AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Let's go to a place that's not on any map - Cross River, Md. It lives in the imagination of writer Rion Amilcar Scott and on the pages of his books. His new collection of short stories is called "The World Doesn't Require You." Amilcar Scott says Cross River was born out of the country's only successful slave revolt. His stories jump around in time and shift perspective. Scott told me he wanted to explore a fictional place - but not in any way he'd seen before.
RION AMILCAR SCOTT: We have a lot of alternate realities in which the Confederacy wins, which I don't think we need because (laughter) - they lost the war, but the idea about all they won. So I wanted to have a place where the idea of battle is still waging but there's actually a physical victory. And these people are the children of the insurrection. They always have to - it's always on their mind. It's always something that they're asking themselves. Am I living up to this insurrection? Am I living up to this ideal?
CORNISH: So you create this place, but it's not a utopia. It's not the world of "Black Panther." (Laughter) Right?
AMILCAR SCOTT: It's not, no.
CORNISH: How come?
AMILCAR SCOTT: Utopias are boring. I can't - (laughter) I can't write fiction off of a utopia. I need that conflict.
CORNISH: Can you give us an example of a story that starts with a nugget of something that we might recognize as a modern-day conflict for black Americans but that you reimagined?
AMILCAR SCOTT: I think a lot about "Rolling in my Six-Fo'." That was a story that begins with - I guess not something that that's recognizable - something kind of ridiculous, people reenacting the Underground Railroad, which I had never seen before. I think a lot of that reenacting that I see is sort of nostalgic, you know, for the Civil War. So...
CORNISH: And for people who haven't read the story, to say the - set up the premise.
AMILCAR SCOTT: A gentleman claims that he is reenacting the Underground Railroad, and he drives through the South picking up hitchhikers. And the character - his name is James-my-man - picks up a hitchhiker named Rick. So I started with something that was not necessarily recognizable but taking a recognizable thing and making it ridiculous. And through that, I thought I could examine any number of things, a number of systems for oppression and that sort of thing.
CORNISH: At one point in that story, "Rolling in my Six-Fo'," a character says that people don't understand that the past is the present. And that seems to be a through line for this entire book. Obviously, that's a well-held sentiment in fiction.
AMILCAR SCOTT: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
CORNISH: How did you want to play with it?
AMILCAR SCOTT: Yeah, it's sort of playing around with Faulkner's idea of the past is not even past. I think that we are so guided by ideas that we only have a dim understanding of. We're guided by things that happened a long time ago, but they hold so much weight and power in our day-to-day life. And you know, I think it's worth it for us to think about things. I think a lot of the - we hold ideas, and we don't know where they came from. And it's worth it to actually take some time and think about - where do these ideas come from? Do they still matter? Are they harmful at this point?
CORNISH: We should say that your stories are also funny...
AMILCAR SCOTT: Thank you.
CORNISH: ...And sad. There's a really amazing one about essentially a robot...
AMILCAR SCOTT: Two robots...
CORNISH: ...Two robots. But the original creator is trying to create slaves...
CORNISH: ...All over again. And when his idea is rejected, he sort of lives in isolation with this slave and this robot, who - the story's told from his point of view. It was a really dark kind of Afrofuturism. Right?
CORNISH: Usually Afrofuturism imagines a better place for us - or at least with new complications. Why do something like this that's, in a way, so literal?
AMILCAR SCOTT: I think those robot stories are slave stories. You know, what is C-3PO but a slave? And he's even treated poorly. A lot of times, I want to - you know, I'm asking the question of, do we replicate - you know, black people - in what ways do we replicate systems of oppression in our lives? Without even really thinking about it, how do we replicate those systems of oppression? The idea is that we should be thinking about them so that we can dismantle them. That's the awareness that the robot, Jim, is coming to.
CORNISH: To that end, I noticed women in - throughout the book are ciphers, mysteries - at one point, literal sirens (laughter) - and are unknowable to these male characters. And is that something that is on purpose? I mean, these characters are flawed - right? - the heroes...
AMILCAR SCOTT: Yes.
CORNISH: ...Of these stories. They're paranoid. Some of them are mean-spirited. But the women they can't figure out at all. And...
AMILCAR SCOTT: (Laughter).
CORNISH: ...How did you want to write about women? And why did you make them opaque in a way?
AMILCAR SCOTT: A lot of these stories are asking the questions of how we accept ideas. And a lot of the ideas that men accept are ideas of misogyny. We are given these ideas. We benefit from them (laughter). So a lot of times, we just run with them. It comes to a point where you have to really think about it - you know? - and really have to ask yourself - how are you going to tear it down?
For instance, Jim in that second story, he starts to understand. And he starts to see it. But...
CORNISH: And he befriends, we should say, an android who is a woman.
AMILCAR SCOTT: He befriends a cyborg, yes, a woman. And through his relationship with her, he starts to really see it. But then he can't really get over the hump. There's a certain comfort in being - not necessarily being the oppressor but in being someone who benefits from the oppression.
CORNISH: Right. We should say - and this is not a spoiler alert - she wants them to run away. And in an important moment, Jim can't seem to make that leap with her.
AMILCAR SCOTT: He's programmed. He's programmed. It's programming.
CORNISH: The men in your stories, they suffer for that misogyny or suffer for that inability to connect.
AMILCAR SCOTT: We all do. I mean, I think in real life we do. And I think a lot of times, the benefits are in our face, but we don't necessarily see the suffering that we are carrying with and the way that it ripples out and causes damage through generations.
CORNISH: One thing I found interesting is that I'm reading these stories and connecting with the heroes, but I'm using the word heroes very loosely. It's not that they're antiheroes, but I don't want to be like them.
CORNISH: Right? Like, they're not making it, these guys.
AMILCAR SCOTT: Mm-hmm.
CORNISH: There's something kind of diabolical about that, frankly.
AMILCAR SCOTT: You can learn more from a fool than I think you can from a hero.
CORNISH: It made me think differently about what a victory is.
AMILCAR SCOTT: (Laughter) In what way?
CORNISH: I don't know. Just sometimes I'd think, I think he got what he wanted - unfortunately.
CORNISH: A Pyrrhic victory...
AMILCAR SCOTT: (Laughter).
CORNISH: ...Over and over again (laughter) - I started to worry about you. Give someone a win.
CORNISH: You know, Toni Morrison died earlier this month.
AMILCAR SCOTT: Yes.
CORNISH: And you've said that so much of black literature that has, like, a slave narrative is written for and to white people but that she did it differently...
AMILCAR SCOTT: Yes.
CORNISH: ...Right? Can you talk about how that idea has permeated your work or just her influence on you?
AMILCAR SCOTT: Yeah. Until recently, I didn't necessarily realize how much of a Morrisonian idea it was to write to your people and using a black culture as a catalyst and as a jumping-off point. You know, a lot of black writers are following that lead nowadays.
And I'm reading a lot of slave narratives right now. And sometimes it makes me very sad, the ways that it's written towards white people. There's - in William Wells Brown's first slave narrative, there's a scene in which he tricks a free black man into taking a beating meant for him. He wrote the scene as a piece of comedy to amuse white people as a way to help end slavery.
CORNISH: Right, who would read the book - right? - and...
AMILCAR SCOTT: Who would read the book...
CORNISH: ...Who would also maybe be a part of abolitionist causes.
AMILCAR SCOTT: And to me, that moment in his life is a tragedy, or it should be considered a tragedy. And I'm sure he considered it a tragedy. But he had to write it as a comedy. You know, I want to write in such a way that people are not necessarily laughing at the suffering. Black life's not just suffering either. There's a lot of beauty there that I hope that people will - can see within my stories and the stories of a lot of my peers.
CORNISH: That feels like a, as you called it, Morrisonian idea, as well.
CORNISH: Rion Amilcar Scott - his new book of short stories is called "The World Doesn't Require You."
Thank you so much for speaking with us.
AMILCAR SCOTT: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOULU'S "THE GAME")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.