October 11, 2020

Review: Riot Baby

Riot Baby Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure if I'm the right person to review this book. I liked it, but at the same time I'm not the target audience. So I'll just say that it's half an actual story, and half a non-fiction summation on the realities of being black in America.

The story part is two viewpoint characters, Ella and her younger brother Kevin, who was born in the midst of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. (He's twenty-eight at story's end, which places the narrative precisely in our time, despite some decidedly non-2020 technology. I suppose that means this could be called alternate history, with 1992 the branch point.) Ella has what she calls a "Thing," that is, psychic powers that become ever more powerful as the book progresses. At first she's afraid of what she can do--with good reason, as she nearly kills her mother more than once--but as the years go on and the assaults and deaths of African-Americans pile up (and the author drops some names we've all heard in the news), she comes closer and closer to letting go. At the end, she's ready to burn it all down and destroy white supremacy.

Kevin, her brother, the titular "riot baby," ends up in prison at Rikers Island. (The timeline is a bit jumbled, and the viewpoints switch between Ella's third person and Kevin's [usually] first person.) After his release, he is sent to Los Angeles, where he has a job making...something...in a welding shop. At the very end of the book, Ella comes to see him and shows him exactly what he's making.

And that's when she shows me the metal Miguel and Royce and Marlon and Mero and I have been working on, have been bending, building. Shows me that it doesn't just go to damaged workers in the factory but that it's being put on cops outside to increase their reflexes, to upgrade them. That those misshapen pieces of metal we're forming makes shields on their bones, beneath their skin, so that no bullet can kill them. We're building the turrets mounted on our street corners. We're working to make the police invincible.

Ella has come to tell her brother that she's going to start the revolution, and through her Thing he sees the outcome.

From the hilltop, the town is nothing but a mouth with just a few broken teeth left. They'll feel us in every corner of this country.

Then and only then will be clear those forty acres of poison, pull the radiation out of the air. Use our Thing. Jettison it into space, make the land ready for our people.

"What do you see?" she says.

There's so much. It's a jumble in my head, but Ella and I are in the scorched middle of it.

"Freedom," I tell her. "I see freedom."

This is some raw, powerful, righteously angry writing. I would have preferred more of a story, I think, but I can't deny what the author has done here. (In the afterword, Onyebuchi speaks of the murdered black men that were the genesis for this book.) I was disturbed by reading this, and I as a white person needed to be. The only reason I haven't rated it higher is because of the confusing timeline that often made the narrative difficult to follow. This problem might be solved by expanding the story into novel length (it's a novella at 173 pages) but at the same time, that would rob the book of its visceral power.

If you think you have the spoons for this, give it a try.

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