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Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
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Book Name: Riot Baby
Author: Tochi Onyebuchi
Publisher(s): Tor.com
Formatt: Hardcover / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Science Fiction
Release Date: January 21, 2020

The 21st Century has seen a slew of diverse authors writing and releasing stories that have expanded the speculative fiction canon. Not only have these authors written stories for readers like them, but also presented a deeper look into issues—both past and present—that affect their represented groups. Themes of oppression, slavery, colonialism, poverty, and genocide are mentioned in various forms within each narrative presented to the audience. Unfortunately, modern society wants to believe those themes are issues of the past, but they are not. Present day society has forced these authors to look towards the future and dare to answer the question of what will happen if such issues are neither addressed nor resolved. Tochi Onyebuchi does this in Riot Baby one of the most topical books of the year.

There are two protagonists in this story, and readers follow them as they grow up in a society where racism and systematic oppression take over their lives, America. However, the difference in this story is this sister and brother have Gifts of empaths, but due to their circumstances, they are forced to suppress both their powers and their emotions. When the story begins Ella is seven years old and living in Los Angeles. On the day, the Rodney King verdict is announced, her pregnant mother goes into labor, and the ride to the hospital becomes eventful as the riots and the lootings take place.

As her mother gives birth to Kevin, all of the anger becomes too much for Ella to handle, and she begs her mother to move them all to Harlem, believing they will avoid a similar situation. Several years later, Kev is arrested for a minor crime as a minor and is sentenced to Rikers State Penitentiary. While Kev is forced to suppress everything about himself, Ella begins to embrace her Gift and her rage and she “jumps” all over the world determined to learn whether or not there is a place in the world for her brother and herself.

Another character who plays a big role throughout this story is Ella and Kev’s mother. She is a hardworking single mother who tries and fails to keep her children safe from the destruction of systematic oppression—both of racism and of sexism—and, from the corruption of their Gifts. Throughout it all, the mother becomes a victim of structural racism more than once and she must find a way to cope with it without her emotions corrupting her children further.

This story stands out from others in that Onyebuchi takes the idea of X-Men, with the themes reflected in The Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin, set in modern American society. Riot Baby is NOT a dystopian story, it is a commentary about America containing elements found in science fiction and in superhero comics. Readers are forced to look at how the rest of the world sees and treats Ella and Kev from their perspectives and their experiences in order to understand the experience of many Black Americans. The fact that Ella and Kev suppress their Gifts illustrates the burden of conforming to societal expectations while becoming victims of society.

The story the author is presenting here is a layered one. To any other reader, Riot Baby is a story about a sister and a brother who struggle to control their Gifts within an oppressive society. To the intended audience, the story demonstrates how easy it is for a Black male to be labeled as a “thug,” and for a Black female to be labeled as “angry.” While other readers will relate to the unfair treatment the siblings experience, the intended audience will recall recent past events of racism, brutality, and other forms of oppression. Regardless of the readers’ identity, the story is a cautionary tale of what could happen if any society continues to mistreat its citizens.

The story Onyebuchi is illustrating in his novella is one of shared anger at systematic oppression. He does not make Ella and Kev empaths by accident. The siblings’ character trait was given to them so that they, and in turn the readers, would come to the conclusion that they are not alone in their feelings and in their experiences of being oppressed. While it is overwhelming to experience the emotions of numerous people at one time, it can be an enlightened experience, because if everyone is feeling mistreated, then the feeling becomes a shared one. And, when enough people are fed up with that mistreatment then the first steps towards rebellion can take place. The mistreatment mentioned throughout the narrative is systematic racism, but the starting point isn’t slavery or the Civil Rights Movement, it’s the 1992 L.A. Riots, and all of the other reported incidents—both on a large and on a small scale—that happened after that up to the book’s publication and beyond are what the author wants his readers to consider while reading this book.

The simplest way to describe Riot Baby is an origin story of siblings with extraordinary abilities—similar to ones found in the X-Men comics—in which their circumstances, their experiences, and societal conventions determines how they will use their Gifts and why. In order to understand how they will bring about change for the future, readers must read and learn about the siblings’ past and present. By the last page, readers will be able to comprehend the reasons for their decision and know that there won’t be anyone to stop them.

Riot Baby is an allegorical narrative about racism, systematic oppression, and siblings with mutant-like powers in modern American society. Onyebuchi’s story serves as a possibility for what will be as long as society continues to practice brutality and oppression to no end. The allusions and the symbolism used throughout the story invites all victims of such mistreatment to know that they are not alone when it comes to suppressing their anger.

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