Tochi Onyebuchi talks race, writing and ‘Riot Baby’ 

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The UConn Equity and Social Justice Reading Group promotes author Tochi Onyebuchi. English students and prospective educators from the Neag School of Education reconvened virtually to ask questions about his book and discuss writing as a person of color. Photo courtesy of: UConn.edu

The Equity and Social Justice Reading Group wrapped up their short speaker series on April 7 with a talk from “Riot Baby” author Tochi Onyebuchi. English students and prospective educators from the Neag School of Education reconvened virtually to ask questions about his book and discuss writing as a person of color.  

Onyebuchi briefly discussed the relationship between race and writing. He recounted a year-long stint playing the action-adventure video game “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” until he achieved the most coveted platinum trophy. Onyebuchi compared the frustration and ceaseless defeat that accompanies playing video games to what it feels like to write about race in America.  

“To have to breathe it, to take the clay of it and have to build the castle of a compelling narrative out of it. It’s despair, so much despair. It’s an impossible place to live in. And yet, that is what writers of color — what Black writers — are so often asked to do.“ Onyebuchi said 

Despite the seemingly dominant presence of sorrow in literature that deals with race, Onyebuchi encourages readers and writers to not let melancholia become the defining characteristic of this genre of text.  

“Perhaps the more revolutionary paradigm-shifting act is to locate the important elsewhere. To uncouple the personally difficult from the individually rewarding. It doesn’t have to hurt to be the right thing,” said Onyebuchi. “A game can change you without breaking you and so can a book. … Now I’m not saying don’t read my books, I’m saying you don’t just have to read the tough ones.”  

“Riot Baby” follows magically gifted siblings Ella and Kev as they grapple with their developing powers and the traumas of structural racism. Despite the youth of its protagonists, “Riot Baby” is the first of Onyebuchi’s books to not be targeted toward a young adult audience. Onyebuchi spoke about how he didn’t feel the intense nature of  “Riot Baby” could really find its voice within the confines of the young adult genre.  

“I don’t know that I’d be able to have characters speak the way that they speak in the book, were I to have it as a young adult work,” said Onyebuchi. “I do think that ‘Riot Baby’ would go against that underlying current of optimism that I do feel permeates a lot of young adult literature, even intense young adult literature.” 

When asked about his influences for “Riot Baby,” Onyebuchi, who is a lifelong fan of comics and anime, mused about his non-traditional literary influences, as well as the impact of contemporary works on future artists.  

“I’m a part of the OG Toonami generation so I can’t help but have that be in my storytelling diet,” said Onyebuchi. “I think that’s what’s really cool about this generation of creators in general …You ask some of these people: ‘What’s an example of a perfectly told story?’ Some people will say ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender!’” 

“A game can change you without breaking you and so can a book. … Now I’m not saying don’t read my books, I’m saying you don’t just have to read the tough ones.”

-Tochi Onyebuchi

Tochi Onyebuchi is also helping Marvel usher in a brave new era as the writer of a new Captain America series starring Sam Wilson in the eponymous role. “Captain America: Symbol of Truth” will be released in May 2022, and Onyebuchi is excited to present the world with a Black Captain America.  

“The question that I’m going to be exploring through ‘Captain America: Symbol of Truth’ is, what does it mean for the rest of the world to have a Black Captain America? And that is just so dope,” Onyebuchi said. 

The Equity and Social Justice Reading group was created by English professor Jason Courtmanche and Ph.D candidate Kiedra Taylor. The function of the group is to combat and change the pervasively White, male-centered curricula which prevents educators from effectively teaching students about race, equity or representation.  

Courtmanche wrote about the need for more inclusive texts in schools across the state in an Op-Ed for CT News Junkie last month. He cites evidence from a survey conducted with his colleague Danielle Pieratti on 161 curricula for University of Connecticut Early College Experience English courses. The study found that over 75% of syllabi texts had a White focus.  

“Even though we have allegedly been striving to improve diversity, multiculturalism, and pluralism in school curricula since at least my undergraduate years in the 1980s, curricula have actually not changed much at all,” Courtmanche wrote. “The literary canon is still mostly white, mostly male, and mostly dead.” 

While this talk marked the end of the short speaker series, you can check out their reading lists and learn more about how to get involved with the Equity and Social Justice Reading Group by visiting their page on the Connecticut Writing Project website.  

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