On Thursday, Oct. 13 at the Stewart Commons, Rion Amilcar Scott took the stage to read excerpts of his short story “Juba” as a part of the University of Maine’s New Writing Series. Scott is the author of the short story collection “Insurrections” and his writings of the fictional town of Cross River, Md., bring to life a predominantly African-American population filled with complications, depth and culture. Greg Howard, who introduced the New Writing Series Reading, said that Scott’s stories “work like dispatches” and portray “dizzying skill” within their pages.
Scott has been published in the Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Washington City Paper and numerous other publications. Growing up in Silver Spring, Md., he was inspired by Sesame Street and the work of Jim Henson to write. When he is not writing, however, Scott is a lecturer in the English and Modern Languages department at Bowie State University.
With a nonchalant sense of humor, Scott tackles serious issues using his myriad of characters. In “Juba” the main character is mistaken for a drug dealer, with conversations about police brutality and black culture naturally following the error. The reading was phenomenal, Scott’s voice both rich and robust. The writing seemed honest, full and natural. As he continued reading, he let people into a world, a town, that almost seemed real. Almost as though the next time one went to Maryland, they could ride into Cross River and stare.
A woman asked Scott about his ability to embrace black code in his writing during the question-and-answer section. “I believe in writing what you’re obsessed with,” Scott responded. “Write about what’s important and what you think about. I joke about dying early because I’m black, but statistically it’s not that crazy.”
He went further on to explain how writing in black code is something that not everyone can do and about using his culture to bring it to life.
People continued to ask questions about his writing long into the reading, particularly about some of his more realistic pieces peppered with strange moments. One such moment included a character translating religious texts into dialects. “We all need that moment to observe the absurdity. I mean, we’re obscure. We’re animals, but we talk,” Scott said.
Another audience member asked about the class differences evidenced in his work. Scott explained his childhood, growing up right outside Washington D.C. and how the issues nestled within the school districts and the disparities between certain neighborhoods and schools affected him. “It was funny because I was middle class and people would be like, ‘oh you’re from…’ and it was an absurd way to grow up,” he said.
Scott also spoke to world building, suggesting that “it all starts with the characters” and that if a writer was ever stuck, it would be a good idea to set two characters into a conversation. Scott talked about the importance of being authentic in both personal life and in the workplace. “It’s very human to just be genuine…I just want to be genuine. I want to help people like they helped me.”
“I like that he wasn’t afraid to bring his own culture with him,” Alex Terrell, a graduate student at the University of Maine, said. A third-year undergraduate student agreed. “I like the comment he made about the universality of the human experience,” he said. Scott explained earlier that although English is one language, there are dozens of microlinguistics associated with it, each with different experiences and culture woven into them.