Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi (Tor Publishing)

"Riot Baby" author on his novel of black superpowers: "I don't want justice. I want vengeance"

Tochi Onyebuchi spoke to Salon about writng about white supremacy that's not for the white gaze


Chauncey DeVega
March 7, 2020 3:59PM (UTC)

Tochi Onyebuchi's new book "Riot Baby" has been described as a "staggering story" and "political speculative fiction at its finest". "Riot Baby" has also been praised for its "fantastical originality with his incredible worldbuilding and devastating prose. Stark, sharp, and brutal." And Salon's Ashlie D. Stevens called the story "wholly captivating" in her review.

These accolades are well-deserved. "Riot Baby" is a tightly written, provocative, and exciting exploration of humanity, race, justice, and resistance through a familial story about an African American brother and sister – and yes, superpowers.

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If the best of science fiction and speculative fiction involve taking a familiar world and changing one detail in order to explore broader truths about human experience – both good and bad – Tochi Onyebuchi masterfully accomplishes that goal.

But "Riot Baby" goes far beyond the counterfactual and the speculative premise of, "What if black people gained superpowers, and then what happens?" Onyebuchi's depiction of a black American with god-like powers is a powerful meditation on black people's humanity and what it means to be fully human outside of the narrow and flattening expectations of the White Gaze.

In this conversation, Onyebuchi reflects on resistance across the color line in the Age of Trump and how white privilege and accompanying white "innocence" empowered Trump's authoritarian fascist movement and hobbles too many white Americans' resistance to it. He also explores how the experience of the Black Diaspora and its struggles against racism and white supremacy are a type of surreal dystopia and the challenges such a fact poses for science fiction across the color line.

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Onyebuchi – who's also written the novels "Beasts Made of Night," "Crown of Thunder," and "War Girls," along with essays and other writing in Asimov's Science Fiction and at Tor.com –  also shares how "Riot Baby" speaks to his personal truths about righteous black anger and black pain in an American society which all too often denies black people their full humanity, rights, and dignity.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

We are chatting about your new book "Riot Baby" on Feb. 14, Frederick Douglass' birthday.

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Yes, it is. Frederick Douglass is one of America's greatest founding fathers, I would say.

We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. How do you think Frederick Douglass would make sense of this moment with Donald Trump and his white supremacist movement and regime?   

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I feel like Douglass and his other compatriots who fought for black people's equal human rights would recognize the interminability of the struggle. I feel like they would look at this current moment and see how little has changed. Brother Douglass and Dr. King experienced seismic events during their lifetimes. They saw the expansion of the political franchise with Abolition and then bringing down Jim Crow. Those are two of the biggest seismic shifts in American history. And since then, what other types of great change in terms of the good on that scale have we seen in this country? 

I feel like they would look at the current moment and see how little has changed. I do wonder what they would advise in terms of action. More corporeal politics? Self-defense?  That is part of why I wrote "Riot Baby." I wanted to literalize the obliteration of the police state.

There is a deep discomfort, on both sides of the color line, with talking about black folks in America as well as across the Black Atlantic and our tradition of self-defense.   

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That fact is contrary to what is a tired and oppressive narrative of perpetual and always assumed black foregiveness for white racist violence and other crimes against us. Consider that evildoer Dylann Roof, white supremacist terrorist and a mass murderer – yet, black people were expected to forgive him. Ongoing police thuggery and brutality – again, black folks must always forgive. By comparison White America is never expected to forgive for crimes against it, be they real or imagined. Permission for rage and vengeance is exclusively allowed for white people in America.

For the person who feels compelled to embark on that path of forgiveness, you grieve how you grieve, and you move forward how you move forward, and you process how you process. If that's what you have to do to continue going about the business of living in this world and of surviving, I get that, but at the same time what prompted me to write "Riot Baby" was black folks asking for justice for Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and so many other victims of police and other violence.

We've been asking for justice and I was saying to myself, "You know what? Forget that! I want vengeance. I'm tired of asking for justice." We saw a version of this after Trump was elected in 2016. All this talk about about, "Oh, we reach out to these misguided voters or we have to convince them of this and convince them of that." No. They screwed over and hurt people I care about. I want to punish them. Trump's voters did this thing that hurt me personally or that hurt people that I love. There is this long tradition in America of doing everything possible to quell that impulse – especially in the marginalized because the power imbalance makes such sentiments so very dangerous. It's very dangerous to even say out loud, "I don't want justice. I want vengeance."  

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Another dimension to the Age of Trump is the gross triumph of white racial innocence. To believe that Trump is some type of surprise is really a privilege allowed to white Americans and other white people around the world. To sustain such a level of naivete can only be a function of willful white ignorance about the reality of America's past and present. 

I am of the opinion that white people know better. They fundamentally know better and it is willed ignorance. I would say that is true almost across the board. I think there might be the tendency to be like, "Oh, I'm not like those other white people." On a basic level, white people as a group know better. They just don't want to do what they know they would need to do to bring about a more equitable society. Given the easy availability of information there is no excuse for denying the realities of white supremacy and the harm it causes black and other nonwhite people.

Here is a particularly pernicious example: there is this façade of, "I want to do better. I feel bad for the things that are happening to people of color in this country. What can I do as an upper middle class white person who's a member of Oprah's book club?" It's that feigned innocence. I can't wait for you to find it in your heart to do better. I've run out of patience for it. I don't have the time.

Feigned ignorance is a cornerstone of white privilege, white supremacy and day-to-day racism. It is one of the primary ways through which "colorblind racism" works. Everything is some type of surprise even when it is an obvious truth.

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Come on. Be real. Literally the only thing surprising is the fact that people who should know better are still surprised about the stuff that Trump is doing, and the stuff that he's getting away with, and the stuff that he knows he can get away with. The fact that there is still any surprise at the complicity of the entire Republican party and its entire apparatus in aiding and abetting Trump the bootleg emperor is what is really in fact surprising. It is so frustrating to keep watching these professional news media types and experts say things like, "Oh wow, I didn't know that it was like this."  

How do you reconcile what are already the dystopic and surreal aspects of black people's experiences in America and around the world with the genre conventions of science fiction? 

I think about a lot of this in a geometric way. Shapes are the fundamental building blocks of the story that I want to tell. In the science fiction and speculative fiction genres there are two dimensions, metaphor and reality. But I want to wield those elements in a recognizable way. For example, placing superpowers in the historical context of Rodney King being brutalized by the Los Angeles Police Department and the police-involved murders that have been happening over the past decade.  

I don't want to give any readers the opportunity to believe that the truth of my work, its meaning, is buried under so many layers of allegory that I cannot be understand or that my meaning can somehow be denied. "Riot Baby" is a story about white supremacy. You can't walk away from this story thinking it's about anything other than white supremacy.

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There is a great deal of research by social psychologists and others which shows that many white people really do believe that black people have superpowers. We are impervious to pain. We are faster and stronger. We may have supernatural abilities. In your writing, how are you resolving that fact with your narrative and vision?

I didn't write "Riot Baby" for white people. I wrote it for us, for black people. I also wrote it primarily for me. In writing "Riot Baby" for myself, I believe I was also writing it for people who I thought would get it, or people who I figured were feeling the same way that I felt. A sort of mélange of utility and fury that is roiling inside of us.

Part of writing and finishing "Riot Baby" meant completely jettisoning any consideration of the White Gaze, not caring at all how white people would receive this book. And that was very liberating because then I didn't have to worry about things such as, "Oh, is this the type of thing that people are going to read, and then it's going to make it easier for them to dehumanize black folks by believing that there is this superhuman aspect of us. That the black boy or black man that they cross the street to avoid is some sort of monstrous entity, or closer to some sort of monstrous entity than they are to a human being."

Or if a black woman is getting any sort of medical care and she says she's in pain but the doctors and nurses believe she's really not in as much pain as she said she is. I just jettisoned any and all concerns about that. Making all of that as a consideration would have been very constraining. "Riot Baby" would mean that I was writing a story for white people. And right now with the story that I need to get out of me, I can't consider white people as part of my audience at all. Maybe they will read it, maybe they will learn something from this. White folks are not who I'm writing this book for. That allowed me the sense of liberation to really delve into the question, what if black people had superpowers?

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But also, now we must consider two other elements in the story. There's what if black people had superpowers, but they are still being conceptualizing as victims. Black men are bulletproof, but they are still being slotted in the role of being shot at. Black women are seen as being more impervious to pain, but now they are being slotted into situations where they are not being administered medical aid properly.

What if we flip that? What if it was black people with superpowers and they could literally reduce an entire jail facility to ashes? What if it was black people with superpowers and they're walking amongst all of these lower-class whites, and they know for a fact that they could physically obliterate each and every one of them with a thought? What does that feel like? What does that look like? That was a question that I was very, very fascinated by. Magneto, the "X-Men" comic book character, was right. What then does it mean to follow that to its logical conclusion?

How do we take the premise of black people with superpowers and make it into something productive as opposed to something hacky and obvious?

For me the solution was to write into the dangerous part, my own fear. That goes back to what I was saying earlier about getting to a place emotionally where I didn't want justice anymore. I wanted vengeance, because I felt I denied that part of myself and I feel like a lot of black people are taught or coached to always preface self-preservation, are taught to deny that aspect of themselves where there is vengeance, because that's the ultimate fear that many white people have.

It's a type of displacement where white people will look at black people and say to themselves, "If I had been treated the way that they're being treated, I would want to burn this whole thing down. Let me make sure that we punish them as soon as they voice any inkling of wanting to do exactly that same thing." In many ways that is now the norm in America and has been so for a very long time.

Imagine if you could shoot laser beams out of your eyes. What if you had that liberation? You are a mutant. Other humans don't have that power. But these humans who don't have that power are going to try to convince me that they are in fact some type of "master race." That they are better than me? That difference became very tactile and tangible to me. That very visceral sense of superiority felt novel for me.

With "Riot Baby" and your other work, how do you balance personal vulnerability and truth? Have you had moments where you are telling yourself, "Man, this is some dangerous truth. I don't know. I'm going somewhere dangerous and I may need to stop." How do you resolve those moments?

I felt that way for much of writing "Riot Baby." It's the most dangerous thing I've written. That response sounds like it was a more intellectual exercise than it ultimately was. There was a lot of emotional thinking or perhaps even emotional compulsion that went into the book. And the hardest thing was I knew this was a story that I had to get out of me. I was saying to myself, "Oh, let me think about publication and everything later." I just know that I need to get this all on the page somehow. I need to get this outside of me.

That concern overrode everything else, overrode any reservation that I had about telling this particular story.

I am also very fortunate that I worked with Ruoxi Chen, my editor at Tor. She really pushed me to go further with the book and my truth because in reading earlier iterations she could tell that there were points at which I was holding back. She kept encouraging me to not hold back, to go to the dangerous place, to say the dangerous thing.

I will be forever grateful for her encouragement. I think it's an object lesson in what happens when you put people of color together in a relationship as intimate as the editorial relationship.  

If not already, you will likely at some point be asked the following question: "Why would a white person read 'Riot Baby'"? Is it just self-flagellation? White guilt?

I wonder about the exact same thing. What's the motivation? Is it that they really want to learn? On a cognitive level break through their own ignorance? I have also heard from white readers how it's given them a glimpse into the so-called "African American experience" that they hadn't otherwise experienced – particularly from fiction. But maybe that is a function of the African American fiction they have read?

It is old but still very powerful language. Are you a "race man"?

Blackness is just a fundamental part of who I am. I can't extricate it from anything that I do. It informs everything. Sometimes to a great degree. Sometimes to a much lesser degree. At the same time, a day is going to come where I write a non-black protagonist. Maybe it's going to turn some heads, but it's going to make absolute sense for me. I'm a writer, but at the same time, I'm unapologetically a black writer.

You have to do it right? But at the end a person should write whatever they want -- but they should do it right.

When "people" finish "Riot Baby" –  the so-called "universal reader" – how do you want them to feel?

I want them to feel whatever it is that they feel, because I know it's going to be different depending on who they are. People will  bring different experiences and different baggage to "Riot Baby." Whatever the reader feels about "Riot Baby" I want it to be sincere and real. I want the reader to really feel their emotions.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Books Inclusion Interview Riot Baby Tochi Onyebuchi White Supremacy

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