The World Doesn’t Require You
Author: Rion Amilcar Scott
Make Your Descendants Proud: Ancestral Worship, Language Ownership, and Whose Stories We Tell in Rion Amilcar Scott’s The World Doesn’t Require You
Review by Monica Prince, SFWP Managing Editor
At the Kensington Book Festival in April 2019, I met Rion Amilcar Scott. New to the publishing side of Santa Fe Writers Project, I had no idea who he was, but he gave a reading shortly before we did a panel presentation together. I mispronounced his name at least five times after I heard his reading because I was starstruck.
Have you ever heard someone read a book you’ve been wanting someone to write your whole life? That’s what The World Doesn’t Require You felt like.
When I got an advanced copy of Rion Amilcar Scott’s The World Doesn’t Require You, I was unprepared for the level of attention to the world building. Cross River, Maryland isn’t quite a fantastical town. There aren’t ghosts—except kind of—or dragons or witches or new languages—except kind of. But Cross River both exists in the historical context of a country forever divided and a new world simultaneously desired and abhorred.
Let me back up: The World Doesn’t Require You isn’t our first introduction to Cross River, MD. But I didn’t know that. Andrew Gifford, our editor-in-chief and founder of SFWP, had to remind me a few times that this is Scott’s second book, his second interrogation of the Black experience in America. As such, you have to know that Cross River was founded after America’s only successful slave revolt, and it is named after the river that separates Cross River from Port Yooga, a wealthy and mostly white city. If you’d read Insurrections, winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, you’d know all about that slave revolt, how it was called the Great Insurrection, how it gave agency to the Black characters who now populate Cross River in this new collection. But I haven’t read Insurrections. And I wasn’t ready for The World Doesn’t Require You. But it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
When I began this review, I thought about keeping it professional—writing about Scott’s brilliant use of the written word, his attention to the speech of his characters, his use of violence, magical realism, and viewpoint to direct readers into the bodies of people we frequently dismiss. But that’s what the New York Times is for. That’s what the Washington Post and award ceremonies are for. One of the benefits of writing for a small press is you get to choose passion over professionalism. (And I like to believe they can co-exist, but that’s just me.)
Here’s how I know The World Doesn’t Require You needs to be required reading:
The Agency of Black Folks
Thanks to the steady dismantling of the publishing industry’s white boys’ club, more voices of color and gender difference have broken through to give us, the hungry readers, good meals. I don’t need to wax poetic about why everyone should read writers of color, Native writers, women and nonbinary writers, LGBTQ++ writers, writers with disabilities, immigrants and polyglots and veterans and the currently or formerly incarcerated. I don’t need to tell you why you should diversify your reading list, decolonize your syllabus (and your relationship, while you’re at it), or step outside your comfort zone. If you don’t know by now that the Internet has made us a global and diverse society, I encourage you to read a little more.
When writers give agency to characters of color in situations in which they frequently are considered minor or supporting characters, things change. More and more, there are books that I open and don’t have to assume the narrator is a white man by default (yay literary conditioning!). The dominant perspective in The World Doesn’t Require You is frequently if not universally a Black man, even when told in third person (such as the first story, “David Sherman, the Last Son of God”). It’s 2019. At this point, countless of Black and Brown men and boys have been violently murdered by the state, their neighbors, or their own trembling hands thanks to suspicion, fear, racism, and bullying (not to mention the women, nonbinary, and trans folks of color dying alongside them). To hear an entire collection in their voices is a celebration of the lives of those who are still here. That means something.
Moreover, the stories in The World Doesn’t Require You point fingers at the right people. When the characters suffer in Cross River, they know who to blame. And no, it’s not always someone white or rich (though it is sometimes). Frequently, the suffering is generational or self-inflicted—and we learn about the historical trauma that gets passed down through direct descendants like the children of God or through the childish games we play (like “Nigger Knocks,” a.k.a. “Ding-Dong-Ditch”). What do we do with historical trauma, when the pain of our ancestors both does and doesn’t belong to us? Ask David Sherman. Ask Slim. Ask Rick and James-my-man. Most importantly—ask Dr. Reginald S. Chambers, the star of the final novella. Ask these men what it means to carry the spirits of formerly enslaved people in their bones, what it feels like to train their bodies to make music and defend themselves against a storm of their own design.
I tell you this—I do not know how the residents of Cross River don’t tear at their skin, drown themselves in the river, burn everything in sight. The weight feels too much to bear at times. But it’s what kept me reading. I wanted to see these characters get what they want—to dismantle the Master’s house (or in the case of “Mercury in Retrograde,” the Master himself), to find meaning, to eradicate loneliness. And even if they fail, the failure isn’t absolute; it’s simply another step toward freedom. No one is free until we’re all free—and Cross River might just be the closest thing to liberation I’ve seen.
In my Intro to Poetry class this semester, we had a heated discussion about language—who owns certain words? Can non-Black people say nigger? (No.) Can non-women-identifying people say cunt? (Eh…probably not.) Can non-queer/gay men say faggot? (No, oh my god, definitely not. I was uncomfortable even writing it in here.) But how do we make these decisions?
What I appreciate about The World Doesn’t Require You is how it doesn’t even give the reader an opportunity to ask that question. Rather, the speakers of these stories use the language most authentic to their experience. Of course the Black Cross Riverians say nigga. Of course Rebecca Montana uses “u” instead of “you” in her informal correspondence. Of course the poets speak in beautiful, metaphorical, occasionally obscure language—they’re poets.
If nothing else, The World Doesn’t Require You offers a lesson in code-switching. Similar to Casey Rocheteau’s poetry collection The Dozen, Scott’s stories demonstrate the versatility of language, the emotional toll it takes to make oneself “presentable” for a new audience, and the dialect the soul speaks when it’s alone, when it’s around safe company, and when it faces destruction. In every instance, the characters all want the same thing: to experience pleasure in their throats (or in the case of Jim/Little Nigger Jim the Robot, in their Neural Network). And what greater pleasure is it to speak in the language of those you love, those you trust, those you find comfort in despite the water-women drowning men in Cross River, the FBI storming the temple outside of town, or a small man using the hate college students have for their professors to get rich?
Water-Women and Myth
One of the criticisms every man writing today should expect is their portrayal of women (and by association, nonbinary or trans folks). The women in The World Doesn’t Require You are never the narrators, main characters, or given scenes without the men to which they’re tied. I’m pretty sure this book fails the Bechdel test in so many ways.
In Scott’s defense, of course women aren’t the center of this book. Why would they be? Rion Amilcar Scott is a Black cisman in a heterosexual relationship. This isn’t an excuse for not centering the stories of women in his book—it’s a point that this is only one book. It doesn’t make sense for me to write off this collection based on an aspect that I prioritize in my own writing.
I tell my students this all the time: you don’t have to write for everyone. What I mean—let the people you’re leaving out tell their own stories.
In Cross River mythology, women with otherworldly powers are considered water-women, mythical beings who lure men to their deaths at the bottom of the Cross River through their sexual attraction. Sirens, if you will. Oh yes, I know—highly problematic. And that’s why it’s important to read an entire collection.
In the final novella, Special Topics in Loneliness Studies, Scott presents us with Dr. Reginald Chambers, a Black English professor working at HBCU Freedman’s University in Cross River. His research focuses on Roland Hudson, a Cross Riverian poet whose love for his darling Gertrude, an alleged water-woman, caused him to take his own life by diving into the Cross River. Through Chambers’ English 101 course on Loneliness, the reader discovers that Hudson may not have been the genius Chambers offers him up to be, but rather an obsessed tyrant who took the sexual rejection of an apprentice so personally that he erased her entire identity, allowing her only to live on as a “water-woman” and blaming her for his suicide.
In academia, I’ve seen powerful men take advantage of their subordinates—sexually, professionally, and emotionally. Reading this novella reminded me of all the ways the powerful people use their positions to bully, coerce, and destroy those less powerful than them. As I had this thought, here comes the final essay of Rebecca Montana, the most promising student in Dr. Chambers’ class, outlining how the most privileged in oppressed groups have the capacity to become mini-oppressors—you know, how men of color can assault their female partners because they see them as someone to control after being controlled by white people, or how professors can fail students after being bullied by administration, or how fraternity members can harm their pledges because older members did the same thing to them, and so on and on.
I’ll never not read a book from the lens of a Black woman. I’ll never not take it personally when I see the erasure of women, the destruction of bodies of color, the suffocation of LGBTQ++ identities, in literature and in life. But The World Doesn’t Require You is aware of its part in these issues. Its speakers and author practice that self-awareness by blatantly participating in those systems of patriarchy, white supremacy, rape culture, and homophobia, offering critiques of those systems, and then saying—well, we could burn it all down…?
Yes, we could. And maybe we will.
Read Insurrections. Then go read The World Doesn’t Require You. Then ask yourself what the world would look like if it actually cared about each of us, individually, not as bags of money or inconveniences carrying picket signs or Molotov cocktails. Ask yourself—even if this world doesn’t require you, what do you require of the world?
For me, right now, more books. More Rion Amilcar Scott-level brilliance. More love letters disguised as ancestral worship, broken cycles, gratitude for the ones who sacrificed their bodies to found Cross River, to lead a troublesome country, to save generations following. Don’t you want your descendants to be proud of you? To say thank you?
In Cross River, they are. And they do.
Managing Editor of the Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, Monica Prince writes choreopoems and performance poetry. Her first collection Instructions for Temporary Survival won the Red Mountain Press Discovery Award for an outstanding debut collection. Her choreopoem How to Exterminate the Black Woman is forthcoming from [PANK]Books. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Texas Review, MadCap Review, Fourth & Sycamore, The Shade Journal, and others. She teaches activist and performance writing at Susquehanna University in central PA.