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 Ten Thousand Doors of January”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: September 10, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age

            I almost didn’t notice the Door at all. All Doors are like that, half-shadowed and sideways until someone looks at them in just the right way, (1, The Blue Door). 

            Portal fantasies are one of the many subgenres in fantasy fiction, going back to the emergence of the genre. Popular portal fantasies include: C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and—more recently—the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire and Shades of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Academic scholar Farah Mendlesohn defines portal fantasy as, “a fantastic world entered through a portal,” (xix). Note how the definition does NOT state that it has to be “our” world. Alix E. Harrow, author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and recent Hugo Award recipient for Best Short Story—“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies”—reminds readers that portal fantasies can lead from one world to our world (planet: Earth, galaxy: Milky Way).  

            January Scaller is our protagonist. She tells her story of growing up in Vermont at the start of the twentieth century. January is the ward of Mr. William Cornelius Locke, a billionaire and an archaeologist. Her mother is deceased and her father, Julian Scaller, is a scholar who is employed by Mr. Locke to search for and to collect artifacts for him. Throughout her childhood, she’s kept under Mr. Locke’s watchful eye with only her childhood friend, Samuel Zappia; her father’s appointed guardian for her, Jane Irimu; and, her dog, Sindbad. January doesn’t know much of what is happening around her, until the day before her 17th birthday when she finds a leather-bound book titled: The Ten Thousand Doors. That book introduces January (and readers) to Adelaide Lee Larson—a woman born during the Reconstruction Era—and, to Yule Ian Scholar—a man from the City of Nin in the year 6908, who is the author of the book January finds—and their encounters with Doors and each other. Both Adelaide and Yule Ian have different experiences surrounding Doors, and January—who shares the same curiosity as them—learns more about these other worlds through them. However, this book reveals the truth of her father’s “work” as well as Mr. Locke’s “intentions” for her. From there, January discovers and uses this information to break away from her guardians and to repair the damage that’s been stricken to her loved ones. January’s coming-of-age story stands out more than other ones I’ve read recently; and, I couldn’t stop learning along with her. 

            The plot in the novel surrounds January Scaller’s unique upbringing. Because her father travels around the world while working for Mr. Locke, January was always left behind. And yet, January had tutors and would travel to places around the world with Mr. Locke; not to mention, Mr. Locke disapproved of January’s companions. It’s as if Mr. Locke is afraid to have January out of his sight. Throughout her childhood, January is Mr. Locke’s “good girl,” but longs for her father’s affections. This comes to an end when 3 events happen around and on January’s 17th birthday: her father disappears, she finds The Ten Thousand Doors, and she learns of Mr. Locke’s plans for her life. From there, January must find a way to escape her guardians and discover the truth surrounding Doors and her father’s connection to them. There are 2 subplots in this novel. First, is the story of Adelaide and Yule Ian and their discoveries about Doors and other worlds. Second, is the way January, Samuel, and Jane survive in a society that is dominated by wealthy, Caucasian males who do all they can to control other people. The subplots are intertwined with the plot, and everything comes together, slowly; yet, the pace of the development fits the story the author is telling. 

            The narrative in The Ten Thousand Doors of January consist of 3 different points-of-view: January Scaller, Adelaide Lee Larson, and Yule Ian Scholar. The entire novel—except for the Epilogue—is told in flashback. January’s narrative is told in the past tense in stream-of-consciousness, Adelaide’s narrative is written as a biography, and Yule Ian’s narrative is written as a journal. The sequence of these narratives takes some getting used to but, readers will be able to follow along after the first few chapters. Readers are led to believe that all of the narrators are reliable because the story is told from their P.O.V.s. 

            The way Alix E. Harrow tells her story is a combination of “tradition” with allusion alongside history. In the “tradition” of portal fantasy, “‘the journey’ serves to divorce the protagonists from the world,” (Mendlesohn 7). In other words, the protagonist must separate themselves from their “home” world and travel to another world. In this novel, several worlds are mentioned and traveled to, but there is a strong hint (the title) that there are a lot more. In terms of allusion, the names January and Sindbad, Locke and Scholar are not given by accident. These names serve as epithets to the story being told. The mood is oppression and the tone is escapism. In the midst of the novel is the setting. January turns 17 in 1911. During this time, racism, sexism, and imperialism were practiced throughout the world. January, Julian, Samuel, and Jane are victims of these societal practices. The author uses our history to explain why some individuals would desire either to leave, or to travel to our world. If someone who was suffering under the societal hierarchy was given a chance to live elsewhere, then who is to say that they shouldn’t take the opportunity? The author wants readers to question the existence of other worlds. 

            This novel will appeal to fans of fantasy, especially portal fantasies. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a reminder that adults can travel to other worlds as well as children. This is a standalone novel, so there is a chance that it could fall behind in the popularity of similar books that are in a series. Yet, because this novel explains the concept of other worlds in existence (not just one), I believe this novel will be read and enjoyed by many readers. Plus, the author just won a Hugo, so I doubt this book will ever fade from popularity. 

            The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a beautiful debut novel about other worlds, love, and sacrifice. It does take a while for the story to pick up, but once it does, readers will learn about other and new worlds that never crossed their minds. The protagonist grows from a suppressed and isolated individual to a world trotter makes for a believable, yet traumatic, bildungsroman story. Alix E. Harrow is an author with more worlds to present to readers, and I can’t wait to learn about all ten thousand of them!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5)!

This is because Alix E. Harrow said I had “neat” handwriting.

                                                            List of Works Cited

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2008.