“Screamers,” by Tochi Onyebuchi

“Screamers,” by Tochi Onyebuchi.omenana_cover

Short story. Published in Omenana, November 2016.

This story was suggested for discussion by Chinelo Onwualu, who writes:

This story is a powerful meditation on disconnection and disenfranchisement as a father and son struggle with finding a way to understand each other while working to police a community that’s not theirs. It is layered and complex and incredibly timely for these troubled times we live in.

I loved the story because it showed such a high level of craft, deftly weaving together a lot of delicate threads to create something profoundly moving. I think that any discussions on it shouldn’t overlook what it has to say about race, class and disenfranchisement in today’s America. What really does happen to a dream deferred?

Read the story, and join the discussion!

Chinelo Onwualu is editor and co-founder of Omenana, a magazine of African speculative fiction. She is the author of a number of short stories and lives in Abuja, Nigeria.

9 thoughts on ““Screamers,” by Tochi Onyebuchi”

  1. Fantastic story. It’s full of nooks and crannies that I’m going to go back and reread, because I know I didn’t grok them properly the first time. But at the same time, it’s vivid and aching and immediate.

    What’s really been sticking with me is the “Scream unit” – the idea of officers steeling themselves to clinical detachment, in order to safely defuse literally explosive souls. That’s going to stick with me.

    I’ve a great many more thoughts about the story, but what’s pressing at me most is a question about the basic situation:

    But beneath it all was wonderment at why African-Americans made it so difficult for the Africans who had been brought in to police them.

    The division between the police — immigrants, “Nigerians, mostly, with some Ghanaians and a few Senegalese,” vs. the “just blacks” they’re ostensibly protecting, is stark and compelling. But idea that African immigrants were brought in to police African-Americans… I see the narrative sense to it, but I don’t see how or why such a decision and an effort might be made. It feels specific enough that I’m wondering if there’s some real-world context here, if there were actual initiatives of this sort that I don’t know about. Any thoughts?

  2. I _love_ this story. The whole issue is amazing but this is probably my favorite. The story says so much about empathy to me. That idea of the “Scream unit” and detachment that Standback mentions I thought was excellent, about how they had to be trained not to feel. But more than that, I thought the Screams themselves were just so powerful, that they represented all of this raw feeling, all the injustice that has stacked up and been institutionalized and just keeps hammering away. [SPOILERS] And I love that ending, the way that the main character is excited about what might happen. About the fact that this Scream might cut through all the training and the bullshit and allow him to feel something so beautiful and real and painful and difficult all at the same time. Especially with the use of metaphor it seemed to me about the power of art and the danger of art to the oppressors and those they would use to keep people down.

    1. Especially with the use of metaphor it seemed to me about the power of art and the danger of art to the oppressors.

      Interesting. That’s not the sense that I got from it.

      What tapestry of experiences and feelings could I walk into by opening this one? What if this one held that perfect combination of rage and joy, that perfect amalgam of loss and gain?

      There’s definitely art here, but… to me, it still seems detached. Elitist, in a way. He’s “sampled” souls before; he doesn’t seem to be treating them as human souls, but as a kind of… entertainment, to be consumed.

      Which actually brings me to another point: how do you interpret the ending? What do you see as the narrator’s final insight, and final action?

      “I don’t know why they did it, or why they thought I would do what I would do,” he concludes, but he doesn’t tell us what that is. To use the soul as a weapon, to inflict him on everybody, I assume, from the alarm and the evacuation.

      But… what exactly is he doing there? Is he trying to kill them, a convert to the protesters’ cause? Is he trying to share with them the perfect emotions he feels; expose them to the souls of those they’ve oppressed? Is there really a “solution to the mystery of the just-blacks,” as he says, and does joining them truly quiet his heart?

      I think he’s fully switched sides, found his purpose in destroying-by-soul, as the original Screamers and the silver-haired protesters did. But… it still seems ambigious. Did any of you have other interpretations?

      1. To me the Screams become a sort of art. That idea of the condensation of the soul speaks to me of the power of art. That people have died for it. That it still holds so much power. The notebook that he finds that his father filled with metaphors and then his drive to pick that up I felt was about him waking up, cutting through the emotional distance that is necessary for the work of oppression. That is the danger he is in, to truly feel what the Screams are communicating, which I feel goes deeper than violence. The moment the Screams cut through the walls he’s built is the moment when he has to face what his role in this has been, his role as a guardian of the status quo, as a tool of corruption and injustice. And yet he’s excited about the ending because art is exciting, freeing, even as it can be devastating. To me at least the ending speaks to the main character no longer being able to keep his emotional distance and no longer wanting to. He wants to experience the Scream without reservation, wants to be moved by it, and in a way wants to be killed by it, because that would mean at least that he’s still alive, that he’s not gone already. Fwiw, my review of this story and the whole issue just went up on QSR: http://quicksipreviews.blogspot.com/2016/11/quick-sips-omenana-8.html

  3. I didn’t really like the story.
    The first person narrative here provides you with a very narrow glimpse into the protagonist’s world, and that isn’t enough to fully understand what’s going, and why people are behaving the way they are.

    1. I was fuzzy on what, exactly, was going on the first time I read it. I had the general gist, and the thematics are through the roof — but there are definitely pieces that need to be put together.

      But I think the pieces are very clearly there.

      The way I understand it, there were *two* waves of Screamer deaths:
      The first wave, which the police saw as unsolved, “perfect” murders. Then the silver-haired woman told them they were “all suicides,” which seems a very odd explanation.
      Then the second wave — the envelope, with souls folded up inside them.

      I think the clear implication is that the souls in the second wave are those of the suicides in the first. It’s not stated, but I think it’s meant to be understood, that those suicides died in such a way as to create those envelope-souls, in order for those to be used as a weapon of the protest. Remember, the weaponized envelopes “weren’t hard to notice. Their targets were obvious, and despite the infighting amongst the growing number of protestors, the message the envelopes were meant to send was quite clear.”

      Is there anything else you felt wasn’t made clear?

  4. This ends up being a good illustration of why I’m currently sort of disconnected and disenchanted with the current state of the SF field. This is clearly a very well-done story, but the thing it’s doing is not a thing I particularly want.

    At its core, this is a literalized metaphor story, where the fantastic element is present because it reflects a particular emotional state on the part of the narrator and author. It’s making a particular point, and in service of that, everything about the world that doesn’t reinforce the point is de-emphasized to a level where it doesn’t feel quite real. Details like where it’s set and when (alternate past? dystopic future?) aren’t there because they don’t matter to the end purpose, which is to comment on current politics by capturing and literalizing a particular mood.

    And while the author does a great job of capturing the particular mood they’re after, it ends up missing a lot of what’s always been part of the attraction of SF for me, namely taking speculative elements and treating them entirely seriously. How does one encapsulate a tortured soul in an envelope? How did they figure out that that’s what’s happening? What other changes does that force on society and technology? None of that is explained, and honestly, none of it feels like it COULD be explained, because it doesn’t serve the mood-capturing, point-making purpose of the story. But in a lot of ways, I’d be more interested in seeing those things explored than what we actually get.

    And please note that I’m not saying the story is BAD because it’s directed in this very particular way, or that there’s anything wrong with the choice of mood and point-making and all that. The writing is very evocative, and the goal is an admirable one. Again, it’s very good at doing the thing that it’s doing, but the thing that it’s doing is not a thing I want from fiction right at the moment.

    That feeling, of an author doing a good job at a thing I don’t want, extends well beyond this story to the field as a whole. It leaves me feeling sort of cut off from the current SF field– which is, ironically, a bit like the narrator of this story.

    1. I definitely hear you on this. It’s great that you can spot where a story’s strengths lie, even when it’s not the stuff you enjoy. And that happens – with the volume and variety of short fiction, it tends to pretty much happen all the time. 😛

      I do understand what you’re talking about when you say that you’re feeling a trend. That’s probably beyond the scope of this one thread – but I might lob some other suggestions at you, on Twitter or something, see if we’ve got some cool exceptions. There’s so much being written, it’s just a matter of finding the stuff you like 🙂 And of course, for stuff you *do* like, our story recommendation page is wide open 🙂

  5. One of the things I really like about this story is the way that, over and over, is the many subtle ways lines are drawn between “us” and “them”. It’s almost in self-preservation, self-defense.

    The detachment of the Scream unit is the most extreme example. But it’s everywhere. The story opens drawing a line between the narrator and his father — “We were different like that” — and continues with a feeling that his father was this huge inexplicable mystery, even as he was immersed in his father’s life, his professional community, and followed in his footsteps in almost every way imaginable.

    The detectives — brought, for some reason I don’t understand, in order to police a black community, but both sides reject the idea that there’s any connection there. Designating the community they’re protecting as “just-blacks” is so dismissive, but it makes a *lot* of sense – its role is precisely to affirm their own identity.

    And the protesters themselves — we don’t know what, exactly, they’re protesting (although police brutality is definitely mentioned as part of it), but we do know that there’s “infighting amongst the growing number of protestors”.

    That’s a lot of what makes this story ache. So many near-misses, or things that might have been well-intentioned attempts, and yet throw barriers even higher. To my sorrow, I think these are dynamics that are well-observed and well-portrayed.

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