Sunday, June 13, 2021

Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi (author, narrator)

Blackstone Publishing, ISBN 9781094006352, January 2020

This is a novella that really packs a punch. It's very good, very powerful, and I'm not sure that I like it. I'm not sure I should like it; I'm certainly not the intended audience.

On the other hand, I think it's a very good thing for nice white people to listen to what this story, and others like it, are telling us. It's a very real piece of black American experience, and an eloquent expression of the rage that experience can generate.

Ella is just a young child when her brother Kevin is born--in the midst of the Los Angeles riots sparked by the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. She's already starting to develop psychic powers that she describes as her "Thing." At first she just has dreams, or daydreams, about the futures of people she knows. Given that she obviously knows a lot of black boys and young men, many of those futures are dark and tragic.

The story unfolds in two voices, Ella's, in third person, and Kev's, mostly in first person.

Ella develops more and more powers, psychokinesis, telepathy, the ability to start fires. Mostly, in various ways, the power to break things with her mind. She struggles to control those powers, and for a long time has only mixed success.

Kev is growing up as a quiet, studious, bright kid, who ought to have a real future ahead of him. He's a black male, though, and it's powerfully difficult to resist the pressure of society, to be what he's expected to be. He's a suspect, after all, guilty of something, in the eyes of the cops, even when he's guilty of nothing except being in a perfectly ordinary place, doing what kids do.

The time comes when Ella simply disappears, to practice with her skills where she won't hurt anyone--she has twice almost killed her mother. The time also comes when Kev has succumbed to the pressures around him, from his peers as well as the police, and actually committed a crime. He winds up in Rikers, trying to get through his time, and getting only psychic visits from Ella, who doesn't come in person to the prison. Kev gets into more trouble in prison, but eventually he also gets a job there, repairing computers. He really ought to have a future when he gets out.

Meanwhile, Ella is not just mastering her powers; she's also exploring everything that's wrong in the world she and Kev live in, including the endless acts of white violence against blacks, and her anger is building and building. Kev is working to keep his anger down; Ella is working to build up her righteous rage. Eventually, this has to come to a head.

Kevin is born in 1992, and he's 28 at the end, putting the end of the story solidly in our present time. Yet for all the relentlessly realistic depiction of our race problems, that present isn't our early 2020s; there's technology at work, in everyday life, by the end of the story that is definitely well ahead of what we have. The uses we see of it are chiefly to "keep order," which of course just ratchets the social tensions higher and higher.

When Ella and Kev come together again, with Kev "on parole" in what is called a "sponsored community," Ella shows Kev what he's really been working on in his "good job," and the result is explosive.

This isn't a perfect story; Ella's character is never fully developed, so that we don't understand her choices as well as we do Kev's. This isn't an easy read, or an easy listen, but for many, it will be an enlightening, eye-opening experience. Recommended.

I bought this audiobook.

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