Why You Need to Read: “Riot Baby”

Riot Baby

By: Tochi Onyebuchi

Published: January 21, 2020

Genre: Speculative Fiction/Contemporary

            The look on her face, that’s what people told me today wasn’t no kind of victory. That when people joke and call me Riot Baby for being born when I was, it ain’t with any kind of affection, but something more complicated. The type of thing old heads and Mama and other people’s parents tell you you won’t understand till you get older, (II, Harlem). 

            Our world is not a utopia, but it’s not a dystopia either. Our world is balanced between the good and the bad, and the beautiful and the ugly. As humanity’s technology emerged with emphasis on the visuals, humanity preferred to use: cameras, camcorders, and videos to capture moments and/or events in life. Although technology is used for selfish reasons, it cannot be denied that we’ve used it in order to capture moments of both the beautiful and the ugly. Yet, it cannot be said that the ugly moments provided elements of truth which details moments of life for all individuals around the world. In the 21st century, this technology serves as a reminder that life is beautiful and ugly due to humanity, and that art imitates life NOT vice versa. 

            Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi is an allegorical narrative about the treatment of “minorities”—specifically Black Americans—in contemporary America. I’m not going to use the sub-genre—dystopia—because it implies, “a very unpleasant imaginary world in…a disastrous future,” (p. 417). Riot Baby focuses on the present, so to categorize it in the dystopia subgenre would be an insult to the many victims of the societal practice. This novella reiterates numerous key moments in America during the last 60 years, most of which there is evidence in the form of both photos and videos. While several outlets of mainstream media and history texts continue to gloss over past and recent events, victims and witnesses know better due to the fear and the knowledge that such events: Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Colin Kapernick, McKinley, Charleston, etc., can and will happen again. Riot Baby is Childish Gambino’s, “This Is America,” presented from a similar perspective in a different format. 

            There are two protagonists, but the story starts with Ella who is around 7-years-old. She lives with her mother in South Central Los Angeles. The year is 1992 and her mother is pregnant. Ella is a very perspective child. One of the reasons for this is because Ella has ESP abilities of an empath and powers that rival Scarlet Witch from X-Men. One day after school, as the Rodney King Verdict is announced, Ella’s mother goes into labor and they have to get to a hospital. After her brother, Kevin, is born, Ella begs her mother to have them move to Harlem believing her rage, and her abilities to feel everyone else’s rage, won’t be as volatile on the East Coast as it is on the West. Several years later, Kev spends his time after school hanging out with his friends outside of a bodega on a street corner, avoiding the notice of both the police and his mother and sister. Some things are easier said than done because Ella cannot control neither her “gift” nor her rage, and Kev can’t do anything to stop himself from becoming another statistic in American society. Soon, Kevin is in jail and Ella “jumps” all over the world observing the ways other people live. The brother becomes indifferent and the sister becomes even more enraged.

            As Kev serves his (exaggeratedly long) sentence in Rikers State Penitentiary, Ella experiences rodeos in Louisiana, horse races in Belmont, the shooting of Sean Bell, the police “raid” at a pool party in McKinley, Texas and the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Kev, in his youth, becomes worn down in prison and Ella becomes so angry that she seeks advice from her mother and her mother’s acquaintances. Kev is comfortable with the “life” provided for him in prison and on parole. Ella explains to him how both are restrictive forms of freedom, and the only way to achieve freedom is to act on their anger. 

            Throughout the narrative, readers witness the events and the treatment Ella and Kev experience throughout their lives and the helplessness they feel over and over again. From Kev’s point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness, readers witness how Black Men are treated in America’s systematic racism from racial profiling to prison (and juvenile detention) to parole. From Ella’s point-of-view, readers experience the world beyond Black America, and moments from the past, including the ones her mother lived through. Ella’s stream-of-consciousness (and empathic powers) allows for readers (and Ella) to feel all of the emotions everyone else is expressing, which leaves her (and us) wondering why more people are not upset with this treatment within society. Given the pace and the moments in U.S. history and society, both Ella and Kev are reliable narrators. 

            The style Tochi Onyebuchi uses for Riot Baby is a social commentary of recent events told with the lenses of speculative fiction. The mood in this novella is rage from mistreatment and oppression in a society. The author makes several references referring to race relations in the U.S.: Rodney King and the L.A. Riots, Sean Bell, Charleston, McKinley, Spike Lee, Black women and childbirth, George Washington Carver, the Confederate Flag, hoodies, neo-Nazis, music—particularly rap, etc. The tone reflects the way one should feel about all of the mistreatment Ella learns and that it is okay to feel anger towards this mistreatment, the same mistreatment which converted her brother into a docile servant of American society. Using superpowers, the author illustrates what will eventually happen if these practices continue.  

            Riot Baby will appeal to fans of both speculative fiction (i.e. comics, manga and graphic novels) and history (i.e. social commentary). Systematic racism continues to be an issue throughout the world, and fans who want to read about this issue in a different style of writing should read this book. Anyone who has read: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and the MARCH Trilogy by John Lewis will appreciate the themes and the message found within Riot Babythe most.  

            Riot Baby is a parable (“a very short narrative about human beings presented…with a general thesis or lesson that the narrator is trying to bring home to his audience,”) about systematic racism and its practices throughout America (p. 9). Both the story and the title emphasizes that anger continues to build up due to mistreatment, oppression and fear and it’s all felt by one and many. Tochi Onyebuchi presents a believable story about the risks society takes when they ignore the harsh practices and restrictions of a group of people. Riot Baby uses the concept of mutant powers in order to deliver another approach to contemporary American society.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

                                                                        Works Cited

Abrams, M.H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Tenth ed., Wadsworth, 2005. 

Why You Need to Read: Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere

By: Celeste Ng

Published: September 12, 2017

Genre: Fiction

 

Mia looked down at Izzy, this wayward, wild, fiery girl suddenly gone timid and dampened and desperate. She reminded Mia, oddly, of herself at around that age, traipsing through the neighborhood…(Chapter 7).

In fact, she (Izzy) reminded him (Mr. Richardson) of her mother, when she’d been younger…the fiery side of her (Mrs. Richardson) that seemed, after so many safe years in the suburbs, to have cooled down to embers (Chapter 9).

 

Continuing on the success of her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng continues with exploring the family dynamics of Americans. Shaker Heights, Ohio is an upper-middle class neighborhood in which, all of the residents strive for the same thing: principles. Set during the late 1990s—before the Internet, smartphones, Columbine, and 9/11—this novel is a look back to American society when studies regarding adolescent rage and angst were emerging in mainstream society.

The plot of this story is family, particularly mothers and daughters. What is a mother? What makes a good mother? Who gets to be a mother? Celeste Ng does not only look at the various mothers in the story and how they are similar and different from each other, but also illustrates the needs of all of the daughters involved and how their mothers either attempt, or fail to meet those needs.

The narrative moves as necessary; meaning that the story moves from the present to the past, back to the present, to the future and back to the present. This type of narrative is used as necessary in order to answer any questions the readers will have about the characters and future events. Of course, the characters’ pasts are not revealed to each other unless that individual decides to do so. Keep in mind there is a difference between knowing the truth and assuming you know the truth.

The characters are rounded and relatable. The children are the focus of the novel, while the parents are the driving force. The Richardson Family has the presentation of the “All American Family,” but, obviously, with the baggage that comes with it. The father is always working, the mother is more concerned with appearances than with what is happening in front of her, and their children—like all adolescents—are trying to determine their identities while coming to terms with how different and alike they are from and to each other. Mia and her daughter, Pearl, appear to be the stereotypical vagabonds, but they portray what a family represents, a strong bond and understanding for each other. As for the two mothers involved in the custody battle, both of them love the child, clearly; but are at odds because of society’s notions of what constitutes a “family” and a “parent.”

Elena Richardson sees herself as a proud matriarch and hometown girl. She is set in her ways of thinking and believes that is why she has the life she lives, because she conformed to society’s expectations. However, her notions are not without consequence because she believes that individuals who are not like her—in terms of decorum—are not worthy of what they have. Elena’s way of life clashes with Mia and Izzy, her tenant and daughter, respectively. And, while she tries to justify her actions to herself, the consequences do not leave readers with any reason to pity her.

Mia Warren is an artist is every sense of the word. She decides to settle in Shaker Heights in order to give her daughter, Pearl, some sense of stability. Her influence on the Richardson Family and on Shaker Heights allows for an open discussion about family dynamics and family values. However, Elena’s “disgust” with Mia’s lifestyle reveals how and why suburban life is not everyone’s preference.

The style of storytelling Celeste Ng uses makes readers understand all of her characters within the novel. That being said, it allows readers to be aware of each character’s motivations while allowing readers to sympathize, to emphasize, or to dislike those same characters. Similar to people in the real world, individuals have his or her reasons for presenting themselves and carrying out their actions. The past explains the predicament of each person, but it does not mean what he or she did is the right thing to do. Every action has a consequence, and every person has to live with the aftermath of it. Celeste Ng gives her readers clues and instances in which, her characters have to live with themselves in the long run due to their actions and their choices. This style leads to readers with feelings of empathy, sympathy, and indifference.

The appeal of this novel has been captivating. With almost 240,000 ratings on Goodreads, it comes as no surprise that I had to wait over a year to burrow this book from a library (the eBook price wasn’t low enough, and I’m limiting the amount of print books I buy per month). Celeste Ng reminds her audience that while parents have good intentions for their children’s futures, their wants outweighs what the child, or children, want or need. This causes a rift amongst the family that have long term consequences instead of positive outcomes.

There is a potential media adaptation in the near future for this novel. As of the publishing of this article, Hulu is planning on a limited series based on this novel. It is supposed to star both Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington (possibly as the two “main” mothers). As with many media adaptations, there will be some changes and/or additions to the story, probably. In this case, it could help expand both the narrative and the characters. I am curious to see whether or not Celeste Ng will allow such additions to be incorporated into the adaptation of her book.

I enjoyed this novel because it speaks volumes about the hidden reality of growing up in a suburban neighborhood. As someone who grew up in a suburb similar to Shaker Heights—and during the late 1990s—the depiction of how the adults and the children interact with one another and each other are accurate. The emotional rollercoaster Celeste Ng pulls you on recalls both personal and publicized events that occurred around that time. Obviously, teenaged angst and Elian Gonzalez come to mind.

I do not say this often, but every once in a while, I read a book—regardless of its genre—and, I find myself saying, “This is one of my new favorite books.” Little Fires Everywhereis now in my current “Top Ten Favorite Books of All Time.” Family dynamics was and continues to be an issue throughout the world. Is family stability determined by having two parents? Who or what determines the “support system” children need while growing up? Are wants and needs the same thing when it comes to raising children? Being a single parent is difficult, but that does not mean that the parent is not worthy of being one. Mia and Izzy are reasonable examples of what could happen when the wants (“stability”) are met, but the needs (“support system”) are not. Both Mia and Izzy are two of the most relatable characters I have read in a very long time.

 

My final rating: MUST Read It Now!