Even after earning two creative writing degrees from a very progressive Chicago university, I could count the black authors I’d read on one hand: James Baldwin, Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Marlon James, and Claudia Rankine. Five. I am quite proud to have completed James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. But I took umbrage in reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises three times in undergrad and again in grad school.
When the opportunity arose to read the debut short story collection Insurrections and interview the author Rion Amilcar Scott, I saw it as the required reading professors never assigned.
Culturally, Scott and I are worlds apart. Scott grew up in the DC suburbs, earned his MFA from George Mason, and now teaches at the historically black Bowie State University in Maryland. Our Skype conversations mushroomed out of discussing his thirteen multi-layered stories and their influences. We tackled race, father relationships, and the Iowa workshop, and hip-hop. When Scott said he was a huge fan of Kendrick Lamar I was probably too excited to show off my vinyl of To Pimp a Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered.
Comparisons between Lamar and Scott would be extraneous, if unfair, but readers will find each story in Insurrections emotionally charged, visceral, and speaking to issues of our time in a way not unlike the aforementioned rapper.
The story “Juba” begins with racial profiling by police and ends with an examination of local patois. And the obvious subject matter in “Klan” is told through three different timelines—in less than two pages. Instances of Scott bending short-story form to its breaking point abound in this collection. I entered our interview thinking he had said a lot in this collection. I left with certainty that he’s only getting started, though he still needs to read James’s A Brief History.
The Rumpus: Was it always your intention to put these stories into a collection?
Rion Amilcar Scott: I think book with almost everything I write. At one point, a lot of these stories were part of a failed novel-in-stories. It was my thesis when I graduated from George Mason. I spent the next year working on it and it got bloated and out of control. Eventually I realized that I had to abandon it. But I knew there were parts of it that I could salvage.
One thing I like about the Cross River saga is that when a story fails or a book fails it doesn’t necessarily fail, because it feels like those events that I wrote happened. They become rumors in another story or events in another story. It feels like that event still happened within the world. I was able to rehab some of these very well and bring them into what became Insurrections.
Rumpus: With so many stories to pick how did you decide on this arrangement?
Scott: I originally wanted the book to run from innocence to maturity. I really admire Dubliners by James Joyce and Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones. That was Joyce’s structure and Jones borrowed it, so I figured, okay, I’m going to borrow it too. But it didn’t really work with these stories. My editor pointed out that it didn’t work. When we came up with the new order, some of the stories didn’t fit. And then there’s another story that only ever existed for the original order and it wasn’t very good. So it’ll never ever see the light of day. But eventually we sort of put the book together like a puzzle.
Rumpus: What do you hope people are taking away from reading Insurrections?
Scott: I want people to see this spectrum of black experience that I’m presenting. And I kind of hesitate to say that because it sounds like I’m asking people to eat their vegetables. I do want people to have fun with it. On a visceral level as well as an intellectual level.
Rumpus: How conscious were you in writing about racial issues in these stories?
Scott: I write about whatever is obsessing me and those social issues are definitely on my mind. These stories were all for the most part drafted before the Black Lives Matter movement. I think a lot of people were sort of unclear as to the level of police violence in the black community, especially in what certain segments of the working class community were facing. And because I’m black I personally get pulled over frequently when I’m driving through Prince George’s county where I work. It has a terrible history and every time I’m pulled over, on my mind are cases of people from PG county who were brutalized and murdered. So that stuff, it definitely comes out.
Rumpus: What do you think a writer’s responsibility is in writing about our time?
Scott: Writing about whatever is obsessing you, whatever is on your mind. As a human being the political and social situation should be on your mind because it affects you. As human beings we have to do something. It’s important not to allow your society to slide in fascism.
I don’t want to be apolitical in that I only care about the beauty of poetry or the beauty of language. All that stuff is intertwined. I don’t think there really is a complete separation as some artists tend to think there is.
Rumpus: What writers are doing an exceptional job writing about today’s issues?
Scott: Man, there are so many. I feel like so many people are hacking at the roots and the branches of these issues. The first one that pops into my mind is Kiese Laymon. He’s written some incredibly essays dealing with our current situation. In poetry, Solmaz Sharif’s Look deals with these issues of war and empire, which oddly, are very often left out of literature. Since the invasion of Iraq, as a nation this our identity, but we don’t take it on as our identity. It doesn’t appear in literature as often as it should.
Rumpus: Were there any books or authors you were reading while writing these stories?
Scott: Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Rumpus: That’s sitting on my shelf but I’ve only read Drown, which I love.
Scott: Drown is amazing. You should read Oscar Wao. I think I was also inspired by Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor. That sort of sparked the idea of creating a unified environment to write about. There’s a lot that went into the book.
Rumpus: I found a lot running threads in these stories and one was hip-hop music. What role did that play in these stories?
Scott: One of my rules is if I spend a lot of time on something I have to get it into my work. I used to spend a massive amount of time on hip-hop websites. Just a massive amount of time. At a certain point I wasn’t even interested in the music that much. What came out then wasn’t really inspiring me but I was still on the websites reading about the artists. All that went into the structure of the story “Razor Bumps.”
In that story a lot of the interview comments are past issues of various interviews that I found hilarious. And if you’ve wasted enough time on hip-hop websites in the early 2000s you’d probably be able to figure out where the references came from.
Rumpus: Do you listen to a lot of today’s hip-hop or is it mostly what you grew up with?
Scott: A little bit of today’s. Some of the stuff I can appreciate but it’s not for me. I appreciate Earl Sweatshirt, Chance the Rapper, YG; I give them good listen. But they’re just not for me. The Hamilton soundtrack was all I was listening to for a while.
I’m a big Kendrick fan. I actually presented at the last AWP about Kendrick Lamar. It was awesome.
Rumpus: Is that essay up anywhere?
Rumpus: Have you listened to Flying Lotus? He collaborates a lot with Kendrick.
Scott: I’ve heard of him. A lot of times my students tell me about something and I go give it a listen. I’m not, “Oh, it was so much better back then.” I may feel that way but everyone feels that way about the music they grew up on. They’ll be other people that I get into, but a lot of it isn’t for me.
Rumpus: There are a lot of fathers and sons in the book and I’m wondering what role your own father might have had in these stories.
Scott: It’s such a fruitful area and so I’ve been writing about fathers and sons even before I became a father myself. The last story of the book, “Three Insurrections” is basically his story. I interviewed him for that story and sort of remixed it a little.
Rumpus: Was that a formal, sit-down interview like you and I are doing?
Scott: Yeah, we did three interviews, about an hour each. I always wanted to sit down and talk to him. This was an opportunity or an excuse to do that. And I took a lot of what he said. I just sort of picked on disparate things from over the years. He talked about the college years a bit. But prior to the interview he didn’t speak much about his life.
There was a lot of irony. He sat down and the first thing he did was tell me this long story about his novel he’s been writing. He’s not a writer, but he’d been writing over the years about his own father. It was interesting because I thought, “that’s exactly what I’m about to do.” Except he doesn’t have his father around to ask. His father passed away when he was in high school, so he didn’t have him there to give the details.
Rumpus: Just speaking about myself, and what I know about my friends, I think father / son relationships are often very complicated and very strange. I don’t think a lot of people really talk about them. The masculinity aspects, I think that’s an under-looked issue.
Scott: It’s very complicated and interesting to look at someone you’re related to and dig into that relationship. I look at my father and a lot of times I think of him as a great man. I want to follow him and be as good as him while not picking up on some of the things that might not be so—quote, unquote—great. But I have my own areas of not greatness.
It’s interesting because as a child you have such a limited perspective, and as you get older you think that you have a broad and complete perspective. But as you come of age, even if you never become a parent, you sort of start understanding things that your parents went through and some of the reasons they did things that didn’t make any sense to you. It’s interesting.
Rumpus: Has becoming father yourself changed how you look at these stories now?
Scott: I think the story I wrote after becoming a father helped me have more compassion about that father and fathers in the stories. Me being a father, it’s given me a completely new perspective.
Rumpus: Given that you wrote these stories before and after becoming a father and before and after the Black Lives Matter movement, what is it like for you when you read some of the older stories?
Scott: The other day I read a piece of “Confirmation” that I’d never read before. It was pretty raw. A lot of the emotions that I used to write this story were there near the surface. It seemed like it got people’s attention. I think it made for a good reading, but of course I wasn’t in the audience.
Rumpus: Are you surprised by anything in the stories now that you’ve had some distance from them?
Scott: There are things about “Klan” that I don’t think I noticed when I was writing it. I was talking about it with my students the other day. It sort of violates some rules that I would normally tell my students to do or not to do.
Rumpus: What are some of those rules?
Scott: That particular story is a piece of flash fiction. It starts with a flashback and then goes to another flashback. And the present moment is only the last two or three paragraphs. Most of the time something like that wouldn’t work, especially in a piece of flash fiction. I could be wrong, but it feels like it works. But if a student had brought me something like “Klan” into class, nine times out of ten I’d say, “why are you starting your story in the past? Bring me to that moment. Cut that.” I’m kind of glad I didn’t bring it into workshop.
Rumpus: How do you feel about the Iowa workshop format?
Scott: I think a writer has to have a lot of maturity going into a workshop. You have to understand your vision. You really have to do a lot of interpretation of what people say, because they will get at the problems of your story or essay in different ways. They might not know how to articulate what the issue is. Sometimes you take the comments together and then figure out what the issue is.
Rumpus: Do you think the workshop format is only helpful for graduate students?
Scott: I don’t have my Intro to Creative Writing students do workshops. I told them yesterday that I don’t think it’s useful on their level. We more share their work to let them hear it rather than workshop it. Once they get to the more intermediary or advanced levels I think it’s more useful. But then I think there’s a point after the advanced level when it’s not useful at all.
I’m personally sort of burnt out on it. Last time I did a workshop it was very useful to me but I still felt burnt out over it. I guess I’ll probably do one at some point. But I do think it is really best at a sort of intermediate and advanced level.
Rumpus: Since you don’t workshop much yourself, do you have a go-to reader for your work or, as Stephen King calls it, an “ideal reader?”
Scott: I always wonder how these ideal readers work. I find people don’t really have the time to do that. My wife is also a writer and she reads my stuff. It’s funny, I wrote an essay and she read the first draft and was like, “it’s not very good.” I went back and did the other draft and I didn’t show it to her. I just submitted it. When she finally saw it she said, “this needs to be changed, this should have been changed. I can’t believe you didn’t show this to me.” The editor sent it back with basically the same notes.
Rumpus: Is this the last we’ll read about Cross River?
Scott: I think I’m going to be writing about it forever. It’s always shifting and changing. I like to think of it as my literary homeland.
Rumpus: What’s next for you?
Scott: I feel like I’m towards the end of another collection. I’m in the obsession stage right now. I’m obsessed with it and everything else I have to do is annoying me. I would rather be writing. And I’m going to keep working on it to my detriment. I should be paying my bills or doing something else. So we’ll see how that works. I’m also working on some novellas that are interlinked. I don’t know what that’s going to evolve in to.
Rumpus: So you’re going to be like Marlon James and put them all together?
Rumpus: Have you read it yet? Or even held it in your hand? It’s massive.
Scott: It’s on my shelf. I’m going to.
Author photograph © Rebecca Aranda Photography.