Tochi Onyebuchi is making his adult fiction debut with a brand-new book, Riot Baby! A complex narrative that follows young Kev and his sister Ella, who develops god-like super powers, Riot Baby deals with race, family, and trauma though a sci-fi lens.
Ahead of its January release, the author dropped by Tor.com HQ for a live Q&A, where we talked about anime, superheroes, the Black American experience, writing anger as strength, and more. Here were some of the highlights.
Q: What songs would be on the Riot Baby movie soundtrack?
This is a fantastic question. There would be a bunch of Schoolboy Q, so a lot of songs from the Blank Face album. A lot of Vince Staples. I’m thinking like a New Age, West Coast rap type vibe, definitely. We got to have Dipset Anthem on there, because Harlem. And then, I would probably want some classical songs from Nicholas Britell, because the Succession soundtrack slaps.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I once read Elizabeth Bear say one time “Fail brilliantly.” And that really, really, really hit me. I was a young warthog when she said that, and I really took it to heart, because it meant that, at least for me, you weren’t going to get the story perfect in terms of translating what was in your head onto the page, but that didn’t mean that you couldn’t create something dazzling. Something extraordinary. Something beautiful. You were supposed to swing for the fences every time, and that is essentially what I’ve tried to do in everything that I have written since.
Q: What’s the last book that made you cry?
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar. It is everything that you’ve been told a book isn’t supposed to be. It’s epistolary, it’s in second person, it’s got time-travel. It’s the most extraordinary love story I’ve ever read in my entire life. I was on a plane to San Diego, and I don’t really cry. Like, I’ve watched the first nine minutes of Up on planes. I’ve taken off the runway after having just gotten bad news. I just don’t cry on planes. This book! This book, okay? We were pulling in, the plane was doing the *Onyebuchi does a plane-landing impression* and yo, fam, just the tears were waterfalling. I don’t even remember what part of the book I was at! Yo. Read that book. Please. PLEASE. Read that book.
Q: What inspired you to write Riot Baby?
I wanted to tell people that we should burn down the police state, but I couldn’t do that on Twitter, because I would’ve gotten banned, so I just wrote the book.
Q: Dragons or spaceships?
Spaceships, and the reason for that is: While dragons are aesthetically pleasing, you have to ask yourself how are you conceptualizing dragons. Are we talking dragons as animals or dragons as weapons, right? So if you’re writing a dragon, it is conceivable that you are actually writing a nuke, you are writing a weapon. But at the same time, it opens the door to all sorts of animal cruelty, and I just can’t watch people be mean to dragons like that. So basically, I don’t trust humans with dragons is what it boils down to. So for the dragons’ sake, I would go with spaceships.
Q: Favorite black superhero?
So, this answer is, disclaimer, going to contain spoilers for Watchmen. Actually, you know what? Scratch that. Out of the goodness of my heart, I’m going to let that one go. Favorite black superheroes, you got a much safer choice, but at the same time, he’s still gangster, he’s still, you know, what have you, just doesn’t give away a major plot point in the greatest TV show that’s currently on the air. Bishop, from X-Men: The Animated Series. Actually, him and Storm were the very first black superheroes that I remember seeing, and that made a really cool impression on me, in part because they were dope. They weren’t just regular degular superheroes. Like, they didn’t have Jubilee’s powers, they had actual, gangster-ass powers. And I wanted Bishop’s hair so bad, because I’d never seen a black dude with a perm like that before. I did not know it was possible. I did not know you could get it like that, and I wanted Bishop’s hair so bad, but I did not have the patience or a mom who was willing to entertain any of that nonsense. But Bishop was aspirational. Aspirational blackness, so I’m going to go with him.
Q: Naruto or Dragon Ball Z?
You know what’s wild is they are actually more similar than I initially thought they would be. You have these really epic fight scenes punctuated by absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing! Although, with the fight scenes in Naruto, you have the added complication/component of the flash-backs that are randomly thrown in. Well, not randomly. There is a calculation to it. They are a feature, not a bug, that do make the fight scenes even more meaningful. But DBZ hit me at such a pivotal point in my development as a person, as a young man, as a writer. When… *[REDACTED DRAGON BALL Z SPOILERS]*…ooh. When *[MORE REDACTED DRAGON BALL Z SPOILERS]* after having that whole arc when he *[EVEN MORE REDACTED DRAGON BALL Z SPOILERS]*?! And then he basically combusts in this *[REDACTED DRAGON BALL Z SPOILERS, CONT’D]*?!?! As consistently great as Naruto can be, it just doesn’t have those single moments of greatness. Like *[THE RETURN OF THE REDACTED DRAGON BALL Z SPOILERS]*. I just, there is no Naruto without DBZ. I don’t make the rules.
Q: Tell us why we should be excited for Riot Baby when it comes out January 21, 2020, available for preorder wherever books are sold.
If you like Watchmen, I think you’ll enjoy Riot Baby. Another reason why I am ridiculously excited about Riot Baby is I don’t think there’s anything else—okay, I’m going to talk my shit for a little bit—I don’t think there’s anything else like Riot Baby out there right now. Nothing. Nothing. This is a wholly unique thing. This is the type of story that I would have wanted to read, but then I would’ve been upset I didn’t write it. So I wrote it. It’s dope. But don’t just take my word for it. Acclaimed poet and music critic Hanif Abdurraqib has wonderful things to say about it. Rebecca Kuang of The Poppy War and Dragon Republic fame had dope things to say about it. Daniel José Older, who wrote Shadowshaper, most recently The Book of Lost Saints, also thinks this book is dope. And you know who else thinks this book is dope? Marlon mother-redacted James, author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf most recently, Booker Award winning author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Book of Night Women, John Crow’s Devil. Like this dude! This. Dude. Thinks this book is dope. And he will tell you all that it is dope to your face if you come to the Strand on January 22. We may have colonized the Rare Book Room for the evening, so swing by and you can see for yourself what Riot Baby is about. I have to say, in all seriousness, I cannot wait for this book to get into your hands.
The author also held a talk/reading just for folks at Macmillan HQ (who own Tor.com). In response to a question about anger as strength, and anger as a tool in resistance movements:
I think anger is super important. I think anger actually might be the most important ingredient. The reason I say that is that anger seems to be the ingredient at least with regards to a lot of resistance movements, as a sort of resistance philosophy in general…
In response to a question about the process and emotional impact of writing Riot Baby so that the story provides a diverse depiction of Black experience:
Writing saved my life. I mean that in the broadest sense, but also I mean it specifically in this instance, because if I didn’t have it, I mean, who knows what I might have done, you know, carrying that anger inside me? And my hope, at least in the immediate future, and this is I guess thinking of the most tangible result, I hope that when this book gets introduced to certain communities, it can open up the idea of writing as a productive vessel. You’re letting the anger fuel this enterprise—
Ella has a Thing. She sees a classmate grow up to become a caring nurse. A neighbor’s son murdered in a drive-by shooting. Things that haven’t happened yet. Kev, born while Los Angeles burned around them, wants to protect his sister from a power that could destroy her. But when Kev is incarcerated, Ella must decide what it means to watch her brother suffer while holding the ability to wreck cities in her hands.
Rooted in the hope that can live in anger, Riot Baby is as much an intimate family story as a global dystopian narrative. It burns fearlessly toward revolution and has quietly devastating things to say about love, fury, and the black American experience.
Ella and Kev are both shockingly human and immeasurably powerful. Their childhoods are defined and destroyed by racism. Their futures might alter the world.