One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including Tochi Onyebuchi’s adult sci-fi novel, Riot Baby, and Audre Lorde’s The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, a short essay collection on race, feminism, and more.
In Riot Baby, a contemporary novel by Tochi Onyebuchi with a sci-fi/fabulist element, a young girl with the ability to see the fates of those around her witnesses the 1992 race riots in LA at the same time as her brother is born. Kev is healthy and whole, but the city is on fire, and Ella sees the racial injustices taking place. She does what she can to protect her brother, but as they grow up, Ella’s power increases in many ways, and the more she can do, the more she learns about the world, and the more it hurts her to see how much hate is aimed at Black people. She grapples over her responsibilities toward justice in light of her unique capabilities. Meanwhile, her brother suppresses his own rage and falls victim to a system stacked against him, buoyed onward by his sister’s dedication to change.
“I see Ella walking through Milwaukee’s North Side, past makeshift memorials to dead black kids: teddy bears, browning flowers, ribbons tied to telephone poles waving in the breeze, and I know that she’s been touching the ground around those memorials and closing her eyes and seeing the whole of it, whether the bullet came from some other colored kid’s gun or from a cop, watching the whole story unfold before her. She does the same with the Confederate monuments that rise from the ground in the South like weeds. Tributes to treasonous generals and soldiers serving Big Cotton. She touches their bases, feels their mass-produced faces, runs her fingers over their inscriptions. She wants to know who was hanged here. Who was beaten here. In whose name they were violated. She’s gathering it within her. All of it.”
This is a very short and powerful book, but it took me a while to get into it.
There were two reasons for that: the first is that Ella’s powers are an anomaly, and until the last section of the book (there are four) I didn’t feel that this otherworldly element was necessary to the story beyond giving the narration an easy way to depict Black experiences more broadly than two non-empowered characters would have been able to show alone. Ella’s ability to head-hop and see pasts and futures gives a much wider scope to the brutality and systemic racism against Black people on display here, but it takes most of the novel for that breadth of perspective to mesh with the specific experiences of the two main characters. However, I did eventually think they fit together very well.
The other hang-up for me reflects my own privilege and limited experience; it is not Onyebuchi’s job to cater to me as a white reader, it is my job as a white reader to learn about experiences beyond my own in order to be able to understand the conversations about racism that are taking place (both in this novel and beyond). In Riot Baby, the narration takes big jumps between scenes, characters, and even years. The problem I had was some difficulty keeping up; the pacing moves very fast, with the expectation that the reader will inherently understand the nuances of the barrage of injustices on display and be able to contextualize them without pausing for breath. Certain gaps in my own knowledge (Black prison life, the LA riots, Black-on-Black crime) made this a challenging read for me in places because I could see there was significance and a greater history that I wasn’t fully grasping. I’m mentioning it not because this is in any way Onyebuchi’s or Riot Baby‘s “fault,” but simply because I think other white readers might want to brush up on some nonfiction before diving into this one, or at least keep an internet tab open and be willing to take breaks while reading to ask necessary questions.
That said, I appreciated being pushed out of my comfort zone and loved the heart of this story. Ella’s power and Kev’s suppression of his power present as a metaphors for rage under oppression; one embraces the emotion and endeavors to channel it into productive changes, and the other tries to squash it down just to survive in a white-washed world. Their relationships with each other and their powers show how people beaten down by racism struggle and cope both internally and externally. They are individuals to empathize with, but they are also carrying a world of pain on their shoulders and stand as representatives of a much larger whole. Onyebuchi strikes an incredible balance, and when the pieces fall into place it’s astoundingly effective and emotional, conveying decades (and centuries) of accumulated despair while also inspiring the fight for a better future.
I highly recommend this book to anyone intrigued by the idea of social issues explored through a fabulist element. I think Riot Baby has a lot to say and says it well; any difficulty I had with it is the result of my own lack of knowledge, but if you’re willing to do the work, I think you’ll appreciate where this book will take you. For such a small volume, it digs deep.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I cannot overemphasize how blown away I was by the last section of this book. Parts of the read were difficult for me, but they were supposed to be. I really liked Onyebuchi’s style and the themes explored here, and I’m excited to pick up more of his work in the future. I’ve already ordered Beasts Made of Night, and hope to get to it later this summer. I see it has some lower ratings on GR, but I think having learned a bit about Onyebuchi’s style here and how I need to approach his books as a white reader, I’m eager to give it a try.
In The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, five of Audre Lorde’s essays are collected. They are: “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” “Uses of the Erotic,” “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” “Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” and “Learning From the 1960’s.” All were written between 1977-1982, and still apply perfectly today.
“Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don’t mean me) or by despair (there’s nothing we can do). Each of us must find our work and do it.”
These essays are fairly short, and the entire book amounts to just over 50 pages. Since it’s so brief, I won’t go into much detail about each of the individual pieces; if you’re looking for that breakdown of info let me recommend Callum’s excellent review from earlier this month (which reminded me I had this volume on my shelf and motivated me to pick it up, thanks Callum!).
The first essays here, on poetry and eroticism, appealed to me the least. There will certainly be readers more interested in those topics who will likely find them more inspiring and vital. I thought both were well-written and worthwhile though they didn’t speak to me quite as personally.
But the latter three essays, all of which deal with racism in various ways, and all of which are filtered through the lens of Lorde’s perspective as a Black lesbian woman specifically, felt so very powerful and crucial to this time (which is worrying, as it shows how little progress has been made since they were written). In these pieces, Lorde touches on feminism, and how hurtful racial divides within that movement can be. She talks about discrimination based on sexual orientations. And of course, racism and civil rights. She argues about how people can be oppressed in different ways, to different degrees, and none of the oppressed groups will find their peace until they unite under the common cause: justice and equality for all. She acknowledges those who have been hurt, and calls out those who have done the hurting, and it’s especially impressive to see her handle this where those two groups overlap, as with white feminists who ignore black women’s needs in favor of their own. It’s important that none of us get too caught up in a single cause to overlook the ultimate goal. As a woman and a feminist I found these essays a helpful reminder on how to be a good ally and advocate by respecting differences AND the shared cause. That’s particular to my experience, but I can’t think of an audience that wouldn’t benefit from Lorde’s words in some way.
“I am a lesbian woman of colour whose children eat regularly because I work in a university. If their full bellies make me fail to recognize my commonality with a woman of colour whose children do not eat because she cannot find work, or who has no children because her insides are rotted from home abortions and sterilization; if I fail to recognize the lesbian who chooses not to have children, the woman who remains closeted because her homophobic community is her only life support, the woman who chooses silence instead of another death, the woman who is terrified lest my anger trigger the explosion of hers; if I fail to recognize them as other faces of myself, then I am contributing not only to each of their oppressions but also to my own, and the anger which stands between us then must be used for clarity and mutual empowerment, not for evasion by guilt or for further separation. I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained. Nor is any one of you.”
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is one of those books I think EVERYONE should read. With this one to judge by, I look forward to getting back to the other volumes from the Penguin Modern set that I’d forgotten about, and to reading further from Lorde! This was a great place to start with her work, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else she has to say.
The Literary Elephant