By A.M. Larks
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi is a visceral novel, conveying the lived experience of being Black in America with a dystopian prediction for the near future. The narrative centers around Kevin (Kev) born during the Rodney King Riots and Ella his older sister who has been gifted with powers akin to psychokinesis. The fragmented narrative follows the pair and their mother through the major periods in their life, like the birth of Kev, Ella’s departure from the family and Kev’s incarceration, and Ella’s return and Kev’s release. These eras are marked by specific locations: Watts, Harlem and Rikers, and Watts again.
The emotional crux of this short novel is the characters’ building anger at their mistreatment, the mistreatment of their friends and family members, and the mistreatment of members of the Black community by society at large as exemplified by shootings like that of Oscar Grant. These events are the current links in a long chain of narratives stretching back through time, which the characters experience via Ella’s powers. Each inciting incident builds like a crescendo, “[s]he wants to know who was hanged here. Who was beaten here. In whose name they were violated. She’s gathering it within her. All of it.”
Riot Baby takes a slight twist into the not-so-far-off scientific future when conveying that the societal structural patterns laid out are not changed but altered to incorporate advances in technology and monitoring especially for parolees and crime prevention. The future for Ella and Kev is not pretty, but what is empowering is their ability to use their anger, their power, to enact change. Suprisingly, Riot Baby ends on an uplifting note because while its characters may not be free now, they have the ability to envision a future that is.
Riot Baby is not to be missed. It will knock you out with a one-two punch but you will know how to fight for a better future because of it.
AM Larks’ writing has appeared in NiftyLit, Scoundrel Time, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Five on the Fifth, Charge Magazine, and the Zyzzyva and Ploughshares blogs. She has served as a judge for the Loud Krama Productions Emerging Female and Nonbinary Playwriting Award and has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, CA. She is the managing editor and blog editor at Kelp Journal. She is the former the former fiction editor at Please See Me, the former blog editor of The Coachella Review, as well as the former photography editor at Kelp Journal. AM Larks earned an MFA in Creative Writing from U.C. Riverside, Palm Desert, a J.D., and B.A. in English Literature.