• The Hard, Familiar Truths of Rion Amilcar Scott’s Invented World

    The Author of The World Doesn't Require You in Conversation with Danielle Evans

    It was Rion Scott’s first week as a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and by any measure it had been a busy one. He had only been assigned an office the day before, but had already taught his first class and was preparing for the second. Though rave reviews had been pouring in all week, his new story collection, The World Doesn’t Require You had been properly launched at DC’s Politics and Prose just the night before. He got an earlier peek at the book on store shelves during a family trip to a local bookstore, where his son and would-be publicist was so excited to see it that he held the book up and began yelling at passing patrons to “Come see the writer Rion Amilcar Scott!”

    When I went to campus to see the writer, I got lost four separate times in a labyrinthe humanities building not unlike the one I work in on a different campus. I also ran into multiple friends, one of whom I hadn’t seen in years, both of whom pointed me in the right direction to Scott’s office. It was a fitting beginning to a conversation about a book that is, as much at it is about the weight and occasional absurdity of race and history and the making of shared identity, also about the strange sense of community and loneliness that pervades academia.

    The World Doesn’t Require You is Scott’s second published collection set in the world of Cross River, a fictional city founded after a successful slave rebellion. The first, Insurrections, won the PEN Robert W. Bingham Award for a debut collection and the Hillsdale Award. Readers of both books will recognize the landscape and some recurring references, but this second collection moves more of the action to the outskirts—literally, to the abandoned plantations that circle the developed city, where the landscape tends toward wilderness, collects outliers and people in search of something, and seems prone to burning down, and also figuratively, to the mythology of the past, the fraught technological possibilities of the present, to the city’s lingering magic. We are at once in the future and the past of Cross River; some stories revisit familiar characters while others shift the landscape—parts of the Southside, formerly impoverished and recently flooded, we are told on page one, are now lightly gentrified and connected to Cross River’s majority-white neighbor city by a bike path.

    “Insurrections was largely fever-dream realism,” Scott said. “This book is decidedly not. It tips over into the magical from the first story. I think of this book as the first one’s evil twin brother. I want to keep complicating Cross River by putting the real alongside the magical alongside the sci-fi alongside whatever else I can think up. I want to see how much I can bend it before it breaks.”

    The world of Cross River certainly holds up in this collection, though the pressure to make the truth of the world reveal itself, to find the most illuminating way to communicate something about the truth of the place and the truth of being a person in it, haunts many of its characters. In “Nigger Knockers,” a story that lives up to its provocative title, one character, still trying to save a project past the point of failure, tells another, “Go home, write a poem or something about this night and include it in the dissertation. We could open a chapter with it,” and gets the response “You don’t ever give up, do you Deez? Hey, how’s this for poetry? So much depends on a red brick crashing through the window of a racist neighbor’s house.”

    In the collection’s first story, a musician struggles to invent what will become the Cross River sound and, as the practical conditions of their life deteriorate during his quest for greatness, is met with the increasing frustration of his wife, who points to the Bible and demands, “Tell me where it says being mediocre is a sin.” Later, in a story about a musician whose less committed quest for greatness has failed, Scott writes, “Don’t tell me that you have no living emptiness inside you or that yours is smaller than a fist or a beating heart.” That struggle—to force terrible events to have discernible meaning, to transcend mediocrity and communicate something original, to make the living emptiness less empty but no less alive—is a human project but also an artistic one. It’s a challenge that trips up many of the book’s characters, but shows the author to have developed his own voice and ways of revelation.

    “Sometimes these prestigious titles mean you can’t pay your rent.”

    “As a writer I had very little confidence before the first book,” Scott said. “I had confidence enough to submit it, but then after that it’s rejection rejection rejection. I didn’t expect the reception [of Insurrections] because for so long people didn’t understand what I was doing. Some of that was me learning to speak more clearly within the work.”

    “With each story I feel like I’m inventing [Cross River] anew,” Scott said. “I liken it to Springfield in The Simpsons—unburdened by the weight of what happened in the last episode. People in Cross River deal so much in myth that it can change shape for each story.” When he first started working on the stories, Scott imagined there would be a recurring character who served as a touchstone—his “Yunior” Scott said, referring to a recurring character in Junot Diaz’s work. As he continued to write, Scott found that the character he imagined serving that purpose became less interesting to him and mostly receded from the work. “I realized that Cross River is my returning character.”

    The process of long-term revision, and coming back to older work as a new writer, can be daunting. Scott thinks a lot about the ways he has changed since starting the first stories in his project. He is working, deliberately and carefully, with loaded images and fraught history.

    Parenthood is a major part of his life now—“having a child gives you so many more ideas and so much less time to enact them,” he said—and both fatherhood and his own maturity give him more cause to wrestle with the images and messages in his work, especially with questions about how to write about men and masculinity without uncritically reproducing the carelessness his characters can sometimes express toward women. He is aware of the particular risks of satire and absurdity in a culture that is so used to representing black lives as absurdity and excess, and thinks about how he’ll have to live with his work in the long term. “I don’t want to be the guy who wrote The Anarchist Cookbook,” Scott said. “I don’t want to write something I can’t live with because idiots take it and do bad things with it.”

    One check against the pressure to be properly representative is the moment in which Scott finds himself publishing. Scott mentioned Maurice Ruffin’s recent novel, We Cast a Shadow, and the story collections A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley and Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires as particularly interesting to be in conversation with.

    “I’ve always seen blackness as having so many ways to do and be. That’s what I learned from going to and teaching at an HBCU—there’s such a multiplicity of blackness. A lot of the voices that are coming out are really showing that,” he said, noting how different these books feel from each other and from his own work.

    Though Scott is cautious about the possibility for his work to be misinterpreted, the new book doesn’t shy away from volatility. Stories feature a trippy drug-fueled Wizard of Oz homage that opens with underground railroad reenactors and ends at a party full of loaded stereotypes gathered at an abandoned plantation, a man who performs sympathy to women in order to seduce them, a would-be musician who is destroyed by his own failed ambitions and becomes destructively obsessed with a harder-working rival and a series of women he believes are obligated to save him, and a semi-sentient robot who’s slowly fighting the programming that has designed him to be a natural servant called Little Nigger Jim.

    He is aware of the particular risks of satire and absurdity in a culture that is so used to representing black lives as absurdity and excess.

    In Scott’s hands these are complicated, evocative stories. Slim—the musician haunted by his own failure to be great—appears in two separate stories, as does Jim the robotic servant. There’s something satisfying about the way that in both cases the earlier stories leave their protagonists in a state of suspended animation—a trap there may yet be a way out of—but return to them to reveal that they are not only still trapped but perhaps worse off than we initially believed. It’s a choice that allows the reader to feel the sharpness of the passage of time, and part of what gives the book the feeling Scott said he wanted for it—a story collection that isn’t trying to be a novel but has the gravity of a longer project.

    The full title of the Wizard of Oz riff is “Rollin in My Six Fo’—Daa Daa Daa—with All My Niggas Saying: Swing Down Sweet Chariot and Let Me Riiide. Hell Yeah”; it comes from the chorus of Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride,” which samples a Parliament Funkadelic Song that borrows from an old spiritual used to send people on the run from slavery in the right direction. The story’s deliberate play with absurdity is in dialogue with that playful and painful and absurd musical lineage and with the playful and painful absurdity of the world itself; the imagined existence of underground railroad reenactors is delightful and no less ridiculous than their real-world counterparts who play-act the Civil War.

    In Cross River, history exists as triumph and baggage, as an origin story worthy of pride and also as shame and satire and flat-out lie. The foundational myths of the Cross River insurgency come most into focus in the hands of the unreliable narrator of the concluding novella, “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies.” In his particular telling, they are bloodier and more marked with infighting and betrayal than previous glimpses of the rebellion itself have been.

    I read The World Doesn’t Require You the week after The New York Times launched The 1619 Project, an exploration of the myriad legacies of slavery 400 years after the arrival of the first enslaved Africans. The history of Scott’s Cross River is imagined, and even within its fictional world, often misrepresented by characters with their own agendas, but the town—from its characters’ interior lives to the ring of surrounding plantations—is very much haunted by slavery, and Scott understands wrestling with that legacy as part of his project.

    “It was really serendipitous for my book to come out at a time when we are being asked by some of our most prominent intellectual voices to reckon with our foundational myths, and for the book to arrive on the very anniversary of the start of chattel slavery on this land…” he said. “What the responses to 1619 show me very clearly is that many white Americans believe certain things because it is too depressing to believe otherwise. We all do this a little to get through life. It’s pretty plain, and should be uncontroversial, to acknowledge that the American experiment has had racism as a defining and formative factor. It’s a fact. The question is how do we live with that?”

    Early in the imagining of Cross River, Scott did his own illuminating background research on the history of slavery in the US. “When I started the whole project of imagining a successful slave revolt in this country, I didn’t know how many there were, and there were a lot,” he said. “I was thinking about the Haitian revolution… it inspired the Cross Riverians, and it also inspired me to create it.”

    After Insurrections was published, Scott attended a book festival in Kentucky. There, he heard a reader complain to another writer that his book’s premise was ridiculous, as there never would have been a slave revolt in 1807. The book was fiction, but the reader was still wrong—there were slave rebellions in the US in the aftermath of the Haitian revolution that were specifically influenced by it, in addition to the record of rebellion that preceded it—but Scott understands that the specific conditions of the US would have made it difficult to sustain and defend a community after the revolt, which is why, as he fills in the early history of Cross River, he plans for things to get further from realism and wilder still.

    “It was serendipitous for my book to come out at a time when we are being asked by some of our most prominent intellectual voices to reckon with our foundational myths.”

    In addition to thinking about the broader possibilities of fictional interventions in US history, Scott is interested in the particular legacy of Maryland. Scott was born and raised in Silver Spring and now lives in Annapolis. Before his current job at UMD, he taught for years at Bowie State, a historically black college in Maryland. Scott went to college in DC, grad school in Virginia, and worked as a journalist in upstate New York for a few years, but he has spent most of his life in the state of Maryland and recognizes himself as a Maryland writer. He laughs about the pretense of Maryland in particular, and northern states in general, claiming a kind of historical innocence.

    “Maryland’s a weird place. It’s a slave state that never joined the confederacy and we don’t really acknowledge that history very much,” he said. “I was reading The 1619 Project down by the waterfront in Annapolis and it occurred to me that during that time—not 1619, but later—people were being brought to this very spot.”

    That sense of unacknowledged loss, the way such a loss can feel like looming danger, and the difficulty of finding a lane of expression for it are at the core of this collection. The threats to Cross River can feel existential—fire, flood, invasion, the pull and menace of neighboring Port Yooga, a former sundown town that is now marginally integrated. Characters end up there sometimes by accident, sometimes with a desire to challenge it, sometimes in self-sabotaging attempts to summon the threat it represents and aim it at Cross River, sometimes because it is their home.

    “The towns have a symbiotic relationship and their destinies are really intertwined,” he said. “When I was a student at an HBCU and later a professor at a different HBCU, it felt that even though our very existence was a rebuke of white supremacy, we still accepted and lived by some of white supremacy’s conceits. That realization is somewhere in the Cross River-Port Yooga relationship. It also feels like, when I’m in black spaces, there is an awareness that outside of us there are microaggressions and outright racism that we will at some point have to contend with and have our lives possibly shortened by. There’s a lot of joy in black life, but there is also this awareness… being black feels so absurd a lot of the time. You live with this terror and this horror but also joy.”

    “Maryland’s a weird place. It’s a slave state that never joined the confederacy and we don’t really acknowledge that history very much.”

    That mix of pride and anxiety is present in both communal and personal ways in the collection’s novella, “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies.” The narrator of the novella is a former adjunct who is secretly living on campus and continuing to teach classes for which he is not paid and no students are officially enrolled. From this permanent but precarious vantage point, he observes and plays a role in the downfall of a tenured colleague, after said colleague turns being caught with pornography on his office computer into a pretend research project and a course that asks students to think about the roots of loneliness.

    “There’s a lot of pressure placed on universities to be job engines, which is in tension with the idea that this is a place of educational enlightenment, a place where you’re going to go to think about things and become a better person and a better contributor to society,” Scott said. He has experienced the strangeness of being attached to a university for a long time without a tenure-track job. “You have this prestigious title, people call you professor even though you’re not a professor, but then it’s like—I’m struggling economically, I don’t get paid at all in the summer… sometimes these prestigious titles mean you can’t pay your rent.”

    Cross River’s institute of higher education fittingly goes by both the legacy-invoking name of Freedman’s University and the nickname FU. The premise of the novella sets it up for comedy about the absurdity of academia, but the novella works and takes on a more serious gravity and grace because instead of being a comic failure, the professor’s loneliness course almost works. It’s destroyed not by the way the professor disregards some of the teach-by-numbers conventions that have become the norm, but by the way his own misogyny leaves him unable to recognize it when, a student, Rebecca, comes into her own voice, tackles the course’s complicated questions about loneliness and what it means to be human, and learns exactly what he thought he wanted her to.

    According to Scott, the novella came out of a project that began with just Rebecca’s essays, and I found myself wondering a bit about that shadow story that eventually became part of the larger project. The toxicity aimed at women by male characters in the collection is always to the men’s own detriment, but though the behaviors are being implicitly critiqued or revealed, it can be a bit wearying to see women on the page primarily as targets of danger or spaces of safety for men. Rebecca’s voice is a welcome challenge to the portrayal of women by some of the collection’s earlier male protagonists.

    “I wanted to give her a lot of space,” Scott said. “Part of the story is her coming into her own and rejecting male-dominated narratives where she is at best a muse and at worst a destructive force just by virtue of her gender.”

    Rebecca’s final essay is one of a few places in the collection where a character’s drive to communicate and reveal something is meaningfully realized, even if its also punished. The other voice that breaks out of the constraints is the music of the place, the sound the musician struggling against mediocrity in the opening story does ultimately create. The sound is called Riverbeat; in Scott’s mind, it borrows from Afrobeat, gogo, calypso, and funk, and has traces of Chuck Brown, James Brown, Fela, and Parliament Funkadelic, but will sound different depending on how readers imagine it.

    “The important elements are the scatting—some of it in “David Sherman” is borrowed directly from Bob Marley, the drums and the moment in every Riverbeat song when the notes are played backward. Riverbeaters call that part ‘the regret’.” he said. “From there, readers are free to imagine what they want.”

    This, perhaps, is the human and historical project at the heart of Scott’s Cross River—the work of reckoning, the work of learning that only acknowledging the regret makes it possible to imagine anything.

    Danielle Evans
    Danielle Evans
    Danielle Evans is the author of the story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, winner of the PEN American Robert W. Bingham prize, the Hurston-Wright Award, the Paterson Prize, and a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 selection. Her stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies including The Paris Review, A Public Space, American Short Fiction, Callaloo, New Stories From the South, and The Best American Short Stories. She teaches in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

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