A Review of Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby
Riot Baby is about the experience of siblings Kev and Ella and how the systemic discrimination and police brutality of their childhood shapes the jagged course of their tragic existence. Despite being gifted with supernatural abilities, both cannot escape their shared reality. Ella’s uncontrolled gift tears their family apart. It sends her into self-inflicted exile while Kev winds up in prison for 8 years.
The shackles of a system designed to keep black people in a perpetual cage persist into adulthood, choking and suffocating their freedom until Ella convinces her brother that they are the ‘chosen ones’ destined to destroy the system that has stifled them for so long.
The overwhelming theme centers around the tragedy that a racist society imprints on the black man right from the get-go, like in the case of Kev, who is born in the middle of the LA Riots of 1992 (thus the ‘riot baby’), an aftermath of the acquittal of four policemen who brutally assaulted Rodney King a black man in South Central, LA. It is also a story about trying to salvage a family amid sheer hopelessness, pain, and suffering.
The pacy and chaotic tone of this book is quite remarkable. Every sentence carries a sense of urgency. The anger, harshness, and ‘nowness’ in the author’s style really come across in every line. The structure conveys a similar feeling — probably one of the most oddly structured books you’ll ever read.
When the story is told from Kev’s perspective, we get a first-person narrative, but when it’s told from Ella’s perspective, the story reverts to a third-person narrative. The narrative also makes time jumps. The main settings are South Central, Harlem, Rikers Prison, and Watts, and the story features several unspecified locations, especially in Ella’s numerous visions.
However, despite how chaotic and disjointed the storyline is, Tochi Onyebuchi maintains some control, sufficiently conveys his message, and is able to steer his characters in the direction he wants. There is even enough to suggest that the structure is intended to look like this, perhaps to reflect and embrace the chaotic events of the story itself. This style choice also helps create a degree of suspense and spontaneity.
The book also does a good job demonstrating that racism and police brutality are not new problems. It gives a comprehensive history lesson, referring to several real-life occurrences. In the opening, we are amidst the L.A Riots of 1992. Towards the end, Ella confronts an aged Pastor about another similar occurrence when he was a youth, and in the present day, when Kev is out of prison, the same occurrences are still rife.
Kev’s experience in Rikers prison incorporates a rotten aspect of American society. It exposes a lot of irregularities in the American prison system and the harsh treatment that prisoners, especially those of color, constantly encounter.
One of the impressive things about this book is how it tells a complicated story spanning a wide period of time in less than 110 pages. However, for such an elaborate story idea, a novella is inadequate to properly do justice to many of its story elements. The characters, for instance, feel rushed and unexplored.
We needed to see more from Ella’s character. Much of the story hinges on her powers, yet we don’t know what those powers are, their limits, or even how they came to be. She appears overpowered in the mold of a Jean Grey from the X-Men or Marvel’s Wanda Maximoff, and at the close of the story, we begin to see her descend into near-villainy just like those two characters. One is thus forced to wonder why, if the siblings are the ‘chosen’, we can’t see Ella fixing the society with her powers, pursuing reconciliation of races and social classes with her mind-invading telepathy as we see her do in Kev’s parole hearing, for instance.
Instead, we see her promising devastation and annihilation as the path to freedom. What makes this more frustrating is that this is something she had restrained from doing earlier in the story when her brother was incarcerated in prison.
The result of this minimal character development is that we hardly connect with the characters and their pain. The message comes across; you see what is happening but never really feel in on the action. You don’t share their emotions, and their experiences don’t elicit the sadness and pity they ordinarily should trigger. In a nutshell, while starkly clear, the story’s message is not grippingly narrated.
The presence of the supernatural also feels out of place. You’ll constantly get the feeling that there are two story ideas here, with one shoehorned into the other. One is a superhero origin story, and the other is a story about systemic racism in contemporary America.
This book could exclude all the superhero aspects and still work as a story about racism in contemporary America. We must, however, note that this is not the kind of story that people are typically willing to write about, and Tochi Onyebuchi is not only bold enough to explore uncharted territory but actually comes close to pulling it off and, in a few words too!
The book also seems to focus only on a limited American audience. There are lots of American slang and cultural references that most English speakers are unfamiliar with. While much cannot be said about this choice of a target audience, one might expect more of a global perspective, particularly from an author with African heritage. However, the American perspective works nicely and is very useful to how the story unfolds.
Now, while this book errs in certain respects, it still has a lot to offer, particularly for readers with a shared experience of the society it describes. It isn’t much of a superhero story, but the unique combination presented here is new, complex, and delicate and certainly warrants a patient read.