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: “War Girls”

War Girls #1: War Girls

By: Tochi Onyebuchi

Published: October 15, 2019

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian Fiction/Historical Fiction/Young Adult

            Their resources. The blue minerals buried beneath Onyii’s feet and, farther out, beneath the ocean floor. This is what the Nigerians are killing Biafrans for. Not a morning passes that Onyii doesn’t think about setting charges to those things and blowing them into coral debris, (Chapter 1). 

            Everywhere in our world, there is conflict; and, unfortunately, some of these conflicts do not resolve but buildup until war breaks out. Once war begins, everyone and everything gets sucked into it, leaving no one and nothing unscathed. Some wars receive endless media coverage and propaganda gaining the attention of the world, while others are ignored until the war has ended and the warring sides are left to rebuild their homes with whoever and whatever survived. Tochi Onyebuchi retells the wars in Africa—particularly the Biafran War a.k.a. the Nigerian Civil War from 1967 to 1970—during the second half of the twentieth century. War Girls is a dystopian YA novel about family, identity and war. 

            The story follows two sisters, Onyii (16) and Ifeoma, or Ify, (10), who live in seclusion with other girls—both orphans and former soldiers—in the jungles in Southeast Nigeria in the year 2172. War has occurred for years between Biafra and Nigeria, and both sides are guilty of “recruiting” children for the war effort, so several surviving children and adolescents have banded together in camps in order to avoid the armies. They live off the land and off the grid. Onyii—who has darker skin—is a former soldier who stepped back from the war after she lost her arm in a battle. Ify—who has lighter skin—is a tech genius who dreams of attending university and traveling to one of the space colonies. She is the smartest student at the makeshift school at the War Girls’ camp and she is frustrated by the lack of resources they have, and she desires to have more for herself and her sister. At the same time, Onyii and the other former soldiers stay alert for any possible attacks. During an ambush, the sisters are captured and separated—Onyii by the Biafrans and its brigadier general, and Ify by the Nigerians and their soldiers, siblings Daren and Daurama—and for 4 years they live their lives believing the other one is dead. During the separation, the sisters develop into themselves as they battle their inner demons. Onyii struggles with how being a soldier has affected her and what that means for herself and her comrades: Chinelo, Kesandu, Adaeze, and Ngozi once the war is over. Ify witnesses the traumas and the propaganda surrounding war and its aftermath. She believes she is smarter than everyone else and wants to find a way to end the war for good. Onyii and Ify grow up as the war becomes an endless event, but it is their interactions with the other characters that push these young women into doing what they can to make sure their side wins. As the sisters develop, they become more devoted to their allies until unforeseen events leave them asking who they are fighting for and why. The war turns the sisters into propaganda for their “side” and they must find a reason for living beyond the war. 

            The plot of War Girls focuses on the war between two nations and how the war has lasted for so long that many people cannot remember a time when the war was taking place. As the story continues, so does the war and there are those who want a ceasefire and others who can only benefit if the war carries on. The subplot is the effect war has on soldiers and civilians, with the main focus on children: child soldiers, victims and survivors of raids, and those who’ve been subjected to experiments. Whether or not Onyii and Ify know it, they are both victims and perpetrators of the war. Children who know nothing but war unknowingly get involved in it and this is presented to readers over and over again. This subplot is essential to the plot because it enhances the plot as to how a region of the world ravaged by an incessant war affects the younger generation. These children grow up becoming familiar and numb by war and that is a dangerous and a disturbing factor expressed within the novel. 

            The narrative takes place over the course of five years from the points-of-view of both Onyii and Ify. Their stream-of-consciousness display their thoughts as they act and react to everything around them as the events of the war take place. Onyii’s point-of-view takes the readers into battles and missions she participates in and all of the victories and the losses she experiences—both physical and mental—and what being “the perfect soldier” does to her. Ify has the opportunity to live as a civilian in Abuja, but her new “status” gives her clearance to witness the long-term effects of war and the factors that keep it going. The mistakes and the changes in their desires present the sisters as reliable narrators, especially when both are given the choice either to end the war, or to be labeled as a traitor by their allies. Both narratives are written in ways that can be followed and understood by the readers. 

            The way Tochi Onyebuchi wrote War Girls was intended for a young adult audience and anime fans. Adult readers can read this book and explain the themes of war to the younger ones, while anime fans can compare this story to popular series and films such as Gundam Wing and Grave of the Fireflies. Writing about war with children and adolescents as the characters allow the target audience to relate to the characters and any refugees they may or may not meet one day in the future. The adults, who had to read similar narratives during their school days, gain an understanding of a war that received little attention by the news media because some conflicts had neither “benefits” nor “interests” to the rest of the world. The mood is the how Earth has been destroyed by climate change and nuclear warfare, which is then abandoned by the world powers for space colonies and leaving others behind struggling to survive on a planet that is unlivable with hostile inhabitants. The tone is how war turns everyone into participants, both willing and unwilling. War leaves no innocent victims. War consumes everything. 

            War Girls will appeal to science fiction and dystopian fiction fans of all ages. In addition, anime and manga fans will recognize the influences found within the battle sequences. Similar to Lord of the Flies and Battle Royale: The NovelWar Girls explores how war and internal hostilities influence and affect the younger generations. The novel provides an interesting look into the recent history of African countries such as Nigeria, Somalia, etc. and how the rest of the world either ignored or profited from those conflicts. While it is too soon to determine whether or not War Girls will be read in schools, it is already part of the YA dystopian canon alongside The Giver and The Hunger Games. There are rumors of a follow up book to War Girls, but there haven’t been any announcements (as of when this review was posted). 

            War Girls is a moving novel about sisterly love and how war denies people simple needs such as family and purpose. Tochi Onyebuchi composed a story based on actual events and witness testimony with mech technology and space colonies into a book for both adolescent and adult readers. The battles will put you in the center of the action and the characters become part of your literary family, which makes this a very poignant story of love, loss, family and war. 

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

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Spies”

The episode starts with a reminder that “The Gobblers” are kidnapping children—and keeping them in nets, cages and locked rooms—and have been discreet, until the Gyptians started to track their movements. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter abuses her connections with the Magisterium in order to find Lyra. And, it’s obvious that while Mrs. Coulter wants Lyra back, she’s doing it in a way which presents her in a way everyone can see why Lyra ran away from her in the first place. 

            Lyra Belaqua is rescued and taken into the care by the Gyptians. They have connections to Lord Asriel and are planning to rescue the missing children—as soon as they discover where they are being kept. It is during her stay with them that Lyra learns more about her origins and the alethiometer. Her reaction to the truth about her parents is believable and appropriate. Mrs. Coulter’s reaction to Lyra running away from her is not. Even the Magisterium is horrified by what Mrs. Coulter does in order to find her. It seems that it’s not only the alethiometer that the Magisterium has aversions against. 

            The Gyptians are willing to do more to figure out what’s going on with the missing children than the authorities. They have a plan—and allies—waiting to be carried out. Two of the Gyptians decide that having concrete evidence is better than traveling on gossip, so they continue their investigation against orders. At this point, it’s clear that the Magisterium is involved, but as to the how and the why, viewers will have to wait and see. 

            In our world, Lord Carlo Boreal—the man who works with the Magisterium—continues his search into the identity and the mystery of Dr. Stanislaus Grumman and whether or not he managed to “crossover” from one world to another, a theory Lord Asriel insists is the truth. The results his informer uncovers is interesting and shocking. This scene is essential to the plot of the story because it delves more into the idea of “other worlds” and why it remains a mystery to everyone. Book readers will know exactly what I’m getting at, but that’s all I’ll say, for now.  

            The Spies is the episode in which the plots in London wrap up and the story and the characters travel to the North to rescue the children and to learn why they were taken in the first place. This is the shift in the story in which the audience—both readers and viewers—have been waiting for since the cast was announced. This episode reiterates the dangers Lyra has been shielded from her entire life, but with her recently acquired knowledge, she knows she cannot return to Jordan College without Roger. 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Idea of North”

The episode wastes no time resuming where it left off. Lyra Belaqua arrives in London with Mrs. Coulter, and Roger arrives in London to where the other kidnapped children are being held, including Billy Costa. Both children have no idea why there are wanted, but they have no choice but to go along with their circumstances. But, it’s clear that Mrs. Coulter is NOT to be trusted. 

            Mrs. Coulter is a villain whose motivations remain unknown, for now. Yet, this adaptation presents her in a way that wasn’t seen before in the movie or in the books. It’s obvious Mrs. Coulter is struggling with both the actions and the position she’s found herself in, but she is hard to read by everyone, so she remains a mystery. As of right now, Mrs. Coulter is breaking because for all of her composure, she has moments of rage. Something Lyra experiences firsthand, and it scares her. 

            Meanwhile, the Magisterium is investigating Lord Asriel’s “discovery” and the true purpose of his research. The crypts at Jordan College seem to be a very popular place because everyone finds themselves there eventually. I would use the terms heresy and hypocrisy to describe the Magisterium. While it is obvious the scholars at Oxford wonder about Lord Asriel’s theory about Dust and other worlds, it appears that the Magisterium has some knowledge about it already, and they use it to their advantage. 

            Billy and Roger are minor characters whose roles are emerging into the plot. The Gyptians are searching for the children in London, but they always arrive just too late to rescue them. After they are moved, Mrs. Coulter arrives and a scene from the books is presented for the readers; then again, the viewers see more of Mrs. Coulter’s character in the scene as well. 

            Lyra is known for being an explorer, like her uncle(?), and she knows something is going on with Mrs. Coulter. However, everything is kept under lock-and-key, so Lyra finds another way to get the information she seeks. What she finds leaves more questions than answers, but she knows that she’s not safe, especially with the Magisterium hanging around Mrs. Coulter. 

            The Idea of North is an episode that focuses on world-building and character development. A lot of it comes from the books, but there are several additional scenes that embellish the adaptation further. The episode moves towards the darker side of the story, the same dark side that Lyra was shielded from at Jordan College. We get a look into what is happening in London, in Oxford, and in Oxford (not a typo). Lyra, Mrs. Coulter, Billy and Roger, the Gyptians and the Magisterium are participating in something bigger than they believed originally. And, there is more to come. The plot develops too, but this is the chance to learn how the characters fit into the plot as it continues to develop.

My Rating: 9.5 out of 10.