“I felt a rage born of impotence,” says YA author Tochi Onyebuchi, of the decision not to indict police officers over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, as well as George Zimmerman walking free for the death of Trayvon Martin. “At the same time, as a writer, I clung to this idea of writers as alchemists—that we can take pain and anger and rage and sorrow and turn it into a work of art that will alleviate this crippling sense of loneliness. When I can read a story that resonates with my own story, I can feel seen,” says Onyebuchi, who has worked for Columbia Law School’s Mass Incarceration clinic, the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State Attorney General, and as an investigator with the Legal Aid Society.
Onyebuchi’s first book for adults, Riot Baby (Tor, Jan. 2020), is a product of that alchemy. It’s a science fiction fantasy set in the present in which superpowered siblings contend with police brutality, structural racism, and their own world-shaping powers. Rooted in loss and the hope that can live in anger, Riot Baby is both a global dystopian narrative and an intimate family story that speaks to love, fury, and the black American experience.
Much of the novel is set in New York City’s Rikers Island prison. “When I was doing research, I found very few fiction stories set in jail or that dealt with the racial overtones of the American incarceration systems. There is so much humanity that happens there—the entire breadth of human experience can happen in those places. And you never see it or hear about it. That’s why it was important to me to write in the present and not as allegory. This is real and it’s going on now,” he says.
Onyebuchi credits Ruoxi Chen, his editor for Riot Baby, for making a difference in how his work is perceived. “It shows that it’s not enough to have diverse authors—you also need agents, marketing, and editors who will understand and relate. Ruoxi got it and pushed me to make [the book] better in ways that I am not sure other people would have done for me,” he says.
As for the cover, Onyebuchi says he actually cried when he saw it. “I felt a kinship with this person; I felt I had seen this person before in real life. I had spoken to and had a relationship with her, and not just because she was living in my head. I just knew her. I’ve never experienced that before,” he says.
Tomorrow, 11 a.m.–noon. Tochi Onyebuchi will sign at the Macmillan booth (1544, 1545).