Review: The Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott
The Insurrections: Stories
Author: Rion Amilcar Scott
The Insurrections is a collection of thirteen stories dealing with societal constructs and the constant, quiet push against them. Some pushes are small, such as in the story “Checkmates,” where the daughter of a chess enthusiast secretly practices learning not how to best a chess master, but how to bond with and love her parents in a way they cannot see. In contrast, the story of “The Slapsmith” is a brief, violent tale of a young girl defending herself and her child from the gritty and dark reality of being homeless and alone. Each story finds a new definition of resistance, a theme which is brought home again and again by author Rion Amilcar Scott.
Scott uses the fictional city of Cross River as his stage. A predominantly African American town, Cross River houses PhDs to thugs to those suffering from (the invented, yet utterly believable) Reverse Animalism. To level the playing field, Scott gives each character and story a similar voice, a nod to the communal suffering and struggle these unsettlingly real people work through in the book. The currents of violence and sexuality in every story allow the bildungsroman-esque nature of this collection to sing out. The Insurrections is not whispering lovingly to us with each turn of the page; it is screaming to be acknowledged – screaming for change.
It would be a gross disservice to detail, and thus ruin the experience of, each story contained within this slight volume. “The Legend of Ezekiel Marcus” is a tale best read without the ghosts of other opinions echoing between the paragraphs. Instead, we focus on the story which encapsulates everything Scott achieves in a mere fifteen pages, the haunting tale of “Juba.”
As many of Scott’s stories, it opens in a most innocuous way – with two men shaking hands. Immediately afterward, our narrator (who is cleverly never given his own name) is mistaken for a man named Juba, a man who is, by local legend, purported to be “Tony Montana… The Medellin Cartel, John Gotti, and Black Caesar all in one.” He is a dealer and a killer, and our narrator looks remarkably like him.
The narrator is arrested in a case of mistaken identity. The cops are not interested in his insistence that they have the wrong man and hold him until they are no longer able. This scene is especially poignant, as our narrator, though frustrated, accepts that he has been picked up off the street. He is a black man in America, after all. The nonchalance of both narrator and author says volumes more than an explanation of our social climate could ever achieve. Given the current flavor of the news and American police tactics, Juba’s handling of the police is almost poetic.
After his release, the narrator becomes obsessed with the true identity of Juba. He reaches out to family, friends, and even a small girl who claims Juba is her uncle. Eventually, through the combination of detective work and sheer luck, our narrator is brought into the home of the legendary Cross River Juba.
Scott is a master of the sleight of hand. Though the reader is told ad nauseum how bad Juba is, the older man seated in his shabby apartment is more grandfather than kingpin gangster. Though he does deal enough weed to afford the roof over his head and the clothes on his back, Juba is most interested in rediscovering the lost language of Cross River. A religious man (as several characters in Scott’s stories are), Juba is working on translating the Bible from English to “Cross Riverian.” In detailing his efforts, Juba seems to touch our narrator. After their meeting the narrator corresponds with Juba, and ultimately begins assisting and critiquing the translation effort.
At the close of the story the narrator sits on the bus, and is yet again mistaken for Juba. He is passed a paper which contains Cross Riverian phrases, and ultimately does not resist the identity mishap. The narrator has accepted that Juba is not the name of a particular gangster. Rather, Juba is the man who keeps the past alive, who carries the torch of forgotten languages and time for when society will need them. In arresting the narrator at the start of the story, the police push him into the exact world they are attempting to tamp out; not a world of drugs and crime, but a world which celebrates old and otherwise forgotten cultures.
Assimilation into society is not conforming to one way of being. No, in Scott’s poignant work The Insurrections, to create a successful society, we must always resist what does not feel right and hold the past to our breasts.
Reviewed for the SFWP Quarterly by Beth Osborne.
Beth Osborne is a chocolate enthusiast living in Ithaca, New York. When she isn’t reading books, Beth can be found wandering in the mountains, baking bread, and training for triathlons. Before she was reading, Beth was an LAPD detective. But several incidents at Astoria Elementary School convinced her to pursue a quieter life.