Rion Amilcar Scott’s short story collection, ‘Insurrections‘ (University Press of Kentucky, 2016), was awarded the 2017 PEN/Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. It is one of those collections that grabs hold of you and slaps you and tells you to look and listen as if you are a small child misbehaving that needs to be set straight, or perhaps more accurately, as if you are a small child avoiding a life lesson of great importance, something that needs to be known and something that will be known whether you choose to acknowledge it now or wait till later in life when it hits the side of your head like a brick. It demands your full attention. Through the course of this interview, he talks to Noah Klein about the absurdist representation in ‘The Slapsmith’, the meaning of ‘black English’, and the revelations that can be gained from writing about a family unit.
What first inspired you to invent, and subsequently write about, Cross River, MD?
I started off wanting to write about D.C., but reading Edward P. Jones cured me of that aspiration. I started dreaming about something that would be like Marquez’s Macondo, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, all that literary stuff cut with the interconnected worlds of Marvel, DC and Milestone comics I was addicted to as a kid.
Many of the stories, such as ‘Juba’ and ‘The Slapsmith’ seem to take on an absurdist quality commenting on societal and philosophical ideas rather than having a traditional plot-driven narrative. ‘Juba’ seems to exemplify this “commenting-on-society” narrative as the subject matter deals with the problems of racial profiling and collective African-American identity in the United States. How do you approach crafting a narrative in ways that tie into the themes you want to exemplify and explore in your writing? And, as a follow up question, do you feel you are always successful executing your vision for a story?
With a story like ‘Juba’, I simply started with the idea of mistaken identity, not necessarily with a plan to comment on society. The police came into it, I think for two reasons: 1) It’s good drama and 2) The disastrous results of the failed drug war and racial profiling are often on my mind. As the story expanded I thought about the way language binds and divides us. I love the English language. I love black English. I suspect if I were born into another language I would love that one too. ‘Juba’ is meant to be a celebration of all forms of English with the idea that no brand of English is better than any other. This speaks to your question of if I feel I am always successful. Short answer: Of course not. Slightly longer answer: I’m almost never successful; though I am often satisfied with whatever vision is executed in the end. Failure is just an opportunity to try again. ‘Juba’ is an example of a kind of failure. People I’ve heard from generally like it, and I think it works, but it works in spite of itself, in my opinion. It’s meant to be a celebration of language, but the language fails too often to be a celebration. It tells a good story though. I’m proud of it. I get to try to celebrate language again at some point.
You mentioned “black English”. First, can you explain what that means to you? Second, do you always try to explore language as a theme in your stories?
What I’m referring to is more commonly (and precisely) known as African-American Vernacular English. It’s existence is uncontroversial amongst linguists. AAVE is just one variety or flavor of the English language with its own particular history and structure. I very much enjoy hearing it around me. Something about AAVE puts me at ease. I’m always going to explore it within my work.
As for the second part of your question, the limits and possibilities of language — this imprecise and imperfect thing that connects us — is always a part of my fiction, and a part of pretty much all literature. Sometimes, such as in a story like, “Juba,” it’s in the forefront, sometimes it’s not but I think it’s always there.
Continuing on this idea of exploring the intricacies of language in your stories, there is currently a debate in literary circles about cultural appropriation in literature. Both sides have valid points. In ‘202 Checkmates’ you write in the voice of a young African-American girl (which in a previous interview you mentioned was a challenge from your wife), and in ‘A Friendly Game’ you write in the voice of a Caucasian teenage girl. How do you keep the voice “authentic” when attempting to write characters so different from yourself? Do you find it difficult to keep the language of these characters “authentic”?
I try to understand the characters from the inside which tells me what language they would be most comfortable using at the particular point in time I’m writing about. That might include how they interact with the various cultures they are a part of. Marcy from ‘A Friendly Game’ is interesting because she is a white teenager raised in an exclusively black world. Also, when we see her in the story she is the only girl in a peer group of hyper-masculine boys. Her status as an outsider, a comfortable outsider, is as important to developing her character as her whiteness. It isn’t hard to keep a character’s language authentic, no harder than any other element of writing, because as I write I’m constantly questioning the dialogue, how it’s serving the scene, the story and the character. Speaking the dialogue helps to put me into the mind of the character.
Your story ‘Razor Bumps’ was incredible and is, besides ‘Juba’, the story I recommend to people most. Like ‘Juba’ and ‘The Slapsmith’, ‘Razor Bumps’ is also in the absurdist vein and the characters within seem to represent grander philosophical ideals or roles. You seem to have set up “the Barbershop” as almost a religious institution, to where people make the pilgrimage to receive a vaulted haircut from “The Barber”, Sonny Beaumont Jr., a character whom you present as a once-sacred figure: an artist… a god turned mortal (153). The character L’Ouverture AKA Black Nietzsche is a man based on words and makes his living by crafting words and language within his music, and through his music (his words and language), he expresses the collective anger of the African-American community in America. When conceiving a story, do you intentionally seek to create characters—like The Barber and L’Ouverture—that seem representative of larger ideas or ideologies? As a follow up, when writing stories containing inherent contemporary American socio-political context (i.e. Carlton the Police Officer who was killed in ‘Razor Bumps’ and, according to Sonny Beaumont Jr., L’Ouverture’s music is to blame; or in ‘Juba’ when the main character is mistaken for a different African-American man by the police and, subsequently, subjected to brutality) do you feel it necessary to keep a more absurdist approach rather than a strict, unyielding realistic representation of the short story? Why, or why not?
I generally don’t think of creating characters as an exercise in creating representations of grand political or philosophical ideas. I try to create characters that fit into the story’s world and then if they come to be emblematic of something larger for the reader it’s because the character is expressing his or her preoccupations or obsessions. When it comes to creating absurdist visions, sometimes the only way to see ourselves clearly is through a funhouse mirror. But I don’t think a story needs to be absurdist to comment on the absurdity of the moment. It helps though.
In ‘Confirmation’ you revisit three characters at a later stage in life, the father, daughter, mother from ‘202 Checkmates’, in an indirect way. More to the point of story, we see a focus on the strained familial relations between the youngest son, who is the main character in this story and was not yet born during ‘202 Checkmates’, and the rest of the family. In your opinion, what is gained, and perhaps revealed, by telling stories about a family-unit at two, or more, stages in the life/generational cycle of that aforementioned family-unit?
Bobby was actually in ‘202 Checkmates’, albeit briefly. ‘202 Checkmates’ is a turning point in my understanding of characters, but I thought with its intense focus on the father and daughter that it shortchanged Bobby and the mother. When you’re inside a family, sometimes its hard to see how relationships have evolved over the years. You just look up one day and you are closer or more distant than you once were. Coming back to these characters allowed me to examine that aspect of family.
History is something that has always been in flux with the party in power. Power decides winners. Recently, I re-read Orwell’s 1984, and some of Phillip K. Dick’s work. Seeing the current trend in contemporary American politics of rewriting history, recent or otherwise, in an attempt to secure power, and how, in some ways, history is being repeated. Considering this context, I was wondering what your thought process was when creating Cross River, Maryland and giving it the unique historical-cultural position of being the site of the only successful slave revolt in American history?
Recently, HBO got some criticism for their upcoming alternate reality show Confederate, in which the confederacy won the Civil War. This is not a new or original idea. I always wonder why people never imagine, say, John Brown leading a successful raid on Harper’s Ferry? You rarely hear or see representations of black rebellion in pop culture. The Haitian Revolution is made invisible in pop culture. Even the small rebellions against every day oppression are invisible. Cross River is a response to black revolt being made invisible.
Recently, literature has trended toward confronting socio-political issues in America head-on. Authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith, and poet Saeed Jones are good examples of this. They, and many other minority writers, are receiving a lot of recognition and awards. Meanwhile 80% of the staff in editorial departments at large publishing houses are Caucasian women and “…statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center show that of 3,500 books published in the US in 2014, just 84 were by black authors and 180 about black characters.” (quoted from The Guardian). Do you see diversity in publishing houses (and what they publish), cultural appropriation, and other hot-button issues in American literature as issues that need to be solved aggressively or issues that will resolve themselves over time with enough work and enough success by minority authors? Having just been awarded the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award, how do you feel minority authors are represented in Literary America?
Nothing resolves itself over time. The light being shined on the issues and people aggressively pushing back is what makes eventual change. There are good signs. We have the most diverse National Book Award fiction longlist that I’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful. That doesn’t happen without people over time telling the industry to look around at all the greatness outside of straight white men. But it’s not as if we can see a bright spot like a diverse longlist and assume that the fight has been won and it’s now all about riding out into the sunset. Gains can be reversed. It’s 2017 and we’re discussing voting rights again, after all.
In your opinion, are there any authors that should be getting read that may not be getting the attention they deserve?
I love Desiree Cooper’s fiction, Jaquira Diaz’s essays, and Yao Glover’s poetry.