Riot Baby

by Tochi Onyebuchi

Cover image

Publisher: Tor.com
Copyright: January 2020
ISBN: 1-250-21476-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 176

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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

Last modified and spun 2020-09-01