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NEPM brings you interviews with New England authors to add to your summer reading list.

In 'Riot Baby,' Onyebuchi's Character Takes On Police Brutality And Structural Racism

In "Riot Baby" — a new novel from New Haven writer Tochi Onyebuchi — a young Black girl named Ella discovers she has powers that can help rid the world of police brutality and structural racism. 

In a passage from the book, Ella describes what it feels like to live in South Central L.A. It was shortly before the city erupted in anger over the acquittal of police officers who beat Rodney King.

"I hate it here. Everything's so—" She searches for a word that will tell Mama how violent it always is or how much she hates having to hide in the closet every time it even looks like gangbangers might roll through, how she hates having to already know what it means to live in Hoover territory, how she almost always imagines horrible things happening to the boys here and how she can't imagine anything else anymore, a word that will describe the pit that sits in her stomach all the time and the way the ground rumbles beneath her every time she gets a nosebleed, like it's going to open its mouth and swallow everything. "It's so bad here," she whimpers.
"Oh, baby. " A look of helplessness flits across Mama's face. Desperation, then it passes, and Ella already knows it's because Mama knows she can't let Ella see her hopeless, and Ella hates that she has to know that.

Tema Kaiser Silk, NEPM: These powerful nosebleeds are an early sign of Ella's special powers. Can you talk about these powers that Ella is discovering?

Tochi Onyebuchi, author: Basically, Ella is an empath. She feels too much. And the way in which that's expressed in "Riot Baby" is literally she can, you know, jump into the minds of others, into the experiences of others.

Before she's able to control this, the experiences and minds of others bleed into her. And it can be overwhelming. And through that, she's able to also see futures for them, and what will happen to them. And very often, those futures involve tragedy.

And her younger brother Kev, also has powers. Despite their mother's very strong intention to protect her children, she doesn't manage to keep Kev out of jail.

I knew very early on in the conception of "Riot Baby" that I was going to write about mass incarceration. A lot of that came out of my background in the legal field. I'd started with the office of the New York State Attorney General — their civil rights bureau — where I did a lot of work with regard to mass incarceration, before moving on to The Legal Aid Society, where I worked with their parole revocation defense unit.

So I spent a lot of time inside jails and prison. And the thing that struck me was that there's so much humanity that goes on there. And so I knew that Kev was going to wind up there.

And the the way in which that happens is that, oftentimes, mass incarceration is a sort of thermodynamic force, in a sense. It's this gravity that pulls people in. And part of that is just the criminal justice system in general, but one of the things that I wanted to show was the sort of inexorability that not even Mama's best efforts could could arrest.

I don't want to give away too much about what happens toward the end of the book, but there are these different apocalyptic-type things that are going to occur. I'm wondering whether you would describe what happens toward the end — or would you describe the book itself as being, in the end, hopeful? Is it offering a kind of solution?

It's interesting. On several occasions, I've seen reviewers and whatnot attach the word "hopeful" to the ending. But the ending grew out of a place of frustration.

I had started the book in 2015, when there was this videographic evidence of officer-involved shootings. But also we were seeing in very real time the exoneration, or the slap-on-the-wrist nature, of the response to the officers involved.

And, you know, it's not as though there hadn't been efforts to reform police departments, or to try to introduce measures that would mitigate the tragedy that was the inevitable end result of their interactions with community. You know, the chokehold had been banned in the context of the NYPD since 1993, and that's still what ended up killing Eric Garner.

And so the ending came out of the sense of frustration. It was it was as though, you know, I'm tired of talking about reforming the system. The system itself is the problem. I just want to burn it all down.

As much as one can read hope in that sense of frustration, and the sort of cleansing nature of it, I think it's also a lot of other things.

We're in the context now of conversations about abolishing and defunding the police. I think there's a very interesting new color attached to this type of ending, and what people might imagine it being a metaphor for.

It's not a matter of, you know, reforming police departments. Maybe the problem is police departments as a whole. And I think it's very fascinating, and hopeful, that the conversation has gotten to that place.

Check out more of NEPM’s Summer Fiction series here.

Tema Silk is the editor for NEPM's award-winning commentaries, which she’s been involved with since 2010. She's also a contributing reporter.
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