A Conversation with Rion Amilcar Scott
Jamie Klingensmith: Many of your stories, such as “Checkmates” and “Good Times,” which appear in your collection Insurrections, explore the question of masculinity. Since Gazing Grain Press is an inclusive feminist press, how do you think this question of masculinity, or what it means to be a man, a son, or a father, relates to inclusive feminism?
Rion Amilcar Scott: So many of the men in Insurrections suffer from their own mistaken assumptions about what masculinity is. For instance, the boys in "A Friendly Game" think masculinity involves dominating each other, violence, and harming women. It harms women around them and it eats away at them as well.
JM: In your essays and your stories, you often explore the experience of African-American men. Can you explain a little bit about how you approach race and ethnicity in your writing?
RAS: I'm simply trying to write blackness as I experience it. Any ethnic identity is complex, but oftentimes I see it flattened and simplified in art. If I can show it in a great degree of specificity and beautiful complexity, then I'm happy.
JM: I found the town of Cross River in Insurrections incredibly intriguing. Can you talk a little about the purpose behind this in-between place and how you wanted that to affect your various characters? What is your approach to setting?
RAS: I almost think that creating Cross River was an attempt to make setting—a thing I struggled with at one point—central to my writing. The characters always have to reckon with being Cross Riverians, whether in small or large ways. I like that Cross River becomes whatever a particular story needs it to be so it changes between stories.
JM: I’m a fiction writer myself, and I’m highly interested in magical realism. How does the setting of Cross River, a fictional, even imaginary world, allow you to craft characters that experience such pain and sadness?
RAS: Cross River becomes something the characters can react to. Hopefully it's a counterpoint to whatever is happening in the narrative. Or it's playing in the background like a beat to the "lyrics" (the plot).
JM: In Insurrections, you don’t use any quotation marks for dialogue. Can you explain your purpose behind that? How do you approach punctuation in your writing?
RAS: I think of my stories as little fever dreams. To that end, I hope the lack of quotation marks helps to facilitate the readers' entry into that dream. I guess my goal is to be a minimalist when it comes to punctuation, to give more power over to the reader.
JM: I noticed some common themes throughout Insurrections, such as race, memory, family dynamics, love etc…Can you explain how you put these pieces together to build that conversation? Did you initially want these stories to appear together?
RAS: When I started putting Insurrections together I thought about which stories would speak to one another. I removed stories that seemed to be part of different conversations, either because their styles clashed with the stories in Insurrections or they were underdeveloped. I had to keep in mind that this book is an introduction to the Cross River saga, so I figured we would go only so deep into the town. There's more.
JM: In putting a short story collection together, like Insurrections, what is your process in deciding the order in which your stories appear in in the book?
RAS: Much of the order comes from my editor's suggestion. I had a different order that went from youngest protagonist to oldest. My editor rightfully pointed out that that did not put the stories into a natural conversation. The one thing that remains from my initial order is that "Good Times" always came first and "Three Insurrections" always came last. "Good Times" is the only story I wrote specifically for the book as the story I had as an opening didn't work. Thematically it introduces a crisis of masculinity and the final story points a way to a solution.
JM: What kind of advice would you give to new writers?
JAS: Read poetry daily. Watch in amazement as it loosens your prose.
Rion Amilcar Scott’s work has been published in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, Fiction International, The Washington City Paper, The Toast, Akashic Books, Melville House and Confrontation, among others. A story of his earned a place on the Wigleaf Top 50 (very short) Fictions of 2016 and 2013 lists, and one of his essays was listed as a notable in Best American Essays 2015. He was raised in Silver Spring, Maryland and earned an MFA from George Mason University where he won both the Mary Roberts Rinehart award and a Completion Fellowship. He is a Kimbilio fellow. His short story collection Insurrections (University Press of Kentucky) was published in August 2016 and was chosen for The Rumpus's Book Club. Wolf Tickets is forthcoming from Tiny Hardcore Press. Presently, he teaches English at Bowie State University