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Interview With an Author: Tochi Onyebuchi

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Tochi Onyebuchi and his adult fiction debut novel, Riot Baby

Tochi Onyebuchi is the author of the young adult novel Beasts Made of Night, which won the Ilube Nommo Award for Best Speculative Fiction Novel by an African, its sequel, Crown of Thunder, and War Girls. He holds a B.A. from Yale, a M.F.A. in screenwriting from the Tisch School of the Arts, a Master's degree in droit économique from Sciences Po, and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. His fiction has appeared in Panverse Three, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Obsidian, Omenana Magazine, Uncanny, and Lightspeed. His non-fiction has appeared in, Nowhere Magazine, the Oxford University Press blog, and the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, among other places. Riot Baby is his adult fiction debut and he recently agreed to talk about with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Riot Baby?

It began in earnest as a response to the spate of officer-involved killings of black Americans, video evidence of which had started to proliferate in 2014-2015. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Natasha McKenna, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald. At the time, I felt a hideous sense of powerlessness. There was also the sense—borne of the connection with older generations—of this, not as a new or unique phenomenon, but rather the continuance of an existing dynamic between repressive state forces and black Americans. That idea of this as the continuance of history augmented the powerlessness I felt. Friends, at the time, were marching and protesting and getting arrested and doing all sorts of things. But I knew I was a writer and that I was good at it and that maybe that’s where my service lay. So, in a manner of speaking, Riot Baby began as an act of service. To myself, to a wider purpose, I’m not sure. Perhaps both. My hope is that, to this day, it remains a result of that act. That this story can exist in the service of others and service of the greater cause of liberation.

Are Ella, Kev or any of the characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Kev has a more direct analog to the real world than Ella does. Because of certain aspects of my life, I know quite a few people who have gone through jail or prison or who are still incarcerated. I knew that this would be a central part of Kev’s narrative, and I drew from those people as well as the work I had done in the legal field with regards to incarceration. Ella’s inspiration is a bit more amorphous. She gets her name from a very revolutionary-minded former law school classmate of mine (we were in different years), but her journey was much more of an imagining than Kev’s.

How did the novella evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

When it was initially acquired, it had a very different structure. The main foci were Rikers and Watts, with a little bit of the Harlem chapter sprinkled in. It wasn’t until the editing phase that I figured out the location-based structure of the book. Also, it very much began as Kev’s story with Ella as something of a witness or someone very much wanting to save her brother but, for some reason, unable to do so. Subsequent rounds of edits turned it into Ella’s story and ended up birthing the South Central chapter that begins the book. There was a character in the middle versions between first and last, who made a reappearance later on in the book in a very different form. She was to be a part of Kev’s journey, but her scenes opened up the door to too many issues I had neither the time nor space to truly explore without coming across as exploitative. This was the first time I’d encountered such a situation, or, rather, that this concern was brought to my attention. The subsequent conversations with my editor were highly instructive. I’d always fancied myself a sensitive writer, someone attuned to issues and cognizant enough of existing power dynamics to avoid exhibitionism and exploitation in my writing. But here was an instance where I may have been trying for something out of reach if that makes sense. Including her would have meant having to contend with issues of consent and womanhood and Islamophobia and sex, and Riot Baby is already so pregnant with issues that the further inclusion of this character might have left the thing misshapen. I’m ever so grateful to Ruoxi for her guidance and wisdom on this. I might have strutted straight into a sandpit otherwise.

Riot Baby is an unflinching, and unvarnished, look at contemporary life in the US for people of color. Yet, the ending of the novella is more hopeful than dystopian (although it is clear there is a lot to work through before the work is done). Do you think it’s possible to get to where we need to be without relying on those with “Things” to get us there?

I wish this weren’t currently the case. Still, I think there’s some level of reliance required for there to be any positive change in the situation of people of color and specifically black people in America. It’s just that the reliance isn’t on people with the psychokinesis but rather people with another superpower: whiteness. Even a cursory glance at American history will reveal that black Americans have tried just about everything to try to remove or even lessen the yoke of white oppression: marching, establishing their communities, becoming legislators (federal or local), violent self-defense, the list goes on. James Baldwin was once asked in an interview with Esquire Magazine, (paraphrasing) “what’s it gonna take for black people to cool it?” His reply: “It’s not for black people to cool it.” Until there’s a proper reckoning among white Americans and a proper holding-to-accounts, I don’t see any real, true, structural amelioration happening. And a genuinely deleterious byproduct of the unwillingness of those with the superpower of whiteness to enact any real change is that other communities of color are drawn into the battle and splintered and disrupted and poisoned by this idea of betterment via proximity to whiteness. If anything, imagining a young black woman with the powers of telepathy and psychokinesis seems the more plausible fantasy.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I’m currently reading The Ventriloquists by E.R. Ramzipoor, and it is such a fun and rollicking read. Though it is set in Belgium during WWII, it has a lot to say about press and press freedom and propaganda. Reading it is also part of an effort of mine to inject more fun and humor into my reads. I’m drawn to tragedies and emotionally devastating books, and for a while, that was my barometer for gauging a book’s power. How well could it break my heart or lift me to emotional heights unimaginable? But I’m learning what a difficult and satisfying thing it is to write a laughter-provoking story or at least something that gets you smiling at the page. And this book very much fits the bill.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Actually, the manga series Blade of the Immortal. Epic in every sense of the word. The art was gorgeous, and it was one of the first stories that portrayed emotional complexity. What began as simple revenge quest morphed into a gorgeously sanguine exploration of self and violence and family.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Hah! Mom and Dad were very lax with regards to that. To be honest, I faced more restrictions in my movie and TV intake.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

  • Katsuhiro OtomoAkira made visual storytelling an essential part of my process with what is depicted. As much as I love words, I’m very much guided by imagery, and I will never forget what it looks like to see a city fall from the sky.
  • John Le Carré—For a period in college, all I wrote were international spy thrillers. I even had two books about terrorists and arms dealers set in the Balkans. As much as the gunfights thrilled me to write, what I wanted to capture was the vast interiority of these characters, and that was what struck me immediately about Le Carré’s work when I first encountered it in high school. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is essentially a closed-room mystery, and yet it manages to move like a thriller and be this titanic dissection of class anxiety in postwar England. The Constant Gardener is, to my mind, this guy at the height of his powers. And The Little Drummer Girl might be the best novel I’ve read about the Palestine-Israel conflict not written by a Palestinian or Israeli. What I learned from him was how to use genre as a vessel for exploration of the human condition. A Perfect Spy is a spy novel the same way that Moby Dick is a book about a whale.
  • Marilynne Robinson—Name a better prose stylist currently working in American letters. I dare you.
  • Elizabeth Bear—I’m still astounded by her range. She went from a cyberpunk trilogy about a damaged Canadian merc to urban fantasy about Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe to a generation ship trilogy to Norse epic fantasy, and those are just her multi-book cycles. That isn’t even to talk about her mind-bending brilliance at short stories. Bear was the first SFF writer I consciously sought to emulate and learn from. I mean, look at her White Space series (Ancestral Night and Machine, forthcoming) and her Lotus Kingdom books (The Stone in the Skull and The Red-Stained Wings so far)! Boom boom boom boom. The crossover AND the jump shot.
  • Ian McDonaldThe Dervish House and River of Gods were the first times I’d seen a specific set in the developing world. I read River of Gods first and couldn’t believe it. There were more ideas on one page of that book than I’d seen in many trilogies! There was so much dope stuff, but the really powerful thing to me was that it all felt seamlessly integrated into a carefully constructed Indian society. Same with The Dervish House and Turkey. It never felt orientalist, never othering. The man is a wonder at writing not just about developing economies but within them. I can’t remember reading a specific book before River of Gods that was set in a science-heavy world featuring non-whites who weren’t aliens or in some fundamental way inhuman.

What is a book you've faked reading?

The Harry Potter series.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney.

Is there a book that changed your life?

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. It’s my favorite book of all time. I was in the midst of reading it while studying abroad in France during high school. And a random trip out of Paris with my roommate to Dumas’s estate revealed to me that the man was black. That the man who had written this glorious story of adventure and swashbuckling and hidden identities and revenge was the same color as me, did more to encourage me as a writer than all the validation I received from teachers. At that age, I wasn’t terribly interested in the books we were obligated to read, no matter how important and meaningful they would be later on in life for me. Invisible Man, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Native Son did much less for me as a high schooler than they did for me as an adult man. I wanted adventure. And Dumas was the first guy to show me that, if I’m black, I have permission to write adventure.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. The AUDACITY of that book. It’s As I Lay Dying but the centering event, instead of being Addie Bundren’s funeral, is a 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley?! And it’s written 85% in Jamaican patois?! How the hell does a book like that exist?! I’m incapable of speaking in any even-handed way about that book.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. Because of That Moment.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

A lazy morning waking up in the same room as a loved one. A sun-dappled afternoon spent reading in a curved bench where the Marais abuts the Seine. Then an evening spent smoking shisha and writing a story I’m besotted with. That’d do it.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

I have to say, I am particularly overjoyed with people asking me about craft. I love analyzing pieces of writing, breaking down scene structure, picking apart the journey in an essay. How does the writer use leitmotifs? How did they come up with the idea to use a recurring joke as the spine of that essay? Why are their chapter lengths the way they are? How on earth did they manage that button? I love talking shop with other writers. And I hope that with Riot Baby some more of those questions can come to the fore.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently at work on the sequel to my recently-released YA novel, War Girls. And it is a journey! After that, I have two more books with, and they are straight fire. I cannot wait for readers to get their hands on them.

Book cover for Riot Baby
Riot Baby
Onyebuchi, Tochi

In Riot Baby, Tochi Onyebuchi provides an unflinching and unvarnished look at life for people of color in the US with just a touch of fantasy. While there are brief sojourns to the past, the novella primarily takes place within the last three decades and moves briefly in the near future. Instead of music, television or other cultural references, Onyebuchi frequently uses the death of yet another young black man at the hands of those charged with their, and our, protection to let readers know the year they have moved into (it is both a shocking and sobering reminder of the number of these deaths that have happened, and continue to happen, and of how long this has been occurring).

Riot Baby is a difficult but powerful read. It is grim and, at times, tragic, but it also gives voice to a rage that, as history illustrates, silencing and/or repressing will get us nowhere. It reminds us of the inequities that must be addressed before we can begin taking the steps to create a better world for everyone. This is a journey worth taking.