Home Fried

Home Fried

“Y’all are gonna be put through the wringer,” New Haven author Tochi Onyebuchi warns readers of his new novel, Goliath. Indeed: In the post-apocalyptic world of Onyebuchi’s debut adult fiction, intersecting crises of climate cataclysm, race war, mechanization, space colonization and gentrification (among others) super-charge the irradiated air, leaving the characters, and quite possibly the reader, gasping for breath. Yet Goliath is as targeted as it is sprawling, serving as a provocative lens through which to view the social topography of American cities, including the city Onyebuchi calls home.

The meld of cinematic science fiction, social justice polemic and historical and geographic grounding in Goliath reflects Onyebuchi’s multidimensional biography. He holds four degrees, including an MFA in screenwriting, a law degree and a master’s in global economic law. Born in Northampton, Massachusetts, to Nigerian immigrants, he grew up in New Britain and Newington and often visited cousins in New Haven. He studied political science at Yale and, after a short stint as a civil rights attorney in New York, settled in 2016 in New Haven, where he began a career as a writer of young adult fiction, video games, comic books and now adult fiction. “Knowing both worlds” of town and gown, he said during a talk last month at Ives Main Library, gave him perspective on what he sees as the “dynamics of exclusion” that play out in New Haven today and, in maximal form, in the New Haven he creates in Goliath.

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According to Onyebuchi, the novel began as a short story about the colonization of outer space. But he realized that all the characters he’d written, even the robots, were white. Where did the Black people go? His answer became the germ for Goliath: They were left behind on a smoldering Earth. Onyebuchi grounds his novel in the pain and promise of a group of Black New Haveners trying to make a life for themselves on the radioactive, war-torn planet the space colonizers fled. They spend their days hacking at the rubble of abandoned buildings to make piles of bricks to sell off to space, scraping out a living by mining—and undermining—their own neighborhoods, a poignant metaphor for how inequality can build on itself. By grounding his novel in the voices of those who never left, Onyebuchi gives voice to the communities that form in places that some urban planners, including those who spearheaded New Haven’s federally funded “renewal” projects of the mid-20th century, cast aside as “blighted,” paving highways through their centers.

In Onyebuchi’s radioactive, fast-paced prose, there is little room for subtlety. His background in screenwriting might explain a tendency to write episodically, with sharp cuts from scene to scene and setting to setting that suppress the nuance that may have developed during commercial breaks. But Onyebuchi’s use of space colonization to raise questions about gentrification is an intriguing metaphor. “So much of science fiction is taking present dynamics and extrapolating them into the future,” Onyebuchi said at a recent event at Ives Main Library. What happens when those with resources—whether living in space or the suburbs—suddenly take a greater interest in cities they once wrote off as too “dangerous”?

When Goliath opens, some residents of the space colony, simply called the Colony, find themselves drawn back to Earth by the thrill of danger and the vision of making one’s life from scratch. “We think of space as the final frontier,” Onyebuchi said. “But people will get bored of space.” If life on Earth is a seductive new playground for “augments”—the elites who undergo a “cyberization” process in which some of their organs are mechanized to be able to withstand the poisoned air—it’s a menacing hellscape for the “red-bloods,” who fall victim to cancer, poverty and overpolicing by cyberized law enforcement.

In the New Haven context, Onyebuchi turns the proverbial “Yale bubble” surrounding his alma mater into a physical reality. Before the Colony was built, city leaders constructed a physical dome over the “Ivy Quarter” containing Yale to shield inhabitants from radiation. As with the novel as a whole, Onyebuchi views the dome from the outside, from the margins: “a gauzy, beryl frontier fantasy so close as to be touched.” Resources concentrate under the protected area; meanwhile, street lights were removed from places outside the dome to help with construction of launchpads to space.

Through the devastating form of radiation in the world of Goliath, Onyebuchi explores how the tragic synergy of racism, poverty and environmental decay can produce stark health disparities. Visitors from the Colony, already augmented, wear sophisticated face masks; the stackers wear bandanas and hack up blood. In the language of a Colony correspondent visiting Earth, “where the sky is red and where the sky is blue is very much a matter of Black and white.” This “eco-apartheid” is extreme, but the dynamic is not entirely an invention of science fiction. Onyebuchi pointed to his family’s homeland of Nigeria, where an ongoing famine exacerbated (if not caused) by climate change has worked to further destabilize the country.

Goliath spans a multitude of times, settings, points of view, characters and even fonts, which can make for a head-spinning read. That seems to be the point: The seams of society have ruptured, the order broken down. Onyebuchi likened writing for adult audiences to performing in the X Games: “You try to pull off the most stylistically dangerous trick… That’s how you win.” What’s sacrificed in his authorial gymnastics is a degree of depth; the pacing is too quick, the settings too varied, the characters too many, to inhabit their inner worlds fully. But Onyebuchi lands his trick by rooting the novel in precise details, including the carefully wrought landscape of New Haven. “The more specific I got in my writing,” the author said, “the more people could relate to it.”

Some New Haveners may relate to Goliath’s depiction of their city more than others. There are many ways of experiencing New Haven, and a recent spurt of market-rate housing projects promises to change the landscape once again, literally and figuratively. As cities across the country grapple with the ongoing pandemic, climate change and unaffordable housing, among other crises, Onyebuchi has a message: Faster, better, smarter technologies won’t necessarily erase castes and can in fact exacerbate the gulf between them. Instead, solutions require stepping out of our silos and asking ourselves, Who might we be leaving behind? To put out the fire of a burning world, the first step is to feel the heat, and for that, Goliath is not a bad place to start.

by Tochi Onyebuchi
Where to Buy: RJ Julia | Bookshop.org | Amazon

Written by Steven Rome. Images 1, 3 and and 4, with 1 and 4 featuring Lauren Anderson and Tochi Onyebuchi, photographed by Alexandria Robison at Ives Main Library.

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