The PEN Ten: An Interview with Tochi Onyebuchi
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
There are a couple, clustered in my high school years. The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan was the book that made me want to be a writer. In the years prior, I had discovered I loved storytelling, and the external validation I got from my creative writing teachers in seventh and eighth grade seemed to indicate that I had a knack for it. But The Dragon Reborn, Book 3 in a fantasy saga I had been swallowed up by, was the first book that made me realize there was a someone behind the curtain, some being in corporeal form that had orchestrated this thing, this whole story and my emotional reaction to it upon finishing the book. I closed the book and saw the end scene in front of me still, an honest-to-God vision, and I realized that someone had done that to me. And if someone had done that to me, maybe I could do that to someone else. The other book is John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It set off my spy thriller obsession in high school and college and 1. taught me that some people lie simply because they are good at it and 2. you can write beautifully about geopolitical conflicts. The Cold War and terrorism and big pharma in Africa aren’t just about spycraft and gunrunning and the machinations Great Powers; there’s human drama in the midst—perhaps even at the center—of these things.
“As some are drawn to bars and others to churches, I’m drawn to bookstores and libraries. They’re sanctuaries. They’re sanctuary. Hope germinates in me that osmosis will take place and whatever goodness is in those books that got them a place on those shelves will leak into me and I’ll produce something that could someday go there.”
2. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
I fell in love with fiction long before I discovered narrative nonfiction (which wouldn’t happen until a year or two after college), so fiction was, and in many ways remains, the most effective method for me to write past the facts of an issue and into the heart of the matter. Often, that matter is myself and my own emotional preoccupations. My father passed when I was 10 years old, and it’s no coincidence that much of my early writing is caught up in the business of father-son relations. And in film school, I wrote a screenplay about a recovering alcoholic writer trying to make amends to his boxer brother by returning home to their post-industrial factory town, and the chaos that his arrival brings about. Writing was a way into my fears and acted as a sort of clarifying agent. My anxieties tend toward the apocalyptic; whether job-related or in the context of romantic relationships, the slightest worry (do I need to get another job to make rent on time; she didn’t like my Instagram post tagging her, will she leave me?) snowballs into cataclysm. Writing assumes many of the dynamics of talk therapy in that respect. Outside of myself, it’s another way of getting into the human drama at the center of government policy or socioeconomical analysis. I think part of the reason Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” (though not fiction) was so successful is that it’s, among other things, the story of Clyde Ross. Same with “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” Sure, fiction can be argument, but when it’s purely screed, it loses, I think, much of what enables that empathetic impulse. Which is kind of why I drifted away from John Le Carré’s later work, post-The Constant Gardener/Absolute Friends. The truth of Ozark destitution in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone is, I think, more effective in getting us to care about the people there and their complication and their dramas than any New York Times or Atlantic exposé. I don’t know that I’ve come across a more devastating takedown of empire and its capitalistic engine than what I found in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy told me more about Detroit than the dozens of deep-dive analyses I’d read in everywhere from The New Yorker to Business Insider. An article or essay can tell us ‘why,’ but a piece of fiction can tell us why.
3. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
Because I’m often working on so many things simultaneously and in different states of completion, an idea has enough time to germinate in my mind and find form by the time I’m able to put keystrokes to Scrivener. Momentum is interesting in that respect, because when the idea first strikes (whether in the form of an image or a question I want to explore), I’ll want to write it right away on some love-at-first-sight tip. But I’ll be contractually obligated to complete other work in the meantime, so I’ll have to let both me and the idea mature a bit before we can get into the business of truly loving each other. In terms of creative process, I’ll put together the broad brushstrokes of the idea (main character/s, place or what the place is based on, story arc), then I’ll start doing a chapter-by-chapter outline. And while I’m putting together the outline, I’ll begin drafting so that my headlights only show me the bit of road directly ahead of me and I can still be surprised by things that pop up in the drafting that may affect me later down the line. With Beasts Made of Night, Crown of Thunder, and War Girls, I had the outlines all the way done before I sat down to draft, and part of that is just the relationship I have with my editor on those books, with the understanding that the outline is a living document. Riot Baby had no outline. It came to me out-of-order too. The Harlem chapter and some Rikers scenes were originally part of a larger work and a writer-friend convinced me that there was a separate story there. When I broke it out, Watts came. And that was the version that initially sold. It was all jumbled up differently too. And working with Ruoxi, I figured out its current structure. South Central was the last piece of the puzzle and once that clicked into place, I had the whole book in front of me. As far as momentum, I love writing. It’s a genre of spiritual communion for me. I go to the same place I go when I’m deep into prayer or when I hear a rendition of “O, Holy Night” that lifts me out of my body. Chariots of Fire is one of my favorite movies, and there’s a character—a China-born Scottish missionary training for the 1924 Olympics—and after one training montage, his sister airs her concerns that he’s so caught up in running and training that he’s neglected his responsibility to take up the family mission in China. And he tells her “I know God made me for a purpose. But I also know he made me fast. And when I run, I feel His presence.” That’s it. That’s the tweet, so to speak. The story I’m telling excites me, but the telling of it—the act of writing—excites me even more. It feels…good. Almost narcotic. I also love getting better at it. Shooting in the gym. And when I can pull a craft-thing off that I couldn’t before…the only feeling that’s come close has been finally beating a boss I spent 17 hours on in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
4. How can writers affect resistance movements?
Writers are in the business of mythmaking and imaginings, and imaginings are what, among other things, power resistance movements. Things can be better is an act of imagining, and writing concretizes that in very discrete fashion. Another element of mythmaking, particularly among marginalized communities, is an unveiling. Black writers revealing to a wider audience the interiority—the SOULS—of black folk. Trans narratives unveiling for a wider audience the multiplicity of their experience. In a way, the other side of things can be better is I didn’t know it was like this. Those are the two parties on opposite sides of the table, and writing is the table. That’s why journalists get thrown in prison or jail. It’s why, say, a school or library might try to ban Angie Thomas’s books. There’s an unveiling that the status quo considers dangerous, because, then, those who previously suffered from a poverty of imagination (oppressors, knowing and unknowing) can or are forced to reckon with that I didn’t know it was like this that can then turn into things can be better. Writing’s far from the only ingredient (organizers, insurgent law makers, student activists and the professors/administrators who can choose to be on the right side of history are also other elements of the stew), but there is no President Barack Obama without Toni Morrison. At the same time, there’s the temptation to look to writers as oracles. Black writers called to give talks on “the race question in America” for instance, who then get asked by perhaps well-meaning white folk “how do we solve the problem of race in America” and it’s like, look, this book was inspired by anger at police shootings and anime, I can’t tell you how exactly you can enact change in your community, you gotta figure that out on your own. Some writers are able to do it. Baldwin was able to do it. Arundhati Roy was and is able to do it.
“I think in America, the biggest threat to free expression is, paradoxically, American publishing.”
5. What is your favorite bookstore, or library?
Early on during my time as a film student at NYU, I was perpetually poor and hungry and angry. I was learning a lot, about story and recovery and drama and myself, and I was occasionally sleeping on the couch on our program’s floor (I believe it was the seventh floor of our building) when I couldn’t find anywhere else. During off-hours, I would wander to The Strand and just walk and be around books. It was only a few blocks north so I didn’t need to use any subway credit to get there. And my hometown library was a 3.5hr bus ride plus 15-20 mins in a taxi away. As some are drawn to bars and others to churches, I’m drawn to bookstores and libraries. They’re sanctuaries. They’re sanctuary. Hope germinates in me that osmosis will take place and whatever goodness is in those books that got them a place on those shelves will leak into me and I’ll produce something that could someday go there. That was my thinking in 2010-2011. Of course, I would want to buy some of those books, simply to possess them, to take a piece of that peace with me and hold it whenever I couldn’t be there. But a book purchased sometimes meant a meal foregone. Occasionally, it was worth it. Still, a stroll, however brief, through The Strand was enough to cure whatever spiritual malady I was suffering from at the time, even if only for a time. Almost as though nothing bad could touch me there. I was struggling to figure out screenplays and stageplays, but I knew books. I knew how to write them. And reading them never felt like struggling to decipher hieroglyphics. The Strand was always there waiting for me. As incredible and welcoming as every bookstore and library I’ve been to in my journey as a published writer, this place was there when I needed a place like it. I will love it forever.
6. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
In some places, it’s direct government repression, of course. But I think in America, the biggest threat to free expression is, paradoxically, American publishing. On the journalism front, you have these media conglomerates gobbling up and cannibalizing local news to put in place homogenized messaging that eradicates the ability of local journalists to raise local concerns. And in our paper of record, myopic both-sides-ism wearing the cloak of majestic neutrality has become perhaps the greatest trick the devil ever pulled re: journalism. In disregarding the existing power dynamics that privilege straight white male voices off the rip, platforming them in the name of objectivity (or page views) diminishes if not outright obliterates minority viewpoints. Same thing re: Twitter where the automatic and systemic privileging of whiteness and maleness results in the harassing of others into their own silos or off the platform entirely. And when you ignore the warning signs raised by those voices on Twitter re Gamergate and #yourslipisshowing, you get a lot of what the current American political situation is. In November 2019, Publishers Weekly published their annual Salary Survey, and their graphs showed that American publishing is 84% white. Non-Hispanic black/African-Americans accounted for 2%. When the editors (acquiring and otherwise), marketing department, cover designers, publishing house presidents, copy editors, production editors, etc., are majority white, what hope is there for the unveiling of stories that don’t center or prioritize or accord themselves somehow to either the white experience or the White Gaze? Even when stories featuring black characters are told, the majority, in my experience, have been about the pain they endure, pain specific to their blackness. I know this isn’t a book, but it’d be dope to see a Marriage Story or The Irishman that had or was about black folk. The best season of Boardwalk Empire was Season 4 and I’m convinced that the show could have been the paradigm-shifting post-Sopranos juggernaut HBO wanted it to be if they’d made it Chalky’s story all along. Now, my journey so far as a career author has been very charmed. I’m lucky. I’ve been able to get away with writing exactly what I’ve wanted to write and to, so far, make a living at it. I’m only a few years in, though, so I’ll report back as I get deeper into this thing. Now, I know I just talked a lot about black pain in stories and Riot Baby is a book explicitly and specifically about black pain, but it’s a book I wanted to write and laden with influences I brought with me. Anime, the Bodega Boys, the X-Men, ScHoolboy Q, etc. And I’ve been lucky to work with people who, at every step of the way, have serviced my vision and helped me refine it and who have shouted the virtues of my story from the rooftops. That’s been my situation with Beasts, with Crown, and with War Girls. And it’s most certainly been my situation with Riot Baby. Shoutout to Ruoxi and Caro and Jaya and Irene. Rather than push back, they’ve all pushed me forward with their contributions. I’m lucky. My only wish is that this were the norm. It’s a unicorn situation, and it needs to be standard operating procedure across the entire industry. I hope more decision-makers ask themselves “who’s in our masthead?” and “who’s acquiring books for us?”
7. How does your identity shape your writing? How does the history of where you are from affect your identity, and in turn, your writing?
Beasts Made of Night was the very first book I wrote with my DNA and Nigerian heritage in it. And the book I wrote before that, Goliath, was the first book I wrote with a black protagonist. I was a good writer before, I knew that much. But when I wrote Goliath, I leveled up. In a serious way. Prose, the adventurous story structure, character insight, all of it, it felt like I’d gone Super Saiyan. I don’t know that writing about black people made me better, but I know that once I started doing that and writing more concretely into my own experience, I got better at this. Identity played an interesting role in my getting published, too. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two editors who acquired my debuts—my YA and adult debuts—were women of color. Not only did Tiff Liao, before she went to Henry Holt, take me on at Razorbill with Beasts, but she encouraged me to make it more Nigerian, to really lean into that as the story backdrop. She essentially pushed me to take ownership of this story. She took a chance on me and if she was swinging for the fences, she wanted me to swing similarly. And it’s a wonderful bit of serendipity and full-circle-itis that I’ll be working with Ruoxi again on Goliath, the book that started so much of this. Goliath was also the first book I wrote set in the city I live in. That screenplay about the alcoholic writer and his brother was based in my hometown, where I grew up, and this book had a familiar, non-New York, setting that I could draw from and that I felt a sense of permanent connection to. It was in my blood. I wasn’t writing a story set in a place I’d studied abroad in or worked in or went to see friends in. I was writing stories, suddenly, set in places that held distinct emotional memories tied to fundamental and permanent parts of me. I was writing about home. Several homes, but all of them under that umbrella of the word Home. That screenplay was Rock Lee taking off his leg weights during his fight with Gaara. Goliath was me unlocking the First of the Eight Gates, and by Beasts Made of Night, I could open a couple more of those joints. By the time I wrote War Girls, I was probably up to the Fifth Gate. With Riot Baby, I’m able to perform jutsus I never thought possible before.
“There is such a glorious Eden of young poets of color blossoming right now.”
8. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Have you ever written something you wish you could take back?
As far as what’s made it to print, I think the ending to Riot Baby might be it. And I won’t say why for those who haven’t yet read it. I think another candidate might be War Girls. A dual silence smothers the Biafran War that shattered Nigeria between 1967 and 1970. There’s the official government/societal silence; the war generally not taught in schools, and there’s been no public reckoning. Additionally, there’s the familial silence that, I think, is familiar to a lot of first- or second-gen writers who are now excavating the national traumas of their homelands through fiction. For our (grand)parents, the trauma may be too near, and that was a fear that dogged me through the writing of War Girls. My mother was a child at the outbreak of hostilities. Was I reinjuring her with this book? I don’t wish to take that story of sisters Onyii and Ify back, but it was the first time I was scared to write something because of how it might affect someone who wasn’t me. I do worry sometimes, though. I’ve spent much of my life angry, and anger still propels and blankets me, and I have to be cognizant that, in writing out of anger, I’m not exacting vengeance or vindictively beating down someone who can’t fight back. I have a power now that I didn’t have before, a platform. And if Auden’s poetry has taught me nothing else, it’s that a little bit of the dictator lives in all of us.
9. Which writers working today are you most excited by?
I will read anything and everything Leslie Jamison writes. My God, her X-ray vision, her self-awareness, her fearlessness. It’s all there in her prose and how she writes about the writing and researching and how she talks about her process; it’s electric. There is such a glorious Eden of young poets of color blossoming right now with Danez Smith, Hanif Abdurraqib, Eve L. Ewing, Kaveh Akbar, Logan February, Ocean Vuong, Jericho Brown, Momtaza Mehri, Solmaz Sharif, I could go on. And what an incandescent thing that is to be able to say. Also, whenever any of the aforementioned writes prose, it feels less like a venturing than a gift-giving. An act of generosity. Lastly, I have to give a hearty and grateful shoutout to Ken Liu who has been almost single-handedly responsible for the cannonade of Chinese science-fiction newly available in the West over the past half-decade. On that front, perhaps the upcoming novel I’m jonesing hardest for is Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds.
10. Why do you think people need stories?
They provide relief. Sometimes, it’s the relief of the same genre as what we find in a church sanctuary when the minister ascends to the pulpit and late-morning sunlight is blasting through the windows behind him to gild him and the congregants before you as the choir reaches the climax of the doxology. Sometimes, it’s the relief of a kind yet somehow firm-and-gentle hand at the back of the neck, kneading away not sorrow but the loneliness that can attend it. Sometimes, it’s the relief of discovering you’re no longer bound by the laws of gravity and that, yes, you can actually fly. Sometimes, it’s an answer. Stories do all of these things for us. I’m convinced we’d be utterly lost without them.
Tochi Onyebuchi is the author of the young adult novel Beasts Made of Night, which won the Ilube Nommo Award for Best Speculative Fiction by an African; its sequel, Crown of Thunder; and War Girls. He holds a B.A. from Yale, an M.F.A. in screenwriting from the Tisch School of the Arts, a master’s degree in economic law from Sciences Po, and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. His fiction has appeared in Panverse Three, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Obsidian, Omenana magazine, Lightspeed, and Uncanny. His nonfiction has appeared in Nowhere magazine, the Oxford University Press blog, Tor.com, and the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, among other places. Riot Baby is his adult fiction debut.