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 future educators at the Neag School of Education have come together virtually to ask questions about her book and discuss writing as a person of color. Photo courtesy of: UConn.edu

The Equity and Social Justice Reading Group wrapped up its short speaker series on April 7 with a talk by “Riot Baby” author Tochi Onyebuchi. English students and future educators at the Neag School of Education have come together virtually to ask questions about her 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 landed the most coveted platinum trophy. Onyebuchi compared the frustration and relentless defeat that comes with video games to what it feels like to write about race in America.

“Having to breathe it in, take the clay out of it and make it the castle of a compelling story. It’s despair, so much despair. It is a place where it is impossible to live. And yet, that’s what writers of color—what black writers—are so often asked to do. “, Onyebuchi said.

Despite the seemingly dominant presence of grief in literature that discusses race, Onyebuchi encourages readers and writers not to let melancholy become the defining characteristic of this genre of text.

“Perhaps the most revolutionary act of paradigm shift is to locate the important elsewhere. To decouple personal hardship from individual rewards. It doesn’t have to hurt to be the right thing,” Onyebuchi said. “A game can change you without breaking you, just like a book. … Now I’m not saying don’t read my books, I’m saying you shouldn’t just read the hardest ones.”

“Riot Baby” follows magically gifted siblings Ella and Kev as they grapple with their developing powers and the trauma of structural racism. Despite the youth of its protagonists, “Riot Baby” is the first of Onyebuchi’s books not aimed at a young adult audience. Onyebuchi explained that he didn’t think the intense nature of “Riot Baby” could really find its voice within the confines of the young adult genre.

“I don’t know if I would be able to make the characters speak the way they speak in the book, if I had it as a young adult,” Onyebuchi said. “I think ‘Riot Baby’ would go against that undercurrent of optimism that I think permeates a lot of young adult literature, even intense young adult literature.”

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

“I’m part of the OG Toonami generation, so I can’t help but have that in my storytelling regimen,” Onyebuchi said. “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, just like a book. …Now I’m not saying don’t read my books, I’m saying you shouldn’t just read the hardest 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 thrilled to introduce the world to a black Captain America.

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

The Equity and Social Justice Reading Group was created by English professor Jason Courtmanche and PhD candidate Kiedra Taylor. The group’s function is to challenge and change pervasive, male-centered curricula that prevent educators from effectively teaching students about race, equity, or representation.

Courtmanche has written about the need for more inclusive texts in schools across the state in a Op-Ed for CT News Junkie last month. He cites evidence from a survey he conducted with his colleague Danielle Pieratti of 161 programs for the University of Connecticut’s Early College Experience English courses. The study revealed that more than 75% of the texts in the program had a white accent.

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

Although this conference marked the end of the short series of speakers, you can view their reading lists and learn more about how to get involved in the Equity and Social Justice Reading Group by visiting their page on the Connecticut Writing Project website.

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