Rion Amilcar Scott’s Fictional Town is Fantastical, Satirical, and Utterly Real
The stories in "The World Doesn’t Require You" are about Cross River, Maryland, a town that—like all of us—is haunted by the past
Ever since I met up with Rion Amilcar Scott for lunch one Friday midday, an exchange we had has been running over and over in my mind. I mentioned that I had been playing detective while reading his new collection, The World Doesn’t Require You, looking for clues as to where Cross River could be in the state of Maryland, where we both reside. Rion interrupted me before I finished my question and said, “I guess I want to flip that around to you and ask why does it matter?” Slightly embarrassed—okay, I’ll keep it real, more than slightly embarrassed—I immediately responded, “it doesn’t,” and came up with an excuse as to why I was so set on finding out where this fictional town exists in real life.
Later during the following week, as our conversation kept playing in my mind, I realized that it’s been a long time since I’ve read fiction like Scott’s. In a literary landscape that is embracing more and more the concept of autofiction and genre hybridity, when a piece of true imagination that does what fiction is supposed to do—which is to create a world and make you believe in its truth and existence—absolutely captures you and deposits you in another world that still feels so much like your own, you cannot fathom that it’s completely made up or at least did not originate from some already known landscape. The World Doesn’t Require You is a masterpiece of true imagination, art that reminds me of the work it takes to make a meal from scratch, straight from the farmer’s market, in a literary fiction world of Blue Apron subscription boxes. Rion’s Cross River is made of magic, of haunting, of music, of just enough strange, and just enough real, and the perfect amount of Blackness that it made me say, “This has to be based on something,” or maybe I just really wanted it to be.
The World Doesn’t Require You is Scott’s second story collection set in Cross River, Maryland. In eleven short stories and one novella, Scott brings to us a cast of characters who are the actual sons of God, who create their own music, who are gangsters lured by beautiful women into watery deaths, and who play games, long and short ones, to the detriment of themselves and others, and much more. As Michael Schaub of NPR wrote, “The book is less a collection of short stories than it is an ethereal atlas of a world that’s both wholly original and disturbingly familiar.”
Rion’s debut story collection, Insurrections, received the 2017 PEN/Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. He has published with The Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, and The Rumpus, among others. He has received fellowships from Bread Loaf Writing Conference, Kimbilio and the Colgate Writing Conference as well as a 2019 Maryland Individual Artist Award. Currently, he teaches Creative Writing at the University of Maryland.
Rion and I enjoyed a beautiful Maryland day and chatted about his writing origin story, writing from a Black perspective, and the concerns of using the “n word.”
Tyrese L. Coleman: We have had conversations before but I feel like we haven’t sat down and talked talked. I’ve heard you speak about how you came to writing and how your mom was your first fan. But, what led you here to this moment?
Rion Amilcar Scott: I had an idea for a poem one day. When I was a kid, I used to love reading poetry. But, I kind of stopped. I never really took it seriously but after I got the idea, I just had to keep going. I majored in journalism when I was in undergrad [at Howard University]. I wanted to do something practical with it. I was a journalist for a couple of years and it just didn’t work for me.
TLC: Why didn’t you like journalism?
RAS: I describe it like marrying the person who is standing next to the woman you love. I like to play with language and journalism is not really about that at all. I love and respect journalism but its not really about writing per se. It’s about conversations, getting information, the reporting aspect of it. Which is cool. Which is great. I did it for three years. You know how people put in their time in the military. That was my service. And then I moved on.
TLC: You won the Bingham prize. What happened after you won the award? How did your career change, if it changed? What did that do in terms of leading you to The World Doesn’t Require You?
RAS: Two good things about prizes is that they extend the life of the book. A few more people picked [Insurrections] up, a few more people were interested in it, a few more interviews.
Secondly, the most important thing was that it allowed me time to write. I wouldn’t have gotten to this point if I didn’t win the prize because I was able to take that summer after winning and I didn’t have to teach, and I lived off the prize money for that summer. Usually, I take a summer class: very low pay that doesn’t even cover the summer. And I just wrote. And the bulk of the novella was written in that summer and the rest of the book. A lot of the book was already written but I went back and fixed up whatever needed to be fixed. And I sent it off to my agent, I think that December.
TLC: So you had already had this book halfway written?
RAS: Yeah, halfway written. I think I had started the novella at one point, but yeah I was really able to accelerate the writing of it.
TLC: So why did you choose not to include some of the pieces in Insurrections? Or were they not ready?
RAS: Well some of them, they just were not ready. Like “Rolling in my Six-Fo’” I just could not get it to that point. The “Nigger Knockers”—they just weren’t ready, they just didn’t feel right. And there were a couple that were good but they just didn’t fit into Insurrections for space or whatever reason. They fit much better in this book. “A Rare and Powerful Employee” is old and was complete for a long time.
TLC: Since some of the pieces were done when you did your first book, how do you envision that these two books “conversate” with one another?
RAS: I feel like they’re twins. Insurrections is mostly realism, like a dreamy sort of realism. But The World Doesn’t Require You is not. There’s that dreamy realism to some pieces, but for the most part, it tips over. Even like the dreamy realism within “Nigger Knockers” is. That wouldn’t happen in real life. I feel like I was showcasing the more fantastical parts of the town.
TLC: As you know, I had a theory that Cross River was Southern Maryland. The way that Cross River is described, it reminded me of that area—
RAS: I guess I want to flip that around to you and ask why does it matter?
TLC: It doesn’t matter. But, that’s a good question though.
RAS: Early on, I didn’t want to specify where it was, it didn’t really have a place. And then in a couple of workshops people were like “that’s not going to fly” so I put it in Maryland. Like I’ve said before in previous interviews, the Simpson’s Springfield is one of my influences. So, I don’t really want to specify. To me, the answer doesn’t matter. But at the same time it’s important that its in Maryland. Even though I was reluctant to place it in Maryland. You know Maryland has this weird history where we pretend we’re not part of the south, but those Prince George’s county accents, really, you’re going to pretend you’re not from the South?
TLC: Insurrections was published with a university press and now The World Doesn’t Require You is with Norton. What is different about the publishing process between the both books?
RAS: Norton feels like a small press or an independent press but it has the resources. The level of support that I got from this book makes me happy. Both places, I had great editors that really made the book more of itself rather than twisting and turning it. I was very concerned with this book because it’s abnormal, that people would want it to be something else, something that it’s not. I didn’t face that at all.
TLC: I think that’s a huge fear with Black writers in general.
RAS: You hear horror stories.
TLC: You do. You had talked on social media about how Toni Morrison created this idea that we could write apologetically about and for Black people—
RAS: You know, I don’t think she created it, but she was probably the best spokesperson for it. I think before her or concurrently with her, there were a lot of children’s authors like Mildred Taylor and Virginia Hamilton who were doing that. But within children’s literature.
TLC: And I was reading the article in Literary Hub with you and Danielle Evans and you were talking about rejection. As a Black writer, it’s a weird space where you want to do what you want to do but then there’s also that fear of being rejected because you’re doing what you want to do. How do you navigate that gray space?
RAS: There’s just so many different ways. Blackness is so vast. Like I love your book, but that’s just not my experience, but that is what I love about it. You know, it’s different. I would say that we have to keep pushing. Right now, it’s beautiful. There’s so many of us. Especially in the short story. We’re killing it. Like I think of Jamel Brinkley’s book. I was reading it and I was like, these are people that I know but I’ve never seen them in fiction before.
TLC: I feel kind of lucky in a way. Not saying that there would not have been an opportunity years ago for these books to come out, but I feel like there is something different happening right now.
RAS: I’m definitely happy for it. People are realizing that there is a multiplicity and different narratives that can be told.
TLC: Have you read the Gone Dead by Chenelle Benz? The tone and feel of The World Doesn’t Require You reminded me of her book. I think there’s a ghost tale kind of quality or spiritualness that comes from stories that relate in some way to slavery. Cross River was the only town to ever have a successful slave revolt. I felt that haunting in both of your books.
RAS: A lot of the whole Cross River project is about how the past haunts us. I like that idea about slavery. That’s the idea Toni Morrison had with Beloved, right? Making it explicit, dramatizing it, and turning the idea. I do sort of feel that. To me, it’s sort of like how we sort of ignore these ideas that animate us. We ignore them, we don’t question them, we don’t interrogate them for the most part. Or when people try to interrogate them, we get this huge pushback. The whole 1619 Project. You know when it came out with these ridiculous criticisms. So yeah, I like the idea of being haunted by the past.
TLC: Have you ever had any apprehension or felt some kind of way about using the word “nigger” in your stories?
RAS: Not neccesarily the word nigger. But more so playing with the stereotypes that I do. Because those things are serious, stereotypes are serious things. Many people have died over the centuries because of those stereotypes. And I’m concerned about whether or not I am reinforcing it. Because a lot of white people think, “oh it’s just name calling and people feel hurt feelings.” I get concerns about readers feeling like that, “Oh its okay for us to just play with these things.” And I try to take real care, you know? Play with them to make a point when I’m playing with them. So, yeah, that’s a lot of my big concerns. I think of “The Electric Joy of Service” or “Rolling in my Six-Fo’.” Those stories can be misinterpreted. I might end up like Dave Chapelle, quitting and going to Africa.
TLC: I always wonder if white people read the word “nigger” in their head or do they read “n word.” [mutual laughter]
But, I guess you have to be prepared for whatever happens.
RAS: I think no matter what, when you are doing satire, you have to prepare for it to be misinterpreted. That’s the reality of it. It’s an inevitability of it. It will be misread and misunderstood. And hopefully, it will not be used in horrible ways.
TLC: As like an opening toward making some type of interpretation that reinforces what you already think?
RAS: Right. The whole idea is to tear it down, to mock it, to laugh in the face of racism. “The inherent laziness of Black people.” That’s a ridiculous idea. I know lazy Black people, but as a whole, as a people, you cannot really say that about Black people. It’s a crazy trick to spend 200 years forcing Black people to work for them [and then] call them lazy. That’s a crazy trick.
TLC: Do you think you’ll do more Cross River stories?
RAS: Oh, of course, yeah. The thing about Cross River is it leaves a lot to explore. That’s my project, to really explore it, from beginning to end.
TLC: So you probably don’t know everything there is to know about Cross River?
RAS: No, but when I do, that’s it. [mutual laughter].