TPC Member, Maddy, interviews
Tochi Onybuchi, Author of Crown of Thunder
Maddy: What colors make you happy?
Tochi: Oh my goodness. Um, let’s see, whenever I see purple I think of the cover of Beasts Made of Night and so that always makes me happy. Blue is my absolute favorite color. Particularly royal blue. I like that nice deep meaningful blue. That blue that suggests a dark history. That blue with a complicated pass.
Maddy: How has current political turmoil in America in politics affected your writing?
Tochi: One of the things that I think it has done that is really important, particularly for writers that are coming from, you know sort of marginalized background or who may feel particularly targeted or dispirited by a lot of what’s going on, is it’s made me angry, or it’s made me be able to to channel that rage or that anger into my writing. It feels more important now to be able to tell stories involving and centering people from marginalized backgrounds, people who may find themselves the targets of political and systemic oppression, to put them at the center and at the forefront of a lot of stories. Representation is as important as it’s ever been, if not more so. So to show the immense variety of experience of a lot of these people, that is one of the biggest ways in which we can increase empathy. And I think that’s one of the most fundamental things that we can do in terms of ameliorating the situation with regards to the politics in this country.
Maddy: Do you believe true equality in the US as possible?
Tochi: I do. I think it’s going to take a lot, but I think it’s going to take a lot from people who are not used to having a lot demanded of them. I think people talk about, you know, racial equality and a lot of the times people talk about what people of color can do to help against racial equality. But a lot of the power is in the hands of white people in this country. It’s, you know, largely white Americans who are lawmakers, who can determine, who can vote, and it’s largely white lawmakers and white officials who are in charge of our prisons, our jails and whatnot, and the conditions in which people are held there it’s in the power of white people to change those things. You start to see a lot of white people selling their homes moving to a different neighborhood after a few black families move in and they, you know, they may not think of themselves as racist or what they’re doing is racist but that very sense of being uncomfortable is. Living with people who are different from they are, living in the same neighborhood, because people who are different from you, that contributes to systemic inequality. And it’s not people of color who are creating that situation. You know, it’s a lot of the white homeowners who are moving away and then all of a sudden, because we have a system of financing education that’s based on property taxes, you know, the quality of your schools will often be determined by the tax bracket of the people who live in that neighborhood. So you have wealthy bankers living in your neighborhood, you’re going to have fantastic public schools, but if you don’t have those people living in your neighborhoods, you’re going to have much lower quality of public education. And so when you have these white families moving out, it has all these ripple effects, and it’s in the power of white people to change that. So I do think it is possible but I think it’s going to require a lot of soul searching.
Maddy: How did your time studying France affect your personal views?
Tochi: So the very first time that I went to France was in high school. It was a study abroad program. That’s the very first time for me traveling abroad that didn’t involve a family trip. I was on my own and was in complete immersion. All my classes were in French, and I’d been taking French for maybe like a couple but I was nowhere near where I needed to be to make it work, but I made it work. And that was very instructive to me because it showed me what I was capable of if put in that situation. That’s one of the greatest decisions that I ever made was studying abroad. I’m not very good at like giving advice to people, but the one thing that I can say unequivocally is if you ever, ever, ever have the opportunity to study abroad whether in high school or college take it. I never met a person who studied abroad who regretted it. I think there’s incredible utility in being exposed to other cultures; other ways of experiencing the world and perspective too. I think as Americans, it’s very easy to think that everything that happens here in this country is the most important thing in the world but studying in France, there’s all types of stuff going on there that’s both worse and better than what’s going on here. And so there’s this interesting perspective shifts that can happen. It showed me a lot of things that I then proceeded to sort of fall in love with in terms of this other culture. Also, my favorite writer of all time, Alexandre Dumas is French and it wasn’t until that trip to France that I found out he was black. And to me was the most validating experience that I’ve ever had. Seeing a guy who’s like the most popular writer in France was the same color as me was super important.
I also spent some time in the West Bank in Ramallah, doing work with prisoners rights organization that advocate on behalf of Palestinian prisoners that were held in Israeli prisons, and that was super meaningful for me, and that was part of what got me interested in social justice issues, particularly with regards to criminal justice and incarceration in the United States. So seeing how it happened in another country. That was like wait a second. I really need to figure out how this is happening in my own life.
Maddy: Do you have any secret passions?
Tochi: This is something that I actually haven’t talked about in a very long time. But I love video game music. I got into it when I was in middle school or high school. On the side I was like a music producer. And so there’s this music software called fruity loops and you’d download it and then you can download MIDI files of video games. So for example the theme from the ice level in Sonic three or one of the Super Mario Brothers themes and I will make remixes. So I would make a techno remix of this theme. I haven’t necessarily had time to go back to it but oh my goodness I made bangers.
Maddy: In what ways do you think the American education systems is flawed?
Tochi: I think that we need to be much more honest and exacting about how American history is. I was able to go to a boarding school for high school and so I was able to take electives and seminars on all these specific things but were it not for that, I have all these friends and public schools that had to learn about these things on their own. Black kids that had to learn about Jim Crow on their own or, you know, just like from their parents who experienced them or their grandparents who experienced slavery. They’ll be like the slavery unit in American history, well like it was a huge chunk of American history but we barely covered it. And there’ll be books that are put out now that are like the happy slave etc. So I think particularly with regards to American history, we could do a much better job of showing the blemishes because a lot of people grow up to be adults still believing this version. It breaks my heart and frustrates me to no end to hear people talk about how the civil war we started over states rights. You know, people will get told that in high school or like middle school when they’re learning about the Civil War and that perspective will never get challenged. They will live their entire lives thinking and having reinforced the thought that the Civil War was about states rights and about tyranny and about the federal government instead of slavery and nobody over all those years, all those decades, nobody will tell them that. No teacher, no classmate, no one that will ever tell them that.
Maddy: How has writing Black Enough been different than Crown of Thunder?
Tochi: So when I was first asked to contribute to this anthology, Black Enough, I was over the moon because you look at some of the people that are also like in that anthology like Jason Reynolds is in it, Nic Stone’s got a story in it, these are my heroes. These are Titans in the industry, and it was wonderful because it was an opportunity for me to write contemporary which I’d never done before. And also another passion of mine is metal. I’m a huge metal head and my favorite band of all time the System of a Down and I have been trying to find a way to express my love for them and the story for the longest time and I finally got to do it. So that story in Black Enough is my love letter to System of a Down.
Maddy: What’s the best advice anyone ever given you?
Tochi: So Elizabeth Bear is a very dear friend of mine, and sort of one of my writing mentors. And she wrote one time that the advice that she would give would be to fail brilliantly. And that’s to say that you should always shoot your shot. You know, you should always try to do the most difficult, audacious thing with your writing that you believe you can do, and recognize that it might not always be a complete success. Like, if something seems too difficult, do it, do it anyway. Shoot your shot.
Maddy: What is your biggest regret in in life?
Tochi: I do wish in life that I’d been more present for my siblings. So I’m the oldest of four, my father passed away when I was 10. And very early on, you know, just sort of growing up in a Nigerian household and being the oldest of four there’s all this pressure to be the man of the house, right? And so I internalize that as trying to be some sort of replacement father when I was 11 years old. There’s no way I could provide for my family but in my head that’s what it sort of manifested as, and I wish I’d focus more of my energies on being a good older brother to my siblings and being more present for them. We all love each other immensely now but that was something that I wish I’d gotten earlier.
Maddy: What aspect or event of your life do you believe defined you the most as a person?
Tochi: I think I think my father passing away is a big one in part because it really brought us all together and brought the family together in a way that might not have been possible otherwise to become super tight. I love them more than anything in the world. Nobody makes me laugh the way that my family makes me laugh. And I think one of the reasons for that is with all the sort of sadness and grief that our family has endure. Happiness and joy are super important to us and like any opportunity we have to create that for ourselves. There’s one weekend recently where I was able to come home and I didn’t have any deadlines or any work that I need to do. I just showed up and all the kids were home, mom was home, so we literally spent the entire weekend watching movies on this new TV. And then the very next day, you know, after we got back from church mom had cooked this wonderful meal and we just chilled in the living room and watched a Wrinkle in Time. It was one of the most blissful periods of my entire life because I got to spend it with people that I love more than anything in the world. But yeah, I think that his passing was the biggest thing because it forced us to be alchemists; forced us to take pain and turn it into gold.