Tochi Onyebuchi holds a BA from Yale, an MFA in screenwriting from Tisch, a master’s degree in global economic law from L’institut d’études politiques, and a JD from Columbia Law School. His writing has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction and Ideomancer, among other places, and he is the author of the novels Beasts Made of Night and Crown of Thunder. Tochi resides in Connecticut.
On your website, you wrote that novels are your first love. (You never forget your first!) Tell us a little about why that is.
I’m drawn to scope. Expanse. Aesthetically, even before consideration of content, a thick spine will catch my eye faster than a thin one will. It really feels like I’m being offered a story I can live in, can lose myself in, even if I burn through those 700 pages in four days. Novels are how I fell in love with reading. Short stories were what we read in school, and novels were what I read for fun, and I think something of that dynamic—some primal part—has since been wired into my brain chemistry. Even the writing of short stories feels more like work than the jump-in-the-ballpit-ness of writing a full-length novel. Writing novels feels like I’m offering someone else the same promise of lengthy transport I myself seek when I’m reading.
So Riot Baby, your long-form adult fiction debut, is a novella written with a novel’s scope. You take us from South Central to Harlem to Rikers Island and to Watts as Ella and her brother Kev, who’s incarcerated at Rikers, discover and hone their superpowers. At the same time, they’re contending with the racism that’s defined and destroyed their childhoods. How did the premise come together for you?
In 2015, I was working on a novel—some postapocalyptic western—about a mother and her daughter, and in it was a novella-length interlude about the mother’s past as a child, then adolescent, then young woman living through and after that apocalypse. And I think that’s when the first Harlem scenes came to me. (I was living in Harlem at the time. Sugar Hill.) I believe Kev was there, too. But it was a story trapped within another. A conversation with a dear friend convinced me to break it out into its own story. This was in 2015, and another thing in the ether was videographic evidence of police violence, notably the proliferation of officer-involved killings of Black Americans. Much of the conversation surrounding these murders, and police brutality more broadly, centered “bad apples,” of course forgetting that the full saying is “a bad apple spoils the bunch.” We all knew the problem was systemic. That understanding and the attendant anger coalesced into this overwhelming lust for the whole system’s destruction. Not so much dismantling it as crushing it entirely, obliterating it in as crude and comprehensive a manner as possible. Now, going on Twitter and saying “No more cops” in your best Scarlet Witch voice is a quick way to get banned, so I figured: Let me make a character who gets to that place and who has the power I and so many others wished we had. Let’s literal-ize it. When I got to that place, I started to build the story out around Ella, who had her name from the very beginning, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Reading your novella, I couldn’t help but think of James Baldwin, specifically this quote of his: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.” Was his work an influence on Riot Baby?
Very much so. In 2015, everybody was citing Baldwin, particularly that line. What’s funny is that I ended up researching that line for another project, and it comes in the context of a roundtable discussion about being an artist from a marginalized demographic and belonging to a community fighting oppression. Baldwin follows that quote with some words on the guilt that attends “Negro writers” who aren’t on the frontlines dismantling the ghettoes and marching and all that jazz, conceding at the end that there are others doing that work who are doing it much better than he could. While I don’t think he’s suggesting an abdication of responsibility, it did assuage some of the guilt that came from my spending my days behind a desk and not out in the streets.
But perhaps Baldwin’s greatest influence on my work, and on Riot Baby in particular, was his unblinking stare at what Kiese Laymon calls “the worst of white folks.”
The worst of white folks, I understood, wasn’t some gang of rabid white people in crisp pillowcases and shaved heads. The worst of white folks was a pathetic, powerful “it.” […] The worst of white folks inherited disproportionate access to quality health care, food, wealth, fair trials, fair sentencing, college admittance, college graduations, promotions and second chances, yet still terrorized and shamed other Americans who lacked adequate access to healthy choices at all. White Americans were wholly responsible for the worst of white folks, though they would do all they could to make sure it never wholly defined them. (bit.ly/34ts6K1)
Nonwhites are certainly terrorized by the actions of individual whites, but the system is what permits and encourages and actuates this macrocosmic oppression. And it was Baldwin who first opened my eyes to the enormity of that (bit.ly/33qiT3N).
I was full of rage when I first started Riot Baby, and the process of writing and editing initiated a sort of cleansing or clarity of vision. You see the individual wrongdoers, but you also see the machine working to enable and encourage them. Controlling the rage so that it won’t destroy you is a lifelong project, and I am ever so grateful that I have writing as a tool to help me effectuate that.
I also read that you’re a big fan of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. I got a Tetsuo/Kaneda vibe from Ella and Kev, except that both Ella and Kev have immeasurable powers. Was Akira a source of inspiration, too?
No piece of literature has had a greater impact on my development and aesthetic and stylistic choices than Katsuhiro Otomo’s six-volume 2000+-page epic, Akira. It is in everything I write. I first watched the film adaptation as a child when the Sci-Fi Channel had their Saturday Anime block (with such wholesome fare as Vampire Hunter D and Demon City Shinjuku), and my response, like so many of my cohorts, was, “Um, what the entire fuck.” Then, in high school, I discovered it had first been a manga, and the local library had the volumes. I went through them all in a single blazing week. The story was so epic! And so visually stunning! This was before I could really grapple with the themes Otomo had embedded in his story: nuclear panic and the twin traumas of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, alienation of youth, the military’s retrograde notions of honor in the face of an increasingly modern society. So I was much more besotted with the imagery. I mean, where else can you find a depiction of a city falling out of the sky? That image will haunt me for the rest of my days.
But, yeah, I love Tetsuo. How lonely and misguided and angry and searching and powerful he is. What if there were no Kaneda, no domesticating influence? What if Tetsuo had won?
What are some other favorite superpower stories of yours?
The Dark Phoenix Saga. First ballot HoF entry.
I love stories involving the “Deal with the Devil” trope, where the cost is your goodness/sanity. Sasuke in Naruto, Majin Vegeta, etc. All those characters have love affairs with villainy that go beyond mere flirtation but involve actual consummation. They’re the antagonist. That’s also why major X-stories involving Magneto always appeal to me.
I also love superpower stories with large scale. “Age of Apocalypse”-style shit. And I think that’s why the Dark Phoenix Saga appeals to me as much as it does. It’s intergalactic, but more importantly, it’s about someone who becomes a vessel for the most powerful being in the universe struggling to contain her worst impulses, and I just find that super relatable. (Not the being possessed part.)
How did you come up with the characters of Ella and Kev?
They came to me fully formed and as a pair, a really magical thing in the life of a writer. I wanted to have a character with God-like powers struggle to protect something precious to her. That, to me, was the core of the narrative conflict.
The narrative conflict plays out in the way you alternate between their POVs. How did you decide to write Ella’s parts in third person and Kev’s in first person? Was there a specific effect you were going for?
I knew Kev was going to be our window into American incarceration and I wanted to make that experience as intimate and exacting as possible. I also felt first person for Kev was a way to kind of blow up perceptions about the incarcerated. With first person, I could really radiate a character’s fullness outward. There’s a forced identification going on, some sort of transference between character and reader. In Rikers, Kev is angry, scared, bored, joking, sorrowful, protective—all of these things. Also, in the previous section set in Harlem, I wanted to show his transformation and felt first person was the most effective way to get that across. It also displayed a nice stylistic break from the Ella sections.
I wrote Ella’s sections in third person because, while I wanted a tight POV for her, I wanted to write sensations and experiences she was feeling that she might not necessarily have the words to describe. Also, I saw Ella as human but also as human+. And I felt a certain bit of distance, however liminal, was necessary to emphasize that plus-ness. She’s different, and part of her experience really is unknowable. There’s mystery there, an aspect of “you will never know what we’ve gone through, what we’re going through, what it’s like to be Black in this country” that I wanted my non-Black readers, particularly my white readers, to experience.
The most salient reason for the difference to me, however, was the contrast. I wanted a quick way to signal to the reader “you’re in an Ella scene now” and “now we’re with Kev.”
That makes me think of something you said at the “Magic X Mayhem” panel at this year’s New York Comic Con. You talked about how, as a fan of anime, you’re interested in how magic systems allow you to play with language on a sentence level and the exchange of serious consequences for gaining magical abilities. I was wondering if you could tell us about how the magic system you devised in Riot Baby let you play with the prose.
I love this question.
One gift Ella’s power gave me was the ability to write a scopic story intimately without having fifty million POVs covering as broad a patchwork as possible of the Black American experience. I could time travel with my prose, and it was such a beautiful challenge to confront, capturing the entirety of a person’s life experience in a single paragraph. It was a really cool way of exploring the idea of showing and the idea of telling in a story. When Kev’s in the therapy session in Watts and he starts to see fellow ex-detainee Davis’s story play out on a street corner in Philly, that was me trying to show a lot with a little. Before that, when Kev meets Calvin in Watts after getting out from Rikers, Calvin tells Kev he’s from “Florissant,” and that unspools this whole paragraph about what it might have been like to come up in that place and it has all this associative baggage, all this implied experience, that you have to show to make an impact but that you have to tell in order to capture its immensity and not come out to 500 pages of prose.
And I learned how to do that by writing into Ella’s powers. Her ability to literalize not just memory but premonition, writing that over and over in her scenes honed my own writing ability to the point of being able to write the “Florissant” paragraph or the scene about Davis and the traumatic episode he endures. Ella’s power allows her to “see” in all directions, a sort of transportation, and being able to write that was like having a whole world of possibility opened up to me. So much that I knew of the world, so much that I had learned in the half-decade prior, I could put here.
Ella and Kev’s story starts in the early ’90s and continues through a too-close-for-comfort dystopian future of a police state. South Central, Harlem, Rikers, Watts—these are all places where historic rioting and racial unrest happened. It’s in these environments where their superpowers develop, but it’s also where both of them are abjectly disempowered on a societal level as Black people. It’s this Catch-22 of having power and no power at the same time.
That’s it! Black people are not just the vertebrae of this country; they’re the tendons connecting past and present, South with North and Midwest, etc., etc.; they’re the immune system that fights valiantly but often without success to keep the country from getting too sick to survive, all of it. Black people dictate culture in many ways. The thing is, by the time the tradition or phrase or way of moving or storytelling trope or music or whatever makes its way to a mainstream white audience, it has been unseasoned beyond recognition, distorted and is now without citation. Remember Kim Kardashian and her “Bo Derek” braids?!
All of that is to say there is IMMENSE power in the cultural capital that Black people contain in this country. The real stars of Vine were the dope and hilarious Black kids creating memes and popularizing dance moves, and when Vine stars essentially wanted to unionize and get paid, Twitter came in like Jon Taffer in Bar Rescue: “SHUT IT DOWN! SHUT IT DOWN!” The cleverest parts of Twitter are all Black, yet our tweets and our ideas (especially those of Black women) will be mined by “content creators” at publications or news outlets or producers for TV shows or whatever, and that’s where the money goes. Right there is a crystallization of that paradox of having power and yet not having any, all at the same time.
It’s often why “buy Black” feels less like affirmation than threat. If there were enough coordination and opportunity, and suddenly financial capital flowed almost entirely through Black American hands, it would fundamentally reorder American society and upend the status quo. And that’s why, as much as it may seem otherwise in 2019, Black people aren’t really free. Baldwin put it incredibly well in a 1968 interview with Esquire Magazine (bit.ly/2rAquiU): “[I]f the American Negro, the American black man, is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them.”
On a more personal level, this is a comment on individual achievement contrasted against collective deprivation. Jay-Z says, “I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them, so I got rich and gave back to me. That’s a win-win.” He becomes this self-proclaimed billionaire and, in 2019, is doing deals with the NFL that basically amount to trying to rehabilitate their image after they’ve blackballed Colin Kaepernick and basically trampled on efforts by players to protest police injustice. You escape and turn your back on where you came from.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is someone like Nipsey Hussle, who blew up and then stayed in his community, invested in it, and was this sort of paragon of what-all we mean when we say “Black-owned business.” And it killed him.
So, what happens when you get power but you can’t do the one thing you want to do most with it? Do you turn your back on that desire or do you fight to fulfill it, even if it means your death or the destruction of your world? Black Americans are out here living through the quandaries posed by Greek myth!
Yes! And living through them in a volatile, hostile setting. Speaking of which, this isn’t the first time you’ve written about siblings separated by a volatile and hostile setting. Here, it’s brother and sister separated—in physical form, anyway—by racist policing and mass incarceration. In your YA novel War Girls, two sisters are torn apart by war in a future Nigeria. Their lives are also marked by violence and political unrest. What draws you to this type of story?
I’m the oldest of four, and just before I turned eleven, our father passed away from leukemia. Everyone—family and not—was telling me how I was now the “man of the family” and informing me of my myriad responsibilities now that the family patriarch was no longer with us. In the way that children do, I internalized the letter of the law rather than its spirit, much to our collective detriment in the years that followed (lol). But I love my family more than anything, more than writing, even. And one of my greatest fears is losing them. In film school, I discovered that when I wrote into my fears, I produced my best work. So, I think War Girls and Riot Baby are part of that same literary project. It’s not quite that I think imagining horrors enacted on my loved ones is a way of reaffirming my love for them so much as it is a constant asking; it’s the “why does this scare me so much?” that I’m trying to get at with each story. While there’s no substitute for therapy, I’ve found this quite therapeutic. [insert nervous laughter]
One of the hostile settings is Rikers Island. You worked with parolees there. How did this experience influence Kev’s incarceration scenes and his character arc in general?
My knowledge of Rikers is taken directly from my experience working within its fences. The trip that Ella makes on the buses to visit Kev is a trip I made constantly over the course of working in that job. And many of the details in the parole process in Riot Baby are taken straight from what actually happens to parolees in that jail.
Also, Rikers is a really unique place as far as carceral facilities go. It’s technically a jail, so you’re really only supposed to be there for pre-trial or for sentences less than a year or if you’re being transferred from one prison to another to serve a longer sentence. And the majority of Rikers detainees are pre-trial defendants on bail or remanded into custody. But Rikers is often this black hole into which people vanish for years and years and years. Unable to make bail, Kalief Browder was held in Rikers for three years, two of which were spent in solitary confinement. You can get trapped in a place like Rikers.
Working with Legal Aid and even before that with New York Attorney General’s Office and, even before that, with Columbia Law School’s Mass Incarceration Clinic, I learned a lot about those traps, all the administrative issues that can turn your initial carceral sentence into an absurdity. How, if you’re sentenced to solitary confinement for a certain number of days and you get out before your sentence is up, your days in the Box roll over; how administrative infractions (like getting into a fight) can keep you in jail past your sentence; how you can be convicted of crimes for things that happen in jail while you’re awaiting trial for an unrelated offense. It is a nightmare and can easily spiral into a horror without end.
I wanted the reader to experience all of that through Kev. But I also wanted to show the incarcerated are more than their suffering. They’re people. In America, you put someone behind bars, and it’s like you forget about them, or you’re supposed to. Listen to the way people talk about the jailed and imprisoned. It’s sickening. People still joke about prison rape. But everything that happens in those places is happening to human beings. Happening to people. There is so much humanity in these places, the ways in which people come together or fall apart or change or fight against change—it’s all there.
We were defending one parolee who had been violated (term of art) by his PO and the Parole Revocation Specialist was shooting for their parole to be denied and for them to be sentenced to a notorious treatment facility. And our client was in despair, not because he didn’t want to go to the facility but because the sentence would mean he would miss Christmas with his family. He had been on parole, and now having this thing taken from him was what hurt the most.
Another guy had a sister on the outside who worked tirelessly to put together materials for his parole board (letters from the school he’d gotten into that he’d attend if granted parole, character references from friends and family and former employers, addresses and contact info of nearby treatment centers, etc.) and he was so focused on working toward his release, you could tell it was two siblings fighting together solely with the aim of getting one of them out of jail. I really can’t do justice to what it was like to witness that.
The book club in Riot Baby and the bit about gardening are real stories. The story about the guy playing chess with the prisoner in the next solitary confinement cell by screaming his moves through the wall? Real story.
Kev doesn’t go to jail and become less human. He grows. It felt less like I was writing his story than I was paying witness to it.
Paying witness to his story and to all the systemic forces hell-bent on crushing and discarding his humanity. There’s a line in one of Ella’s scenes that left me shook because it hit home so hard: “She doesn’t know what she would do; maybe it is safer for Kev in here. And suddenly the thought of him on the outside, where so much has happened without him, terrifies her.” Police state in, police state out. As a Black person, I think about this daily. Police officers who can roll up, ghost us, and bam!, we’re the next hashtag in the annals of social justice Twitter. White people who weaponize their phones to call said officers because we’re existing in “their space.” Is this line an observation you made when you worked in criminal justice?
The ubiquity of animus toward Black people was an understanding that preceded the drafting of Riot Baby’s earliest parts, but only by a little.
I think the dawning realization had something to do with the proliferation of video clips of Black death autoplaying on Facebook and Twitter timelines. It wasn’t just that this danger was everywhere, but evidence of it was everywhere, even in these online spaces highly self-curated for our own comfort. In that respect, 2014-2015 was a watershed moment for me and my personal relationship with my country. (I’d lived a relatively sheltered and charmed life prior and am still very comfortable in my current situation, but all of that is irrelevant in the face of this danger. Neither my Yale nor my Columbia Law School IDs are bulletproof vests.)
But in many ways, the exoneration of George Zimmerman was the first moment of my “radicalization.” I think if you polled a lot of folks of our generation and younger, they’d point to that moment as the instant in which something fundamental changed for them about this country and how they saw it and what their place was in it. I think even Dylann Roof, in statements following the massacre he committed in Charleston, pointed to that episode, paradoxically enough, as a moment in which things changed for him.
But the police state, for me, was simply a window into the almost all-encompassing matter of American animus toward Black folks. (The history of constitutional law in this country provided another prism. From Dred Scott to Prigg v. Pennsylvania to Brown v. Board of Education and its aftermath to cases litigating the Fair Housing Act, etc., etc., etc.) But there are many others. You have housing discrimination and the ways in which that is braided into criminal injustice. (Who will rent to you if you have to disclose your felony conviction? How will you get the job that will pay your rent if you have to disclose your felony conviction? Etc.) Education, and even the idea that schools should be funded via property tax when you have a country whose postwar residential order was basically built on redlining. Health! Look no further than Flint, Michigan. Also, everywhere in this country where there’s a lead poisoning crisis, there are likely Black Americans. If that is hyperbole, it isn’t by much.
“America is addicted to hurting black people (bit.ly/37N71fU).”
The police state and the state of policing were windows for me into the much broader topic of injustice toward Black Americans. In jail, Kev has routine, or at least some semblance of one. He’s acclimated himself to the rhythms of the place, knows how to move within it. One of the biggest problems with re-entry is that there’s no institutionalized or systemic way to helpfully get the formerly incarcerated to unlearn the behaviors that helped them survive inside, behaviors that, if displayed on the outside, could get them put back in or killed.
As the police state takes over in the novella, technology invented for surveillance and policing emerges: the augments in Rikers, the surveillance orbs in the city, the geotagging implant in Kev when he moves to Watts. As someone who’s worked in the tech industry, what are your thoughts on how the technology that’s supposed to grant us a wondrous, streamlined future can reflect and reinforce systemic oppression?
PHEW! I have thoughts. We already have algorithmic policing to a certain extent with Palantir’s involvement with local police departments. And that gets to the well-established truth at this point that algorithms carry the biases of their programmers, programmers who often feel themselves inoculated from prejudice and are thus doubly disinclined to course-correct. If I remember correctly, gunpowder was an accidental invention by Taoists looking for an elixir of life. Can you imagine gunpowder having medicinal applications? The instant connection we have with the Internet and cell phone coverage was supposed to bridge gaps all over the world and open up all sorts of possibilities. But it has provided the foundation for a pervasive surveillance apparatus (in addition to facilitating the growth of global racialist fascist movements). What’s fascinating is how the end goal will often differ across societies. In China, for instance, surveillance-via-app is used to correct behavior and get citizens to self-censor in accordance with Party principles. In the US, surveillance-via-app is geared almost exclusively toward getting us to buy shit. All that pernicious data mining simply to get you to click on that ad for a sweater in your Instagram feed. I mean, there’s also the Brexit stuff and the misinformation that flavored the 2016 presidential election in the US; but what I’ve found fascinating and horrifying is how quickly capitalistic impulses glom onto technological innovation. In an earlier age, I think we might have been afraid of military or martial application of new tech (e.g., the atom bomb), and now it’s all: “Okay, how is the money-making prime directive gonna leech all the fun out of this thing?”
Now, I’m not saying we have a moral obligation to become Luddites. But I do think there needs to be more pervasive criticism or critical analysis of our tech and the demographic foundations on which it is being built. Black employees at what you could arguably call the world’s biggest company (bit.ly/37NU7yf) have complained of being nothing but window dressing (bit.ly/2LfhoiX). Twitter is constantly pilloried for its ineptitude—or perhaps lack of caring—in dealing with online abuse against marginalized groups. And when there has been, say, government intervention, it’s been something clumsy and morally hypocritical, like shutting down Backpage, and all the sex workers I know have been nearly unanimous in decrying the move, as it was one method of accountability in a poorly regulated industry and its removal has made things tangibly un-safer for them.
Corporations are not going to try to make things safer for their customers (unless that’s the purpose of their project and they wanna sell it to you), and government is still run, in large part, by the people who tried to get Mortal Kombat banned. So they don’t inspire a lot of hope regarding regulation or guiding the application of tech away from effectuating the worst propensities of the powerful.
But I am heartened by the increasingly public conversations about the role of tech in our lives. The Appeal, which produces and collects online journalism about criminal justice, has written very informative and incisive pieces on, say, facial recognition in San Francisco (bit.ly/37DcsOl) as well as the role Amazon and other tech companies play in the current administration’s immigration agenda (bit.ly/2L1xRqy).
While Facebook has very publicly committed to not addressing misinformation in any substantive way, people were at least talking about the way propaganda spread on the platform and on WhatsApp to facilitate the genocide of Rohingya Muslims. So, the public is being more cognizant and publicly so, but there would have to be a changing of the guard in government such that we would finally see officials with enough political will to adequately regulate these companies, because what is personal safety or a robust democracy in the face of a bottom line?
This is an epic debut for your long-form adult fiction. You’ve had several young-adult novels published before this this. Would you say this is a transition or progression from writing young-adult to adult fiction? Something else entirely? Too soon to tell?
Beasts Made of Night was the first consciously young adult thing I’d written. Every other manuscript I’d produced for the fifteen-plus years prior had been adult, mostly spec fic with a few thrillers and a literary novel thrown in there. So, my home was always adult fiction. It was where I had learned to write, essentially. Writing-wise, Riot Baby feels very much like a return home. That isn’t to say kidlit represents any sort of exile; it’s been a superlative experience and one I’m eager to return to with the sequel to War Girls. But I got to work muscles with Riot Baby that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to do with any of my YA work. It’s like, sometimes you win by draining enough buckets and sometimes you win by performing the most difficult trick. Not like basketball is more difficult than a halfpipe competition in the Summer X-Games—they’re categorically different activities, and it’s been a long time since I’d been in a halfpipe. I’m curious what the reception will be.
On that note, that’s one of the most thrilling parts of writing adult for me right now. I have no idea what the popular reaction will be. So far, people seem to love Riot Baby, and every time they tell me so, it fills my heart to bursting. At the end of the day, I told a story and I’m immensely proud of the way I told it, something I hope I can continue to say about everything I put my name to.
What’s coming up next in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
Well, the sequel to War Girls is currently scheduled for October 2020. And I recently sold two novels I am immensely excited about to Tor.com: the first a post-apocalyptic epic about some Black and Brown folk trying to forge community in a devastated New Haven, CT; and the second a horror-fantasy set at a boarding school. Hopefully, over the next few years, y’all don’t get sick of me.
Cool! Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about Riot Baby?
I just want to shout out my Tor.com editor, Ruoxi Chen. She is a genius, and working with her on this project was a dream. A lot of the above insights and working-through of things are due to her input and her editorial acumen. I’m so grateful she said yes to this project. We’re an object case of what can happen when people of color work together in a variety of capacities in publishing. Together, we made a dope story, and the questions you’ve posted, informed as they are by your own experience, have made for, bar none, the best interview I’ve yet had about this book. This story very well might not have taken the shape and form it has taken absent Ruoxi’s involvement, so love you, Ruoxi!
Spread the word!