Fellow Southern literature fanatics will probably recall the following quote from Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus Finch famously says to Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” To be honest, I’ve always found that quote a little bit perplexing. In theory, I understand the sentiment behind it—namely, that empathy is the very foundation of tolerance and understanding—but I still find myself frustrated by the fact that true and total empathy, this literal “climb[ing] into” the skin of another person is ultimately impossible. However, while physically becoming another person remains the stuff of fantasy, a very close approximation exists in the form of books. This is the experience I had reading Insurrections, a collection of short stories by Rion Amilcar Scott, winner of the Hillsdale Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers and an upcoming guest writer at SouthWord on November 3 and 4.
To be quite frank, I am nothing like most of the characters in Scott’s short stories. The majority of his characters are black men, whereas I am a white woman. The triumphs, struggles, fears, and hopes depicted in their stories were occasionally foreign to me—as I’m sure mine would be to them. However, through Scott’s prose, which is sharp and insightful, profane and poetic, and hilarious even as it is profoundly tragic, I believe that I was able to come somewhat closer to understanding what it is like be another gender and another race. To some extent, I was able to become another person—a suicidal father, a straight-laced young man accused of a crime he did not commit, a boy on the verge of puberty, a Trinidadian man caught up in the aftermath of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.—through the stories contained in Scott’s collection, which speaks to his consummate ability to render his characters.
As I read Insurrections, I was reminded of another quote from Harper Lee: “The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one which makes you think.” By this criteria, Insurrections is most certainly the “book to read.” Scott’s stories rarely offer up any kind of neat moral or lesson, but they offer up plenty of food for thought. Although I have found that reading works by someone very different from you is not always a comfortable experience, I have come to believe that it is a necessary one. Such an experience helps to expand the reaches of our empathy, offering us a small glimpse into the world of another in the hopes of bettering our understanding of them. I might never be able to truly walk in the skin of someone else, but reading Insurrections provided comparable experience, achieved through the masterful use of literary technique. That alone makes the task worthwhile.
Rion Amilcar Scott is a professor of English at Bowie State University whose work has been published in literary journals such as the Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, Fiction International, the Washington City Paper, The Toast, and Confrontation. He will be appearing as a guest writer at SouthWord on November 3 and 4.