First-time writers are often pushed into writing novels, rather than short story collections, in the belief that novels sell better. But the craft of the short story is an art form unto itself: the ability to create a whole world, rich in plot, characters and a satisfying conclusion, in a confined space.
It is not a form for the faint of heart. But it is the perfect form for Rion Amilcar Scott’s debut book, Insurrections, a collection of stories concerning the black citizens of the fictional town of Cross River, Md., founded in 1807 after the only successful slave revolt in the United States. Here, the town as a whole, rather than individual characters, anchors the narrative and becomes a living testament to the richness of African-American history and culture.
The first story of the collection, “Good Times,” opens with the iconic, violent image of a black man hanging from a noose: “Walter caught the sight out of the corner of his eye one hot July day, and for so long afterward he asked himself what if he had never seen those dangling legs from the balcony above, kicking, kicking, kicking against the open air.” The man is Rashid, Walter’s upstairs neighbor. Walter and his wife, Laura, cut him loose and Rashid returns home; almost a week passes before Rashid works up the courage to visit Walter, thank him for saving his life and admit that this was a suicide attempt.
Awkwardly, Walter and Rashid strike up a friendship of sorts, fueled by Rashid’s dissatisfaction with life and Walter’s loneliness. It is a testament to Scott’s talent as a writer that the story, although based on a serious subject, is not wholly dark but inhabits moments of lightness that sustain the reader. Here, too, is Scott’s powerful work with theme and metaphor: Through the hanging and characterization of Rashid, he explores the figure of the black man who internalizes society’s negative messages and destroys himself, rather than standing strong in his identity to thrive.
One of the most compelling stories of the collection is “202 Checkmates,” an account of a father teaching his daughter how to play his favorite game of chess as a way of understanding the world: “Chess is like real life,” the father says. “The white pieces go first so they got an advantage over the black pieces.”
Here, again, Scott crafts a powerful image to hold the metaphorical weight of the relationship between father and daughter: “Tom chased Jerry across the television screen and then the image dissolved into a white dot in the center,” writes Scott in the opening of the story. “I turned to see my father holding the remote control in one hand and a crumpled cloth cradled in the crook of his other arm.” The meaning that arises is the destruction of the innocence of childhood and awareness of the world of grown-ups. Here, as the father and mother argue over the father’s inability to find work and their marriage slowly deteriorates, the daughter learns that her parents are not perfect but deeply human and fallible.
Other stories of note are “Klan,” which concerns itself with the historical violence against the black citizens of Cross River; “Everybody Lives in a Flood Zone,” which follows the uneasy relationship between two brothers; “Razor Bumps,” which explores the magical world of the black barbershop; and “Three Insurrections,” which articulates the importance of pivotal moments—the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr., the Haitian Revolution and, of course, the Cross River Insurrection of 1807—in awakening a young man to the necessity of fighting for social justice.
The writing of Insurrections is energetic and musical—fully inhabiting a diverse array of storytelling styles. Scott, it appears, has a knack for finding the best structure to organically fit the details of the plot. The stories are replete with vivid, visceral descriptions of action and character. Scott is able to get into the heads of his characters and bring them to life as real, complicated souls. “Walter thought of the things he wanted to say, but he let them rest on his tongue,” Scott writes in “Good Times.” “Sometimes Laura’s wisdom was infinite, he thought, that’s why he had stayed with her for all those years upon years.”
Scott makes full use of his talents, adding experimental notes in the vein of James Joyce that add to the telling—albeit, a few times they create stylistic irregularities that distract from the telling. Still, the prose is strong, compelling and sophisticated—revealing layers of the human condition that make ourselves look closer, look deeper and think.
In Scott’s hands, the short story collection becomes an epic album, each story placed in musical accordance with the next to craft a complete, melodic whole. Scott’s attention to structure and rhythm comes as no surprise; he has given lectures about the literary influence of the musical genius of Kendrick Lamar and cites music as one of his greatest inspirations. Here is an exciting new voice in contemporary literature.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.