The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In ‘The World Doesn’t Require You,’ a fictional town delivers essential truths

A small Mid-Atlantic city copes with a megachurch (that might be a cult), a physical-fitness tradition known as “slapboxing” and a population of unruly domestic-servant robots. Just another day in the 21st century.

You may have guessed that Cross River, Md., exists only in fiction, but as you read Rion Amilcar Scott’s “The World Doesn’t Require You,” Cross River will take on a veracity that rivals any number of real places. While the D.C.-based Scott began his Cross River world-building in a 2016 collection titled “Insurrections,” readers new to his work will find this book a world unto itself, both in terms of completeness and in terms of genre. Like his first work, “The World Doesn’t Require You” consists of “Stories.” These stories, or sections, vary wildly in length, from just a couple of pages to the final novella, “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies,” clocking in at nearly 150.

In fact, all of the shorter pieces contribute to and gain full velocity in that novella. Is this a collection, or a different way of dividing a novel? Does it matter? Not really, except that not finishing would be a shame. Scott’s Cross River has been compared to other authors’ imagined places, from Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County to Jesmyn Ward’s Bois Sauvage (and I would add Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, as well as Black Panther’s Wakanda), but it’s completely his own, forged of deep roots, racial conflict and humor so mordant you’ll do double takes.

You see, the fictitious Cross River was founded by the members of the only successful slave rebellion in history. Its Freedman’s University educates African American men and women whose home has fewer ties than most places in the United States to enslavement and segregation. But that isn’t enough to protect them from the wider world. Whenever things seem smooth, there are interactions with nearby mostly white Port Yooga to remind Cross Riverians of history. Scott does not fall into simple blame; his understanding of our country’s racial divide transcends his characters’ experience, but never intrudes on their truth.

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.

Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”

By Rion Amilcar Scott

Liveright. 384 pp. $25.95

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