Image by Kimberly Farmer

Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

The Lexicon - Ambit

One word, weekly. Found in a book. Shared with you.


Word: Ambit

Definition: (n) 1. circuit; compass

2. the bounds of limits of a place or district

3. a sphere of action, expression, or influence: scope

Origin: ME, fr. L ambitus, fr. ambire

Source: Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

"It's like, we don't get shot or stabbed, we get ourselves shot or stabbed, you know?" He talks with his hands in front of him, constantly putting his fist in his palm for emphasis. That's the whole ambit of his reach. He doesn't wave, doesn't point, just claps with his knuckles and palms.


Tochi Onyebuchi's Riot Baby is a fine-boned 173 pages. There is no excess here. Yet, somehow, in the snapshot moments like the one above, a rich and complicated and living truth emerges. These slim paragraphs describing Davis, a parolee in the Sponsored program with Kev, barely scrape out the details of his life, but readers understand him. They know what he's trying to do, and they worry about what might happen if he fails. They feel how small his ambit is.


Now that I know its meaning, I can see how ambit contains so much of what this book is doing and how. It, too, is traveling a tight circuit, maintaining a disciplined hold on its power without sacrificing meaning or emphasis. Each section is delineated by a place -- South Central, Harlem, Rikers, Watts -- clear boundaries separating one set of truths from another, the defined ambit of that geography. And then, there's the sphere of action or influence or expression. Onyebuchi's ambit is purposeful and full of richness, and where Davis' small clap of knuckles feels like a constraint, somehow Riot Baby feels cracked wide open. In its limits, it creates freedom.


Here's just one example. As Ella overhears an older man in jail, telling his grandson how he's learning chess, we see with Ella:

And the old man's words are brightly colored, even as Ella sees the man's imagination, sees the man and the inmate in the cell next door both drawing the board on pieces of paper and screaming their moves out to each other, and the loneliness washes purple over the image and reminds the older man about how dirty his cell was when he first moved in and how the only way to get Sanitation to come in and clean it was to stuff the toilet with books he was sent and flood the cell or to break the toilet so that the cell became unusable.

That's all we're given, and it is more than enough.

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