Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi is refreshingly relevant, painfully recognizable yet unequivocally original. The swift story pacing and gritty character development wrap its stark themes up in magic, mayhem, and the collective memory. This is a supernatural dystopian hellscape deeply rooted in a contemporary America. Blackness, in its many forms and the never-ending necessity to keep-on-keeping on in the face of relentless trauma are dead center. The battle against corporate overlords and a need for heroes results in the origin story of an entirely new kind of freedom fighter.
Ella and her younger brother Kev are gifted. They’re also Black in a time and place that attaches little value to their lives, communities, or their freedom. Their mother works tirelessly to keep her family whole. But the Young Ella doesn’t have her gifts fully under her control. Her gifts are immense and often anchored in a seething anger and pain. She does everything she can to shelter her brother; until the day comes when that same gift forces her to abandon her family to keep them safe. Born at the inception of the Rodney King riots, Kev’s known as the “riot baby.” His gifts are dormant until he finds himself on the wrong end of a police encounter. Kev winds up in Rikers struggling to keep himself whole; in mind and body. He’s ultimately forced to confront his pain and wade through his anger and embrace what’s rising inside him.
Onyebuchi will change the way you think about the Black experience. There are no gimmicks; no wasted words. This story doesn’t care about your comfort. It presents the world as-is and harnesses the viciousness of violence, white supremacy, and squandered freedoms to create an almost tangible sense of society’s inevitable downfall. Riot Baby provokes as it shares the story of a family clutching to hope and living through pain even as its members rail against subjugation. This story marks time through catastrophes and those deeply personal, yet always pivotal moments, that shape everyday life. As this pair grow into to themselves and closer to one another, Onyebuchi takes readers on a journey that unflinchingly challenges the very nature of what’s consider freedom. It’s blunt, brutal, and devastatingly beautiful.
At its core, Riot Baby’s about sibling love, broken communities, loss, sacrifice and harnessing one’s power to break free. Ella and Kev are the seeds of revolution in this entrancing coming of age parable. I didn’t know how much I needed a story that channeled Mr. Nancy’s mantra, “Angry is good. Angry gets shit done” with such fierceness it sparked rebellion in my soul until Tochi Onyebuchi offered it up. If this is what a foray into adult fiction looks like by him, I’m all the way here for it.
Riot Baby is an experience and an absolute must-read.