Tochi Onyebuchi Presents Riot Baby

By on Friday, January 24th, 2020 at 4:15 pm

Tochi Onybuchi discusses RIOT BABY, his debut adult novel with Marlon James at the Strand

Tochi Onyebuchi was at the Strand bookstore to discuss his debut adult novel, Riot Baby, with Marlon James. Onyebuchi previously has written young adult novels including War Girls and Beasts Made of Night.

Riot Baby explores the story of Ella and her brother Kev, caught up in systemic racism and experiencing the brutality of contemporary America, all while Ella gains super extraordinary powers.

Although Riot Baby is Onyebuchi’s fourth book, it’s his first novel geared toward an adult audience. “When I was growing up I only wrote stuff that was geared for an adult audience,” Onyebuchi says, adding that Riot Baby felt very much like a homecoming after writing his previous novels targeting younger readers.

Many interviewers and and reviews have called Riot Baby dystopian, Onyebuchi reflects, despite the majority of the book taking place in the near past and present. War Girls is set hundreds of years into the future, and so it makes sense to say it is set in a dystopian world. But Riot Baby draws on experiences that contemporary. The characters experience contemporary history like the events surrounding the police attack on Rodney King, and only briefly extends into the near future. Nevertheless, many reviews do call the novel dystopian. “It got me thinking, dystopian for whom? Because this is just stuff I have seen, this is stuff I know people have witnessed and have experienced,” Onyebuchi says.

“It’s interesting seeing seeing ‘dystopian’ applied to aspects of the African American experience,” Onyebuchi adds.

James agrees, explaining that as he was reading the book, he was searching for the dystopian elements. He too sees it as a mischaracterization, saying: “This shit is going on now.”

Onyebuchi explains the genesis of the novel happened around 2015. At the time, video evidence of police abuse, especially shooting unarmed black people, began flooding the internet. Despite the visual documentation of caught in the act of murder, there were no consequences for the perpetrators.

During the time Onyebuchi, who is also a lawyer, worked in the Civil Rights Bureau of the Office of the Attorney General of New York, was ostensibly in a job meant to protect the rights of people. He didn’t see it happening, however. “This story was a way out of that,” he explains. He felt compelled to write the story, saying at the time he felt: “I am writing this because if I don’t get this out of me something bad is going to happen.”

There are elements of speculative fiction and science fiction in the novel as well. Onyebuchi says he spent a lot of time thinking about Ella’s capabilities and powers because he wanted to avoid the Doctor Manhattan (of Watchmen) omnipotence problem. Doctor Manhattan is aloof and disaffected with humanity because of his power. Ella eventually becomes extremely powerfully too, but , Onyebuchi knew she needed to have more of a personality. “I wanted her to have powers that responded to the story.”

Ella’s powers allow her to better see and explore the systemic racism around her. Ella spends a lot of time gazing at whiteness. Onyebuchi describes a scene where Ella ends up invisible to the white people around her. People of color are often metaphorically invisible to white people, but for Ella it is literalized. “Being able to have a character look and gaze at white people, and really just not like them, that was an interesting thing to delve into because I don’t know I’ve seen that from a position of power.” It is a moment in the narrative that reinforces Ella’s belief that these people deserve what is coming to them.

“I wrote for myself. I was going to say I wrote for us, but ‘us’ is such a big thing. The multiplicity of blackness is infinite.”

Tochi Onyebuchi and Marlon James
The Strand
January 22, 2020


Purchase Riot Baby through and support independent booksellers and English Kills Review. Or check out Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James.

English Kills Review is an online magazine covering books, authors, and writing with an emphasis on New York City. Founded in 2012, English Kills Review engages the literary community while highlighting noteworthy books and authors