Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi may be a compact novella but its powerful prose tears through the mind and heart like a sustained trumpet call of pain, anger and a kind of hope. The story can be called a fantasy, with siblings Kev and Ella, especially Ella, endowed with psychic powers that can manifest in the real world. But it is a fantasy that has nothing to do with escapism.
It puts us through the oppression of the present day experience of racism in South Central, Harlem, Rikers prison and a future Watts that substitutes rigid order for peace and freedom.
Riot Baby is a burning confrontation with street riots, police violence, gangbangers and hate narrowing the world of a pair of young people who struggle to break out of its terrible confinement.
As a child, Ella witnesses the birth of her brother Kevin, the Riot Baby, in the midst of the Rodney King riots of the early 90s in Los Angeles. Their mother is another force of nature, but of a different kind. She keeps the bonds of family together, enduring as a strong, loving presence, attentive to every detail of their lives.
Ella finds herself able to see the future of other children she meets and endures strange seizures that she learns to count her way out of. But as she matures, this power becomes more violent. The anger she feels at the outrages she witnesses escapes from her with explosive impact, blasting doors off their hinges and hurting those closest to her.
While she ages, Ella learns to read the history of violence and injustice wherever she turns her attention. She sees and relives the past as well as the future.
Her power comes under her control more and more until she feels it as a force of righteous anger, like the plagues of Egypt that she will one day visit upon an unjust society.
Kev drifts into the world of violence and gangs and winds up on Rikers Island, the infamous prison of New York. There he has to live with the constant tension of guards or inmates who can spring on him anywhere without warning. As the violent present moves into the near future, Kev is paroled to Watts in Los Angeles, which has become a “sponsored place.”
At first, it seems like the dream of peace he has hoped for. He has a home, a job and physical safety, but he soon learns that he is still in a type of prison. His sister cannot visit him. In fact, no one from his former life is allowed. His work turns out to be a from of indentured servitude, and the “sponsored place” is like a company town. Even worse, he learns that his job is a part of the support network for the police state that continues to oppress people of color.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this story could be weighted down with its ominous themes at the expense of character. But the characters here are vivid, powerful creations. We feel every moment of their complex lives, their suffering, fears and hopes alike. Every paragraph combines a rich portrayal of the details of their lives and simple joys with the eruption or threat of violence that never allows them to forget who they are.
Here’s an example of one of Kev’s memories when he is assaulted by police in a store and is recognized by the clerk named Jamila. It beautifully weaves together a brutal reality with his hopes for an unfulfilled future.
In that moment, I’ll feel a part of the universe split off, like a branch snapped off a tree trunk, and that piece of the universe has me in it with her. I’m standing in front of the counter, and Jamila’s back from Winter Break, and I’m on Winter Break too, because i’ve been busy at school learning things and building things, and we’ll talk about the things people talk about when they know already that they’re gonna fall in love and get married and raise beautiful, brilliant, peaceful fucking kids.
But right now, I just wish she didn’t fucking recognize me. I’d give anything for her not to have fucking recognized me.
I can feel every minute of this driving narrative and both the anguish and the strength of this family as well as the great powers Kev and Ella can wield, perhaps, to produce a more hopeful future.
Brief as it is, this is a five star book that should not be missed.