The BookBrowse Review

Published September 16, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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    by Natasha Trethewey
The World Doesn't Require You
The World Doesn't Require You
by Rion Amilcar Scott

Paperback (25 Aug 2020), 384 pages.
Publisher: Liveright/W.W. Norton
ISBN-13: 9781631497889
Genres
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

The World Doesn't Require You announces the arrival of a generational talent, as Rion Amilcar Scott shatters rigid genre lines to explore larger themes of religion, violence, and love - all told with sly humor and a dash of magical realism.

Established by the leaders of the country's only successful slave revolt in the mid-nineteenth century, Cross River still evokes the fierce rhythms of its founding. In lyrical prose and singular dialect, a saga beats forward that echoes the fables carried down for generations―like the screecher birds who swoop down for their periodic sacrifice, and the water women who lure men to wet deaths.

Among its residents―wildly spanning decades, perspectives, and species―are David Sherman, a struggling musician who just happens to be God's last son; Tyrone, a ruthless PhD candidate, whose dissertation about a childhood game ignites mayhem in the neighboring, once-segregated town of Port Yooga; and Jim, an all-too-obedient robot who serves his Master. As the book builds to its finish with "Special Topics in Loneliness Studies", a fully-realized novella, two unhinged professors grapple with hugely different ambitions, and the reader comes to appreciate the intricacy of the world Scott has created―one where fantasy and reality are eternally at war.

Contemporary and essential, The World Doesn't Require You is a "leap into a blazing new level of brilliance" (Lauren Groff) that affirms Rion Amilcar Scott as a writer whose storytelling gifts the world very much requires.

The Electric Joy of Service

The Master's divorce became official the day following Independence Day. This is the first of the small ironies that I learned, over time, to appreciate. I wasn't around until the day following Insurrection Day the next year. My inner workings were so rudimentary then that I didn't understand much.

The Master used to bang about in his workshop. Little Nigger Jim, he'd say. Don't let me catch you trusting a woman.

If the Master had been a whole person, capable of giving and receiving love, he never would have sought to create me. I was born of his desire to be free of the small sense- dulling tasks of daily necessity. With his wife no longer there to complete those tasks, the Master had to manufacture someone to carry them out.

The week of my birth, the sky burned with fireworks set off by revelers celebrating the anniversary of the slave revolt that freed their ancestors. The loud sound caused a jitter in my system that I passed on to later models. When I asked the Master about the insistent popping— every few minutes a blast shaking the house— he mentioned something about the Great Insurrection and moved on without looking up. Back then I wore a shiny metal exterior with LNJ1 engraved across the chest. My movements were slow, awkward, and deliberate. In fact, the first joke I told was to ask the Master to forgive my robotic movements; since I am a robot there is no other way for me to move but robotically. I learned and adapted slowly, aided by near- constant software updates. The early fog of those frequent system crashes— like briefly lapsing into the cloudiest dementia. It's a wonder I wasn't scrapped and dismantled, my programming farmed out to less ambitious, easier- to-implement projects. My saving grace, I believe, is that I loved to serve.

Preparing the Master's foie gras, mixing his morning mimosas and his afternoon margaritas, cleaning the workshop, taking dictation, scanning files and projecting a hologram of the contents into the wide- open air— when I came to know joy, there was no higher joy than serving. It's a great sadness that later models don't share my excitement for the service arts, but this is the Master's fault.

I'm not sure why he pushed his business partners— Winston and Lucas— the way he did. He told them, Let's just paint these fuckers black. Give them big red lips; dress them like lawn jockeys. Sell them to white folks. They'll have slaves again and we'll get rich. Nobody gets hurt.

His partners chuckled, thinking the Master was making a joke until days before they were to meet with Meratti, Inc. That's when he presented the new me. Slate- black face, bulbous white eyes. White gloves. Fat grinning lips. Since then I've done research and understand how grotesque I look. The history of it all. That day the revulsion I inspired thoroughly hurt me.

We can't take that to Meratti, Winston said. They'll . . . they'll . . . God, look at that thing.

Bawse, if I do something wrong, I said. I'se powerful sorry. I'se just wants to serve ya.

How you guys liking the new language pack I installed? the Master asked. Look, you don't like the name? Fine. We'll turn it into an acronym or something, but this is the future.

My appearance was such a distraction, no one noticed my new software was about three- thousand-point- five-two leaps ahead of previous incarnations. I no longer needed the Master to write code or to issue upgrades, I could do that all on my own.

After that disastrous meeting, the Master knew Winston and Lucas would move against him. He arranged his own meeting with Meratti, Inc. The board members gasped when I walked in holding a tray of hors d'oeuvres. I made sure to lay thick the charm. I served drinks. I sang. I danced.

Rich whites will rush out to buy their own robot slaves, the Master said. And we can make these things any race the customer pleases. Little Asian Jims. Little Wetback Jims. Little Cracker Jims. Anything.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The World Doesn't Require You: Stories. Copyright (c) 2019 by Rion Amilcar Scott. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Set in the fictional Mid-Atlantic city of Cross River, this electric and eclectic story collection riffs on the social and inner complexities of Black lives today.

Print Article Publisher's View   

You can't move for young authors being marketed as "unique," "bold" and "visionary" these days. So it comes as quite a shock to the system to encounter the genuine article. The 11 stories and novella that make up Rion Amilcar Scott's sophomore collection are joyous, shocking and, at times, soaringly wondrous. Like some master hip-hop artist dropping a trailblazing mixtape, Scott remixes the past through an incisive contemporary eye and an effervescent vernacular voice to deliver a work that adds something new to the conversation about the Black experience in America today. The stories share a setting, the fictional town of Cross River, and overarching themes; even plot points and characters drift in and out of the confines of their individual narratives.

The World Doesn't Require You pole-vaults right out of the gate with "David Sherman, the last Son of God," a tour de force overture showcasing Scott's punchy prose that jumps off the page. An ex-con street musician is given a second chance when his pastor brother invites him to lead the house band at the Church of the Ever-Loving Christ. To prove his worth, David embarks on a jazz odyssey of the soul in search of a pioneering sound that will bring glory to God, Cross River, the church and himself. His spiritual breakthrough spreads like wildfire and gains a cult-like following, the fallout of which is examined in two further stories told from different points of view.

Critics have been quick to liken Scott's fictional Cross River to Yoknapatawpha County, William Faulkner's "little postage stamp of native soil." But Stephen King's Castle Rock is perhaps a more fitting comparison, because strange things have, and continue, to happen in Cross River. From story to story Scott flits between subtle magical realism, mythical worldbuilding, futuristic sci-fi and even skin-crawling horror. The effect is dizzying and disorienting, sometimes disturbing, but always rewarding.

In "A Loudness of Screechers" sinister birds of prey circle over the city waiting for a human offering to tear into. This age-old ritual that breaks families apart is a matter of course that goes unquestioned and unchallenged. In "The Electric Joy of Service" and its counterpart "Mercury in Retrograde," Scott recontextualizes antebellum slavery between a hubristic master inventor and Robotic Personal Helpers (nicknamed Riffs) made to wear blackface. The robots wrestle with their docile programming in the face of increasing levels of degradation.

Then there's the penultimate story "Rolling in My Six-Fo," where a group of pill-popping pilgrims retrace the routes of the Underground Railroad – that same network of secret safe houses explored in Colson Whitehead's 2016 Pulitzer-winning novel (these two authors seemingly share a penchant for historical speculation). The druggy road trip descends into a grotesque nightmare of people morphing into beasts that plays with taboo racial imagery to horrific effect.

For all their fantastical elements, the stories strike a real note because they zero in on all too human conflicts and emotions. The many parallels to real-world history are there for anyone to pick up on. But every time characters get too bogged down in the past, believing this will grant them some special insight into their current predicaments, they only trip themselves up and find themselves worse off than before.

In the novella "Special Topics in Loneliness Studies," a university professor surmises he can overcome loneliness through intensive engagement with the life and texts of an 1800s Cross Riverian poet. The pursuit costs him his job and, almost, his sanity. And the standout "The Nigger Knockers" is satire at its most biting. Doctoral candidate Tyrone writes a dissertation positing that a version of the "ding dong ditch" game (in which one person knocks on the front door, while another sneaks in through the back and steals food or supplies) was in fact the secret key to Cross River's successful slave rebellion. This seemingly groundbreaking study catches the imagination of his best friend Darius with devastating consequences.

Again and again in the collection, the history academics and revisionist mythmakers are portrayed as well-meaning fools at best and devious saboteurs at worst. There's an argument to be made that just like his Riff robots who struggle to break free from their programming, Scott is pushing for an African American literature that can finally move on from the dominant tradition of slave and Jim Crow fictions, which continue to be publishing staples. (Just look to Whitehead's aforementioned The Underground Railroad and Ta-Nehesi Coates' newly released The Water Dancer.) Not because these no longer remain worthy stories to tell, but because there are other, newer and more pressing Black lives narratives that also need to be written and read.

The World Doesn't Require You is that rare short story collection – a unified work in which stories interweave and each successive chapter sheds light and adds deeper contexts of meaning to what came before. Once you reach the twists and turns of its climactic pages, you'll want to flip back to the beginning and read it all over again.

Reviewed by Dean Muscat

Washington Post
These stories range from satire (“The Electric Joy of Service”) to fantasy (“Numbers”) to horror (“Rolling in My Six-Fo’?”) and not one of them strikes a false note. There are angry notes. Even, perhaps, hostile ones. But none that are unwarranted. A few readers may be shocked by Scott’s use of cultural epithets, but those are far from unnecessary. We have so far to go and so little time to get there, Scott seems to say. Maybe spending a few hours in Cross River will help build a bridge. Or blow one up, if need be.

NPR
The book is less a collection of short stories than it is an ethereal atlas of a world that's both wholly original and disturbingly familiar; Scott proves to be immensely talented at conjuring an alternate reality that looks like an amplified version of our own. Bizarre, tender and brilliantly imagined, The World Doesn't Require You isn't just one of the most inventive books of the year, it's also one of the best.

Los Angeles Times
While Scott needs only a few pages to make an impact, he devotes the bulk of The World Doesn’t Require You to the novella-length closer, “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies.” Telling the story of an academic rivalry at Cross River’s historically black Freedman’s University, “Special Topics” at first feels elusive, with a kitchen sink construction of emails, PowerPoint slides, essays and imagined folklore amid an unreliable narration, but it coalesces into an indictment of a patriarchal academic system that diminishes female voices.

Booklist
Reminiscent of classic isolated-world fantasies like The Martian Chronicles (1950) and Kirinyaga (1998)...Scott's imagery and unique voice blend horror, satire, and magical realism into an intoxicating brew.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Scott's bold and often outlandish imagination makes for stories that may be difficult to define, but whose emotional authenticity is never once in doubt.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Mordantly bizarre and trenchantly observant, these stories stake out fresh territory in the nation's literary landscape.

Author Blurb Lauren Groff, author of Florida and Fates and Furies
I've been a fan of Rion Amilcar Scott's for years, but I was astonished by The World Does Not Require You, which seems a leap into a blazing new level of brilliance: it is a wild, restless, deeply intelligent collection of stories, each of which resists and subverts the limits of categorization. What a beautiful book.

Author Blurb Nafissa Thompson-Spires, author of Heads of the Colored People
Surreal, intertextual, and darkly comical stories... Rion Amilcar Scott writes in the tradition of George Schuyler and Ishmael Reed but with a distinctive wry, playful voice that is wholly his own. With breathtaking cruelty and devastating humor, Scott adduces the whole world in one community

Author Blurb Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of Patsy
Rion Amilcar Scott doesn't hold back or tiptoe around issues about race. He's the most courageous writer I know; and this collection is an excellent example and significant achievement. He's now made his mark as a force to reckon with.

Author Blurb Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman
In the midst of a renaissance of African American fiction, Rion Amilcar Scott's stories stand at the forefront of what's possible in this vanguard. Funny, sad, and always moving, these stories explore what it means to call a place like America home when it treats you with indifference or terror. The people in these stories are unforgettable, their lives recognizable, their voices, as written by Scott, wholly original.

Print Article Publisher's View  

The Play of Slave Children

One of the stories in The World Doesn't Require You is inspired by the games of slave children. Given the harsh and miserable social realities forced upon slaves, it almost seems antithetical to think there was opportunity for play and games. However, evidence gathered from interviews with former slaves suggests that many children managed to engage in similar forms of play as free children of the time period.

Corn husk dollSlave children played with dolls, balls and jump ropes, and also engaged in hopscotch and ring games. But since there was no possibility of purchasing toys from stores, children or their parents made their own. Discarded yarn was used to form balls. Corn husks or sticks and rags were used to create dolls. Marbles were made from clay.

There were also traditional games such as "skeeting." When lakes would freeze over in the winter, children would run out onto the frozen water, jump on the ice, and continue running as a sort of dare. Another game was "smut," which used grains of corn to stand in for the different suits in a traditional pack of cards.

Interestingly, research has shown that children avoided playing games that required the elimination of players, which potentially reflects the values of cooperation and community deemed important by slaves. For example, during a game similar to dodgeball, when somebody got hit by the ball, the children would simply start the game over again. This removed the need for players to have to sit on the sidelines for the remainder of the game.

Children also engaged in make-believe and roleplay. They would assume the roles of important characters from stories they made up or traditional folk stories, usually set around church activities, funerals and slave auctions. This goes to show that even in play, children were still governed by the realities they witnessed around them. Typically, children would continue to enact the roles they were born into and that formed the social etiquette of the Southern plantations. Even when white and Black children engaged in play together, despite some small friendships, the tendency was for the play world to reflect the caste system and hierarchy of the plantations. For example, in games of wagon, the white children would ride the cart while Black children pulled them along.

Despite these sad truths, historians believe that play was especially important to slave children since it allowed them to gain some semblance of control over their daily lives. Sports historian David K. Wiggins explains, "Play was one activity where slaves could realize a certain degree of dignity and could affirm and sustain their existence. They could withstand bondage much more easily when allowed to participate with fellow slaves in a variety of different play activities."

Through games and activities, children could come to terms with what they saw around them to better cope with slavery's stresses and instill a sense of self-worth in themselves. It's perhaps heartening to realize that even in situations of great oppression, children still have the capacity to conjure moments of joy and kindness.

Corn husk doll, courtesy of icollector.com.

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Dean Muscat

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