I turned the last page, I knew lightness and silence, as if the world had tipped, almost fallen, but instead leaned, and then finally rebalanced. Hope blossomed in my chest then, unfolding gently as a flower. Before all the events of this novella slammed back, fast as arrow-shot.

            At only 173 pages, Riot Baby is a quick read that you can easily breeze through over the course of a weekend, but there is plenty to sink your teeth into here. Equal parts love and rage, Riot Baby smolders more intensely than a pyre, and it lit a hellfire in me. This is the kind of novel you turn over slowly and carefully in the back of your mind, feeling the edges of it like you would a coin. The kind that remains behind like an echo that refuses to fade, or a shadow outlasting its caster.

            The story follows Kev who is born the day of the Los Angeles riots of 1992 that were spurred by the savage beating of Rodney King and the subsequent acquittal of the police officers who had partaken in it. The author then moves through time and space, diving into achingly remembered moments of Kev’s life—now a child with endless potential, now a teen who knows fear in the shape of the faces of those who are supposed to protect him, now a young man whom life had spilled, like a seed from a smashed fruit, into the killing chill of a world ruled by the endlessly ravenous wolf of injustice and systemic racial oppression, a world where Kev has to fight for the privilege to draw air into his lungs. 

            This carefully layered narrative across the decades works splendidly well, and gives the impression that every moment in Kev’s life had happened before it even happened, that it is happening now, has never stopped and will never stop happening—a skip in a DVD endlessly throwing the reader backward and forward in time. That sense of nowness, of persistent, almost unbearable reality lends the novel a compelling urgency. It also left me feeling like a rag that has been twisted at both ends, completely wrung out.

            There’s nothing dystopian about this book. This is a lived reality for so many Black people in America, as undeniable as sight and touch, and the solidity of that truth runs like a vein through the story, carried by the swift-running current of the author’s lucid yet dreamlike writing, as he moves through the novel like a wave, graceful, but with insistant, unceasing motion.

            There’s a gathering of something hard and unyielding at the core of this novel, a roar of anger and pain at the injustices of the world, the losses to which we see no end, only the far horizon, stretching on and on. And at the impunity, the hollowness of political platitudes, like threadbare cloth worn so thin that you could see light and shadow through its fabric.

            Meanwhile Kev’s sister—Ella—dreams. Ella has tremendous supernatural powers, but as strong and unbending as she is—powerful enough to fly, to reach into the depths of one’s mind and twist, and to pierce through the earth to the other side of the world—she cannot save her brother from a world bent on punishing him for the simple crime of being a young Black man existing in public space. And for most of the novel, Ella, who has slipped into some great hollow place within her, only visits Kev in prison in psychedelic visions, as both of them try to gather up the strings and wind themselves nearer, nearer—through bleak, scoured-cold landscapes, and rooms without air—until they can finally meet each other in the middle. Until they can stand back to back, instead of living with their backs to the wall, ruled by fear of death. 

All we can do is the work. I recognize it’s not enough to preach free love. We have to combat free hate as well. 

            Riot Baby, after all, is a stirring story of resistance, and hope blooms on the pages like fungi after rain. It’s also a call to action. To make war against that old instinct Ella and Kev had to make war against—the instinct to freeze, to retreat, to cradle your anger in your hands until the flame went out safely—and to stand up to darkness, to fear, to injustice. To stand up for each other, arms entwined like a net to carry the heaviest burden.

           In one of the most powerful moments in this novel, Ella admits that she had wanted her brother to just survive, but, at the end, “in her chest, it becomes a cruel thing to ask him to do.”

            Survival is not enough. Only freedom is.

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