From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Interview: Tochi Onyebuchi

Tochi Onyebuchi is the author of Riot Baby, a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and NAACP Image Awards and winner of the New England Book Award for Fiction; the Beasts Made of Night series; and the War Girls series. He has earned degrees from Yale University, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Columbia Law School, and Sciences Po. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Omenana Magazine, Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America, and elsewhere. His nonfiction has appeared in Tor.com and the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, among other places. His most recent book is the non-fiction (S)kinfolk.

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So . . . you actually wrote Goliath even before your 2017 debut novel Beasts Made of Night. Now you have several books under your belt, plus notable short stories, plus some serious accolades, including your recent World Fantasy Award for novella Riot Baby. (BIG, BIG CONGRATS!!!) When you went back to look at Goliath, with more experience in both writing and publishing, what were the things that stood out to you as glorious, as wonderful? And what were the things that you felt needed fine-tuning?

First of all, thank you so much for the kind words. My career, from the earliest incarnation of Goliath to now, has been a wild journey in perhaps the best possible way. I feel exceedingly blessed. Throughout that time, I’d glanced back over my shoulder at Goliath, knowing that it was a thing I wanted to return to eventually. Even then, I knew it was too good to leave on a hard drive, too much of a finished thing, too much a representation of a massive skill jump. I knew I’d unlocked something when that book first came to life, and I wanted to return to that moment. I wanted to kind-of see what that was about. What kept me from diving back into it for so long—outside of general busy-ness—was that I knew what I wanted it to be, but I didn’t think I had the skills to make it that. (I still go back and forth on that.) I knew I wanted it to be bigger than it was—initially, it was about 57,000 words or so. I knew that I wanted it to be more polyphonic, more kaleidoscopic, more scopic, period. And I had models in mind—A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño—but those are such tremendous novels, and I didn’t think I could replicate in any meaningful way for another reader the sensation reading those books gave me. So, in a sense, the fine-tuning had to do with my own self and confidence in my own abilities.

Goliath is, at least partly, a post-apocalyptic story about a group of brick stackers, and came out of your short story “Still Life with Hammers, a Broom, & a Brick Stacker”, originally published in 2016’s Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora. Why brick stackers?

The idea came from a 1999 Chicago Reader piece by Tori Marlan called “Brickyard Blues” about brick stackers and the changing nature of the brickstacking industry in Chicago. I first read it back in 2012 and “Still Life” came out of me in a burst during the summer of 2013. I latched onto that particular activity (rather than, say, house cleaning or even farming) because immediately to me it seemed so tied to the notion of homes, their destruction and their building, and because the whole enterprise implicated labor and race and class in really interesting and knotty ways. The manual labor of brick stacking specifically gave me a new pinhole through which to explore the themes of the short story and, subsequently, the novel.

Just from getting to know you via interviews and the work I’ve read, I feel like your work often carries multiple layers and nuances, and the narratives reward thoughtful reading, not to mention looking beyond the obvious. What are the narrative elements or themes at play which may surprise people?

This book is a lot funnier than my previous work. Like, a lot funnier.

I read the Publishers Weekly profile on you, and they mentioned that Goliath is in conversation with a number of works, but it doesn’t say anything more. I would love for you to expand on this. At least, as far as the works which stand out most for you: the dialogues you are undertaking which excite you the most.

I was straight-up decapitated by the elliptical nature of Bolaño’s 2666. And I think it pulls off a narrative trick you sometimes see in mosaic novels like Gene Wolfe’s novella-triptych, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is to present these seemingly unconnected events and characters and not really articulate the linkages between them (except maybe thematic resonances). But the very fact of these things’ inclusion in the same book—between the same covers, in fact—means that there is a connection. And you as the reader must build that bridge yourself. “What does it mean that this is in here, and that this is in here too?”

I think, too, the use of symbolism in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano made a huge impression on me when I first read it. Everything meant something; it was like reading a novel full of hyperlinks. I was also captivated by Colson Whitehead’s use of a collage-style structure for John Henry Days, secretly my favorite book of his. There’s so much packed into it. It truly felt like a pregnant novel.

Arundhati Roy’s essays and books on environmental issues in India really opened my eyes to how government action, the lives of the underclass, and international institutions like the WTO and World Bank all mix with environmental concerns and energy in a way that often punishes the least among us. Goliath is, in many ways, me saying, “something like this happens here too, in our future.”

What was the most challenging thing about the structure of Goliath, and how did you make it work?

The most challenging thing about the structure of Goliath was restraint. I do a lot of really cool things narratively that I’d never done before, and I had to resist the impulse to just sort of spiral out of control and go completely wild with things, like Naruto going into four-tailed mode against Orochimaru and destroying everything around him. My editor Ruoxi Chen was very much a domesticating influence.

Many have described Riot Baby as “powerful” and Publishers Weekly describes Goliath as “urgent, gorgeous work.” What, for you, is the key to writing powerful fiction?

Write the thing that scares you, I think. My best work has emerged from that counterphobic impulse where, rather than run away from what hurts, I run towards it. It can be an incredibly destructive compulsion in real life, but, when applied to my storytelling, it has produced fiction I’m immensely proud of.

I think in some of your fiction you like to use technology which seems science fictional, but which is actually in use or in development; and sometimes you like to use science fictional ideas which seem to be right around the corner—taking things that exist, or things we are familiar with, to the next level in technological development. (I’m thinking of elements of your story “The Hurt Pattern” in anthology Made to Order.) Goliath takes us to 2050, and while there are some thematic echoes to War Girls, the science fictional focus is a bit different. What are some of your favorite science fictional world building tidbits from Goliath?

I like that these futuristic iron lungs aren’t made to make people superhuman but rather to give us the capability, quite simply, to survive in the conditions of this world we’ve broken. I sometimes call them Augments, but, really, it’s just us trying to get back to some sort of imagined baseline.

More broadly, 2050 has become a sort of catch-all recently for the Anthropocene meeting the consequences of the Industrial Revolution. Fires and floods, real Biblical stuff if you read the latest IPCC report, or even just look out your window or listen to the conversation in the ether right now. Often, worldbuilding will spin out of the idea that Tomorrow is punishment for Today. Very consequence-driven stuff. So the barren land, the poisoned air, the “Cancer Allies” of the book, so to speak, are merely a continuation of our Today. A punishment for our Today.

I read a recent interview where you spoke briefly about the idea of Kev (from Riot Baby) as fearing and hating white supremacist structures, but also feeling a certain security within them. The familiar oppression, the known quantity; the things we learn to navigate and expect, even if we detest them. I feel like I see elements of this idea in War Girls as well, but I could perhaps argue that you disrupt this sense of security with the intersection of characters and the chaos each meeting brings, ultimately shifting the details of oppression, until a new sense of security develops. How do these ideas, of the sense of security within oppressive systems, come to life in Goliath?

Life sucks on Earth in 2050. For these characters, at least. Like, it really, really sucks. But this is where their family lives. This is where they fall in love. This is where they play Spades and tell stories and get their hair braided. This is where their life happens in all its anguish and joy. That isn’t to say all those things can’t happen in a safer, healed environment; it’s only to recognize that our lives don’t stop in the cage. We still get dreams, and we still have our memories. We still have, somewhere nestled deep within us, the capacity to make a peace for ourselves or to try and climb the umbilical cord back to God or whatever Higher Power can grant us that peace we cannot make for ourselves. If we didn’t have that ability, we might not have gotten the Harlem Ballroom scene and vogueing.

What is the heart of Goliath for you? What do you want people to know about it, beyond reviews, beyond blurbs?

Magic is still possible after the apocalypse.

What else are you working on? What do you have coming up that readers should know about?

I’m at that blessed and simultaneously frustrating point in my career where I am working on things that I can’t yet talk about, haha. But I’ve been having a blast writing the Black Panther: Legends miniseries for Marvel Comics. It’s four issues retelling T’Challa’s origin story for younger readers, and it’s been such a wonderful, spiritually-regenerative endeavor. And the artists I’ve worked with are absolutely S-Tier. There are some short stories that might or should be out in the ether. But part of me delights in letting Goliath breathe for a little bit. I hope Goliath is a book readers can sit and be patient with.

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg is a 2021 and a 2022 World Fantasy Award Finalist as well as a 2022 Locus Award Finalist for his work as co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine. Arley is a 2022 recipient of SFWA’s Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award. He is also a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards: for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is a senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes, run workshops, and been a guest for Clarion West, the Odyssey Writing Workshop, Cascade Writers, Augur Magazine, and more. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Find him on Twitter @arleysorg. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.