Interview with Rion Scott

As Rion Amilcar Scott writes in his blog’s bio, “if you happen to Google me: Yes, I did write that shitty poem and no I DID NOT write a fantasy novel called, Brigantia of the Iceni…Leave it to the internet to find someone else named Rion Scott. And leave it to the internet to make him a writer. No offense to my man, Rion Scott, I’m just not him.”

Now, the real Rion Amilcar Scott is a lecturer at Bowie State University and a contributor to Specter, PANK, Fiction International, Confrontation as well as countless other publications.  Beyond that, he is the father of a 1-year old son who is against him doing anything other than entertaining him.  In fact, Scott comments, “if he knew I was responding to these questions, there would be hell to pay.” Luckily, Specter did manage to steal a few moments from the forceful little man who Scott says is too “fascinated by his hands and doesn’t realize that I’ve sneaked away to do something that doesn’t involve him.”  In this interview, Scott discusses everything from Gribben’s decision to sanitize Huck Finn‘s “nigger” with “Slave” to the crack-era in DC to writing his new novel.

I think the very first thing I wrote was a cheesy poem about gun violence in my hometown. I made great use of alliteration and onomatopoeia. I was nine and wore these pink jellies and an ugly flower dress almost everyday. I eventually abandoned writing after my AP teacher told me that I write like a traveler who has no idea what to include in her luggage. I was unfortunately/fortunately(?) reborn years later as a non-fiction writer. How did you come to writing…or how did writing come to you? Can you tell us about the very first piece you wrote?

The very first thing I wrote was a poem I composed in junior high school called “The Colors of America.” It was three lines based on the idea that if you look at the American flag a certain way, you see the brutality of the nation’s founding. I’m making it sound much more profound than it was. It’s actually a very commonplace idea. Off the top of my head, I can think of three songs that use the same imagery. For some reason though I thought it was novel and deep and I’m glad I thought that because it started me down the road.

I think we all at the beginning write like travelers who don’t know what to pack, especially when we are young and are trying to do something as psychologically complex as writing poetry while we still have little understanding of our emotions and motivations. It’s a shame that someone would say something so discouraging to a young writer as that teacher said to you. I always had a lot of support from friends and family. When I was in my early teens, I wrote a lot about racial oppression and other complex political ideas I only half understood. I read, almost exclusively, Black Arts Movement poetry and listened to Public Enemy and Brand Nubian. So those were my influences. As an adult, I realize that I was really writing about the feelings of powerless that I felt as the youngest and least physically imposing person in just about every situation I was in.

Several of your stories take place in Cross River which if I remember correctly is your hometown. Can you share a bit about your upbringing? What were you like as a high school student? What was Cross River like as a child compared to what it’s like now?

Cross River is my hometown the way Winesburg, Ohio is Sherwood Anderson’s hometown, in that it doesn’t exist outside of my imagination (and hopefully the imaginations of people reading about it). It was founded in 1807 by rebellious slaves after a successful Insurrection. I named it after a state in Nigeria that a great uncle of mine said he traced our family to. I never got to examine his research before he passed so I don’t know if it holds any merit, but the idea of pointing to a specific area on the map and saying, “This is where my ancestors lived before slavery” is a very attractive one to me. It’s always saddened me that much of my family history is completely inaccessible. Naming my city Cross River is a very, very small act of rebellion. I’ve enjoyed so far how every story I’ve written has added on to the mythology of the town. I see my project as telling the story of Cross River from it’s chaotic beginning to its eventual end. Sometimes I get the urge to write fiction outside of the Cross River Saga, but for now and well into the future Cross River will be my first priority.

I actually grew up in Silver Spring, MD, right outside of Washington, D.C.

As far as what I was like in high school: I don’t know how to answer that. I loved the movie Scarface, Wu-Tang Clan and Bob Marley. I read good poetry and wrote bad poetry. I joked too much and my friends and I spent a good portion of our time devising clever insults toward one another and everyone else. And then there were people who didn’t appreciate that. And there was an unhealthy amount of time in my parent’s basement watching rap videos. I spent a great deal of time alone. I did very little school work and made several aborted bids at reading the encyclopedia straight through.

Some writers do not take the MFA route, but you did and are now a professor at Bowie state University. Why did you take the MFA route? What was your graduate school experience like? Now that you are a professor, what is your approach to teaching others to be writers? Worst experience as a professor?

I was a reporter in Upstate, New York and was pretty frustrated with my life inside and outside of work so I made a list of things I wanted to do next. Getting an MFA was the best option on the list. I think going to film school and buying a house and staying in Upstate, New York were the other options. So, in retrospect, there were really no other options. I really didn’t think too far ahead or about what it would do for me professionally; I just wanted to spend time working on fiction. Turned out to be three of the best years I’ve had. I met some amazing and supportive people who felt the same way I did about fiction.

I sort of stumbled into the professor gig. My family finds it funny that this is what I do for a living, because up until grad school I had little use for formal education. I used to read everything, but what I was assigned to read as a half-assed form or rebellion. The hardest part of teaching is running into students who are like I was as an undergraduate. One of my colleagues pointed out that sometimes students can be misguided in their rebellion and it’s our job to teach them to rebel in a constructive manner. I’ve taken to telling my students in the beginning of the semester that sharpening their minds is one of the most rebellious acts there is. But I imagine if someone had told me that when I was 17, I would have said that reading the encyclopedia, instead of my textbooks, rather than in addition to them, is effectively sharpening my mind.

Outside of a few guest lectures in colleague’s classes, I haven’t done much in the way of teaching creative writing at Bowie. I teach Composition and Developmental Writing, though we are working on overhauling the undergraduate creative writing program. I think a lot of really good things are going to happen in Bowie’s creative writing program in the next few years.

You are working on a novel, right? What’s this novel about? What is the most difficult part of writing a novel as compared to your short stories? When should we expect it?

My novel is about a guy who accidentally kills a cop. It has some structural issues that I’m working on cleaning up and then I’m going to send it back out. Expect it sometime after agents and publishers stop rejecting it.

The most daunting thing about novel writing is actually the most fun part. It’s very much like swimming in the wide open part of the ocean and while you’re writing, the ocean in front of you expands and each complication in the narrative is like a very strong current. When writing short stories, I can see the shore usually. When I get lost in a short story, I’m confident that in a few pages it will be over. That end may not come for weeks or years, but it doesn’t seem too overwhelming. I find the novel’s vastness exciting now, but it used to cause me to panic. I once dropped a class in novel-writing because I was wracked with fear about what I was being asked to accomplish that semester.

I just read A Ramadan Tale. It is a familiar narrative in Muslim communities, but I’ve yet to see it written in short story form. Omar is raised as Muslim then marries a non-Muslim woman named Karen who converts to Islam only for him to decide that he no longer wants to be Muslim. What inspired this story? Was there any research involved?

My wife is Muslim and most years she fasts for Ramadan and, not having been raised around people who fast, I often absentmindedly eat in front of her while the hunger pangs are clawing at her belly. Sometimes I even think I’m scoring points by offering her breakfast only to get a well-deserved cold, angry stare. In conceiving the story, I imagined a character who eats in front of his fasting wife as an act of passive aggression. Why would someone do that? How might the wife react? From those questions Kadijah (Karen) and Omar were born.

I didn’t do much research (outside of asking my wife about certain Arabic terms and basic online research) because I got the sense that there were a lot of things Kadijah was struggling to understand about Islam. Since it is written from Kadija’s perspective, I wanted a small level of inaccuracy. Kadija’s lost her guide in Islam and probably he hasn’t been guiding her in a long time.

A Friendly Game broke my heart a bit. You build these delicately layered characters in a few short pages. I was especially intrigued by how you humanized “Lady McBeard” and the descriptions of Kwayku were both humorous and at times unsettling. I am curious as to where this story draws from — tidbits of personal life, other unfinished short stories…?

So much of A Friendly Game comes from afternoons playing basketball with my friends and then a few times we’d go across the street to a friend’s house to see if the porn channel was coming in clearly on her television. It was always scrambled fuzz when I was there, but I was told that messing with the antennae caused it to unscramble sometimes.

I was the smallest and least coordinated one in those basketball game, but I still had a good time. But there can be a dark side to those exchanges, especially when people are trying to prove themselves by being dominant and there is a lot of testosterone flying around. A lot of fights break out during those games. I’ve never experienced anything as extreme as the events of the story, but I don’t doubt that it could get there.

That story was a long time in gestation. Kwayku did in fact come from a failed story, one that I’m re-working now. He was a minor character, but he was so much bigger than everything else in the story that he sucked up all the oxygen. I knew I wasn’t finished with him so I plucked him out. He probably won’t be in the revised version of that original story. I don’t intend to spend any more time with him. It’s difficult to inhabit a character who is so outwardly mean and cruel (though, I maintain that he is the only one of the boys in that story who truly has a “good heart”). Sometimes I wonder what he became of as an adult.

Joan Santi, or “Lady MacBeard,” started out as little more than a plot device. Some of the criticism I got in workshop was to not stack the deck against her and to let her be human. The last thing I added to the story were the sections exploring her life during the crack era. The story is about dehumanization and it undermined the story to dehumanize Joan. I went to college in DC in the decade following the height of the crack epidemic and I encountered a lot of people similar to Joan. When I lived there in the late 90s, the neighborhood had just started recovering from the 80s. People like Joan are often dehumanized and laughed at and when you see people climbing on stop signs and rolling around on the concrete, I understand people dismissing them as “crackheads.” But each of those people has a very human story behind how they got to that point.

You have some more serious work, then you have the more humorous work like “This Modern Writer: Wyclef Jean In His Own Words By Rion Scott”. A 2010 piece published in PANK Magazine, the piece mocks Wyclef’s run for Haiti’s president. You, cleverly, use the lyrics of his songs to answer a series of interview questions which in the end make Wycelf’s presidential run appear a bit ridiculous. What prompted this piece? Do you plan to do more work like in the future? (I hope you do…maybe using Herman Cain soundbites…?)

Wyclef didn’t need my help to make his presidential run look ridiculous. A lot of my satire is prompted by being simultaneously amused and outraged by certain things. Wyclef sort of set himself up for that one with his inept run for the Haitian presidency.

In terms of satire, my column on the PANK blog, Forgive Him Father For He Knows Not What He Has Done is inappropriate ridiculousness in the same vein of the Wyclef post. I’ve taken a sort of hiatus from “Forgive Him Father…”, but I plan to return.

Humor and fiction are rewarding in different ways and I much prefer to write fiction. I find it difficult to write humor and fiction at the same time. They come from different parts of me. Fiction can be heavy and draining. Humor often serves as a good break from that. I think though that the humor has had an unexpected effect on my approach to fiction. I’m much more interested now in making everything in a story be in the service of achieving some sort of emotional response in the reader. Whereas before I was more interested in sentence-level theatrics that may promote admiration for the sentence rather than a feeling. Humor is all about achieving a specific response in the reader and if it doesn’t do that then it fails.

So I read that you were a 2nd Runner-up for the Pan-African Literary Forum Africana-Fiction Contest for your story Juba. What is Juba about? I know Yusef Komunyakaa (one of my favorites) was there that year! How was your experience in Ghana?

Juba is a about a guy who is mistaken for a weed dealer named Juba which sets him on a journey to find Juba. It was published in an issue of the journal New Madrid.

Ghana was beautiful. Something I reflect on everyday. One day I’ll write about it in some fashion.

Your work is primarily fiction. Any interest in non-fiction?

Writing non-fiction physically pains me. I enjoy reading good non-fiction, but writing it makes me curl up into a ball. There are some pieces that I need to write. So I will sit down and write them one day when the sentences come to me. Some day I will need a break from fiction and the satire well will be empty. But I really do enjoy writing fiction over anything else.

On your blog, you mentioned that Ellison’s Invisible Man and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn are two of your favorite texts.

What first attracted you to Huckleberry Finn as a reader? I am sure you read the January 2011 story in the Wall Street Journal about Alan Gribben, an Auburn University professor and Mark Twain scholar who was planning to release a version of “Huckleberry Finn” (in one volume along with “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”) that will replace all mentions of the N-word with “slave.” Taking the “nigger” out of this classical work, some have argued, empties the book of its intended meaning and heaviness. It’s in the public domain now so publishers can edit at will, but I am curious as to your thoughts about this choice.

I did a PANK column on this topic, (“Slave, Please“). I was amused, outraged and a bit horrified by Gribben’s choice. More amused than anything. The way Twain places the word “nigger” in Huck Finn is so deliberate that changing it to “slave” distorts the meaning and tone of much of the book. Also, it makes some sentences in the book non-sensical since “slave” and “nigger” are not synonyms. Needless to say, Gribben’s version of Huck Finn is not the one I will be introducing to my son. Actually, I might. We’ll have a good laugh about it together. We’ll work on a version of Huck Finn in which we replace all instances of the word “nigger” with “nigga.”

Twain really has taught me a lot about satire. I really did laugh out loud a lot at Huck Finn. Then some of it is heartbreaking and then some of it is bizarre and some of it is bad, particularly the ending. It’s a well-rounded novel and probably the one novel I’ve read that doesn’t have any boring parts. Even the bad parts aren’t boring.

When I’m writing satire I like to read a lot of Twain essays. Some of them are so specific to the time that all the humor has not carried across the century, but those are probably the most instructive. It teaches me a lot about carrying the effect or the meaning of a sentence in the rhythm of the sentence, not just in the words.

And regarding Invisible Man, he writes in the epilogue, “And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man.” In what ways do you identify with the sentiment here, even if just in the realm of being a writer?

I like that quote. It’s the essence of the book. Invisible Man works on so many levels. If you strip away the political aspect of the work, there are still many layers there. Finding your own path is a pretty heavy existential burden. I’ve gone down a lot of paths as a writer. I made a very specific decision to engage my cultural heritage in a very specific way in my fiction. When I did that my whole fictional world opened up.

My time on Twitter is limited, but whenever I do have a chance to indulge a bit, your tweets always make me chuckle, albiet nervously. Your tweets range from Herman Cain to Moammar Gadhafi to Little Brother. Somehow you make it all work and some of the tweets are nano stories in and of themselves. Do you feel like Twitter helps or hinders your writing process? Is it good fodder for your short stories?

Why the nervousness in your chuckles?

There are over 1,000 ways to use Twitter. People who dismiss it as trivial or useless have no imagination. My favorite use for Twitter is as a humor writing exercise. Sometimes I crack jokes and they fall flat. Sometimes I crack jokes and then expand them into full humor pieces. Many of my “Forgive Him Father… “posts over on PANK started out as tweets.

Twitter both helps and hinders my writing. Tweeting is a good way to practice concision as a writer, but at the same time, I follow a lot of news organizations and literary journals and could spend all day clicking on poems, news articles, short stories and the like. Actually, I have wasted entire days that way. That time is usually better spent writing. Lately though Twitter has informed my fiction. It’s probably fair to say the manuscript I’m working on now started off as a tweet. It’s still only 140 characters. No, not really.

And a follow up to that, what is your writing process like? Do you start with a line and grow from them? Do the characters exist in your head first?

It varies. Sometimes a sentence. Sometimes a character. An image. The most important thing for me is to be immersive. If I make it real to myself, then it is more likely to be real for the reader. This includes reading a lot of work what connects or runs parallel to what I’m writing and just becoming, for a lack of a better word, the characters I’m writing about. Which was a lot easier to do when I was younger and had fewer responsibilities.

When all else fails, if you put two or more characters together something will happen.

When you’re not writing or teaching, what are you up to?

Raising my son. He’s 1-year-old. He’s against me doing much else and for such a little dude he can be quite forceful. He scares me. If he knew I was responding to these questions, there would be hell to pay. Fortunately though, right now, he’s fascinated by his hands and doesn’t realize that I’ve sneaked away to do something that doesn’t involve him.

I abhor canned questions, but I will ask this anyway…favorite authors (both emerging and established)? And music…favorites?

Every few years I read August Wilson’s 10-play cycle and it changes the way I write in some way. I’m always returning to the beginning and end of Invisible Man. Naipaul, despite his apparent madness, rocks my world. Roxane Gay’s Ayiti is pretty incredible as is Laura van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. Ryan Call’s The Weather Stations is pretty special.

Every year I try to listen to Richard Pryor’s oeuvre and there’s a lot in there for me. His bravery and honesty. Pryor and late Carlin are as important to me as my literary influences and Louis CK is creeping in there.

Music doesn’t do for me what it used to. I return a lot to dead prez, some Wu-Tang, The Doors. All these artists have directly influenced characters or stories somehow.

I also return to Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and Prince. Though they haven’t directly inspired anything. Maybe Prince and Fela have, slightly.

I once wrote a bad short screenplay in college called “Let’s Get Free” based on a dead prez line: “Are you ready for civil war?/ Could you take the life of somebody you know or have feelings for if necessary/I got cousins in the military, but as far as I’m concerned they died \when they registered.” That line was basically the central conflict between a revolutionary and his policeman brother. Some of the characters from that screenplay made their way into my novel.

I find it hard to imagine a song line becoming a whole story these days. I don’t really work that way anymore.

What’s next for you?

I have a Nov. 22 deadline for a draft of this novella I’m working on and it looks like I might hit it. Then I want to finish two or three stories that are hanging over my head. After that I continue with the revision of my novel. It’s been sitting for a long time. I have a new title and some new ideas. I just murdered a darling–a 30 page section. I’ll probably do some more killing before this round of revision is over and done with.