The Rumpus Book Club chats with Rion Amilcar Scott about his short story collection Insurrections, Trinidad, creating a fictional town, and the pressure to make religious decisions during puberty.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Ann B: This may be three ways of asking the same question: How did you decide to order the stories? What were you going for in ordering them the way you did? Do you feel like readers could start anywhere in the collection?
Rion Amilcar Scott: About the ordering of the book, I had a much different order in mind. The stories were ordered to go through the path to maturity. My editor thought that didn’t do justice to the stories so we started thinking of which stories went together. I suppose readers could start anywhere, but I like to read collections in the order they are presented. I always figure the writer sweated over that order. Once I changed the order, I had to drop and add stories to achieve the rhythm and mood of the book. It became clear that one or two stories didn’t fit or were not holding their own.
Brian S: I feel that way too, especially if the stories are linked by something like geography or narrator or some other aspect of the narrative. I feel less so if it’s a collection of unconnected stories.
Can you talk about your construction of the town of Cross River, how it came to be, and so on? Are there authors who’ve done similar things that you felt influenced by when making that choice?
Rion Amilcar Scott: As far back as I can remember I’ve always tried to draw connections to stories. As a kid I used to imagine that all the books I read took place in one world until that no longer made any sense. I like the idea of character from one story or book wandering into another. I like the idea of a shared history that the characters can draw from. The way Edward P. Jones constructed his two collections was a big influence. Also Junot Díaz. When I became unreasonably excited when Yunior showed up in Oscar Wao.
Brian S: There’s a really bad Heinlein novel that explores that idea, Rion. The Number of the Beast. I can’t say I recommend the novel, but the idea is an interesting one.
Chapin: Hey Rion, I was wondering about “Party Animal.” I thought it was so clever, creative and well done—could you give us some background or context? How did you come up with the story?
Rion Amilcar Scott: “Party Animal” started after I read Borges and I wanted to write a story as weird as one of his stories. I don’t think I reached that level of bizarreness, but I enjoyed the idea of telling stories within stories.
Ann B: What about the Trinidadian influences in your stories? Can you talk a little about them?
Rion Amilcar Scott: Trinidad! My parents are from Trinidad and both came over here to study at Howard University where they met. I’ve always felt a deep connection to my heritage—the music, the food, all of it—so it’s important to me to explore that in my fiction.
“Three Insurrections” is a fictionalization of my father’s journey as an immigrant. We spoke for several hours about what it was like coming over to this country in a tumultuous time like the 1960s and I took his life and added a story around it.
Ann B: The last sentence in the book, Rion. Loved it.
Rion Amilcar Scott: Thank you, Ann.
Ann B: It had to be the last sentence, which is what got me thinking about your ordering process.
Rion Amilcar Scott: ”Three Insurrections” was always last and “Good Times” was always first. That last sentence acts as almost like a mission statement for what I want to do in my career.
Brian S: I was really taken in by “Confirmation” in part because even though I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, I still had that moment in my teens where I was expected to make a statement of faith, much like Bobby did. I also felt a little bit of Langston Hughes’s “Salvation” in the ending.
Rion Amilcar Scott: Hughes’s “Salvation” is a staple of various English 101 textbooks I’ve used over the years. It’s beautiful and it’s one of my favorite things to teach. I’m sure, and I hope, some of Hughes seeped into me.
Brian S: It’s that pressure to make a lifelong decision at such a tumultuous time in your life that causes that kind of anguish. I don’t remember having difficulty making the decision to get baptized when I did, but I did feel the pain of thinking I was living a sinful and deceitful life after I’d made this commitment. And I got that from Bobby in that story.
Rion Amilcar Scott: It’s very manipulative to ask a child to make a definitive lifelong claim to a certain faith at such a young age. In most faiths it’s done at an age when our biologic processes are making us the most confused and unsure of ourselves. I don’t think this is a coincidence.
Brian S: Or it’s done when the child is an infant, and the decision is made for them.
Rion Amilcar Scott: Yes, Brian. The decision is made as an infant. But that doesn’t bother me as much as being forced to reify that spiritual decision when one is going through puberty. As a child, I asked my pastor what if I said no to accepting the Lord once I reached the altar. I asked out of pure curiosity as I was taught to do and no one—not my pastor, not my classmates, not my family—was okay with me asking.
Brian S: I’m forty-seven and I’m still working out stuff from that period in my life.
Ann B: #whywritersexist
Rion Amilcar Scott: Ann, I don’t understand your hashtag, question/comment.
Ann B: Working through our personal histories. It didn’t work so well. Writers exist. Not writer sexist.
Brian S: What’s the story, if you get a last-minute invitation to read, that you go for out of this book?
Rion Amilcar Scott: For a last-minute reading request, I usually go with the opening to “Juba.” I know it very well because I’ve read it so much, but it has an action and a movement that readers seem to enjoy when they hear it out loud.
Brian S: That opening, man. I know that scene has been played out in the real world for decades, but it really resonates right now I imagine.
This may seem like an odd question, but what’s the oldest story in this book?
Rion Amilcar Scott: I wrote the opening to “Juba” in ’07 or ’08 and. it’s funny, I really didn’t connect it much to the problems with profiling and policing and such that my community is facing until recently. The connection is obvious, but I didn’t make the connection because, I think, such treatment against black people is so normalized and mundane. Just life.
The oldest one in concept is “Ezekiel Marcus.” I wrote a version in ’05 and realized I didn’t yet have the skill to write it so I put it aside for about eight years and then I came back to it, re-writing from memory. The final version and the older one probably have a sentence in common. So it is the oldest and newest story in the book.
The actual oldest is “202 Checkmates,” a story that is special to me because it changed everything about my writing.
Brian S: How so? That sounds like a good story.
Chapin: I had the same thought, Brian!
Brian S: That must have been a hard story to end, I’d think, because there’s so many ways in which it could have gone wrong. But it didn’t.
Rion Amilcar Scott: My wife challenged me to write a story about an eleven-year-old. At the time I had such a hard time with female characters. I knew I would never be able to write on the level that I wanted to write on if I didn’t lick that problem. I decided to make the character a girl. The first sentence came just as it is in the book and the rest of the story came out nearly fully formed. I’ve tinkered with it a lot over the years but the structure, the plot, almost everything was set. And best of all the little girl was a full formed human being. I never had a problem writing female characters after that. Helped me realize that so much of my previous failure was just fear.
Brian S: Are you working on something new yet, or are you letting this one sink in a bit first?
Rion Amilcar Scott: I’m working on another collection that delves into the more magical/weirder side of Cross River. And I’m always tinkering with longer stuff.
Ann B: And are you doing a series of readings to promote the book? Any on the West Coast?
Does the more magical/weirder side of Cross River include the Wildlands?
Brian S: YES! I want to hear more about that. I was so drawn in by “Everyone Lives in a Flood Zone” because of the weirdness that happened in there. Can’t wait to see it.
Who are you reading these days? Anyone new we should have an eye out for?
Rion Amilcar Scott: The Wildlands is a wonderful place. We drift more into that patch of land.
I have some readings set up. When I have more they will be posted on my website. I really do hope to get out to the West Coast.
I just read Donald Quist‘s Harbors. It’s a very soulful essay collection that made me sit in silence when I finished it.
Brian S: Are you coming to Iowa at all?
Rion Amilcar Scott: Nothing planned in Iowa yet, but that’s another place I’d love to get to.
Brian S: I will keep an eye on your website for future readings. Thanks for joining us tonight, Rion, and for writing such a terrific book!
Rion Amilcar Scott: Thanks for having me. This has been wonderful. It means a lot to me that you all took your time to read my book.
Brian S: Our pleasure. Have a great rest of your evening.
Ann B: Many thanks.