Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby (Tor.com, 2020) tells the story of two siblings—Ella, who is gifted with powers of precognition and telekinesis, and her younger brother Kevin, whose exuberant resistance to systemic racism earns him a one-way ticket to jail.
Onyebuchi’s first novel for adults is as much a tale of the siblings’ bond as it is a portrait of white supremacy, police brutality, and the anger of Black Americans at centuries of injustice.
The book’s publication just months before the murder of George Floyd and the Covid-19 pandemic might seem prescient, yet the novel could have been written at any point in the last several decades (or centuries) and still felt timely.
Kev is born during the riots in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King. A few years later, the police killing of Sean Bell leads Ella to run away from home, afraid that her anger, harnessed to the supernatural powers she can’t yet control, might cause her to hurt those she loves.
“She’s changed as a result of having seen [Sean Bell’s murder] in a way that I think a lot of people were changed when they saw footage of Laquan McDonald’s death or Philando Castile’s, these immensely traumatic visual experiences,” Onyebuchi tells me on the latest episode of New Books in Science Fiction.
Onyebuchi rejects the notion that anger must be productive. “When I started writing Riot Baby, I was very angry, and I feel like one of the things that happens during these periods of American unrest, particularly along a racialized vector, is this idea of productivity, that the anger has to be productive,” he says.
“And there was a part of me, a very large part of me, that was essentially ‘Screw that. I’m not here for respectability politics.’ Black people have been playing the respectability politics game since time immemorial. And in the history of modern America, what has it gotten us? And that was a lot of what powered the omnipresence of anger in the book, this idea that it doesn’t have to be productive.”