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: “The Deep”

The Deep

By: Rivers Solomon; with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Folklore/Historical Fantasy

            “Our mothers were pregnant two-legs thrown overboard while crossing the ocean on slave ships. We were born breathing water as we did in the womb. We built our home on the sea floor, unaware of the two-legged surface dwellers,” she said. In general, Yetu didn’t tell the Remembrance. She made her people experience it as it happened in the minds of various wajinru who lived it, (Chapter 3). 

            Whether or not the majority of the world wants to admit it, 2019 marks 400 years since the beginning of the African Slave Trade. The first ships holding captive Africans made its voyage to the Americas in order to exploit the resources in those continents. For over 200 years, Africans—men, women and children—were abducted from their homes and families and shipped overseas and sold into slavery. The voyage overseas to the Americas were treacherous due to the conditions abroad the ships and the travel itself. The captives were not only abused, starved and raped, but also were subjected to overcrowded conditions with little to no air circulation. Thus, illness was common throughout these voyages and the ships suffered from the weight of all the people on board. One of the ways the crew resolved the issue of illness and capacity was to throw these terrified people overboard. Even those who weren’t sick (or pregnant) were tied up and thrown into the ocean; and, they were often chained together so none of them could attempt to escape and swim away. Although the imperialist nations continue to gloss over this inhumane era of our history, there is enough testimony and evidence to verify everything about the African Slave Trade as valid. 

            The Deep by Rivers Solomon incorporates this history alongside folklore and culture to tell a story of how and why it is essential to recall history no matter how traumatic it is and to share it with others. At the same time, the idea of maintaining history, culture and identity, and the consequences of those losses are echoed throughout the narrative. In African culture, a community’s historian and storyteller is given the title: griot. The griot is responsible for maintaining all of the stories and the events of that one community. And, it is seen as one of the highest honored positions an individual can train for and be assigned within their community. The practice of there being only one historian and/or griot per group of people is a cautionary tale that will remind readers of The Giver by Lois Lowry.  

            The protagonist is Yetu. She is 35 years-old and she has been her wajinru’s “historian,” or griot, since she was 14. Yetu was chosen to be her people’s historian by the previous one. The historian maintains the entire history of the wajinru (“chorus of the deep”) from when the first babe of the captured Africans were born and survived in the depths of the ocean. Due to the trauma of the first wajinru, one of them is chosen to maintain all of the memories of all of the wajinru so that everyone else can strive and live without those memories weighing them down. Every year, an event known as “The Remembrance” occurs, which involves the historian releasing the memories of the wajinru’s past so they can remember their origins, briefly. Throughout the rest of the year, the historian maintains those memories. Yetu was very young when she was chosen to be the current historian, and she’s found the role to be nothing but a burden. From the perspective of the other wajinru—including Yetu’s mother, Amaba—Yetu neglects some of her responsibilities as historian such as preparing for the Remembrance. What they don’t know is that Yetu holds the memories of ALL of the wajinru—past and present—in her mind, and she remembers EVERYTHING. Most wajinru, including Amaba, forget most things after a short time period. Yetu cannot do that and she often loses herself to the fragments of the memories. After 20 years, Yetu forgets to eat and to sleep, and she’s lost herself to the memories more often than she can remember. Lacking a support system from her people, Yetu performs the Remembrance. However, before she is to reclaim the memories for another year, Yetu flees from the other wajinru and the memories. 

            Once Yetu cannot swim anymore, she finds herself near a small seaside town. There Yetu meets humans who help her survive as she recovers from her flight. She is able to communicate with them because some of the memories of the wajinru are still within her. Yetu befriends Oori, a human who is the sole survivor of a disaster that destroyed her home and killed her entire community. The two females bond over being outcasts and being the historian responsible for ensuring that the history and the legacy of their people do not fade into obscurity, and both women are dealing with their burden differently. Yetu’s mind contains the memories of her tribe, until recently; and, Oori is the last of her people and she doesn’t know what she can do to ensure that her people’s legacy doesn’t become extinct. It is this revelation that makes Yetu aware of how essential her role to her people is and why knowing one’s history, culture and origins is important for survival. From there, Yetu is able to make a compromise between her role and its burden. Then, Yetu recreates the role of historian for posterity. 

            Throughout the narrative, readers experience Yetu’s immaturity and trauma as a historian. It is from Yetu’s point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness that readers experience Yetu’s moments of post-traumatic stress disorder—flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety, self-destructive behavior, withdrawal, etc.,—remind readers that moments of the past are experiences of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yetu is able to accept her role and admit her mistake, and while some readers might wonder whether or not she has grown more as an individual, they need to be reminded that no one recovers from P.T.S.D. overnight. The use of flashbacks enhance the narrative more towards African history and Yetu’s stream-of-consciousness determines the pace of the story and make Yetu out to be a reliable narrator. 

            The style Rivers Solomon uses for The Deep illustrates the balance between the burden and the importance of one’s history and the dangers of limiting that knowledge to one individual. The mood in this novella is the loneliness and the isolation one can feel even if they are surrounded by family and members of their community. The tone in this story is the responsibility of who maintains the history and the culture of one group and why it should be shared and not limited to one individual. Knowing the past is as important as living in the present for the future.

            The Deep will appeal to all fans of science fiction, fantasy and alternative history. Historians will appreciate the incorporation of facts and how events of the past continue to haunt the present. Folklorists will appreciate how storytellers are regarded and admired for their desire and their ability to pass down culture and information for longevity. The hype surrounding this book was huge and that is partly because the audiobook is narrated by Daveed Diggs. The Deep can be reread and included in the speculative fiction canon.  

            The Deep is a heartbreaking story about history, memory and enduring hardship and responsibility. If one has not read any book by the author, then they can and should start with this novella. This story goes to show how some song lyrics, history and desire can come together to tell a believable tale. The Deep will have you believing in mermaids all over again! 

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