Rion Amilcar Scott is the winner of the 2017 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. This week, we share a February 2017 PEN Ten interview with Rion, conducted by Daniel José Older, author of Salsa Nocturna, the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?

Right after my first poem occurred to me as a preteen. I sort of fell in love. 

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?

I’ve been trying to steal the work of August Wilson, Edward P. Jones, Junot Díaz, and Ralph Ellison without much success for quite some time. More seriously, though, Ellison’s Invisible Man has always loomed large for me. I thought myself largely free of its influence until I reread it recently and saw how much I borrowed without intending to borrow. 

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?

Fatherhood. Rebellion. Wu-Tang. Jim Henson and the Muppets. Manhood. It’s an ever-shifting list. Those are some perennial ones. I once tweeted that I’ve never written a full manuscript without extensive Muppet and Wu-Tang references. I was kidding, but then I thought about it and realized that it’s actually true. I’ve written four manuscripts, two successful and two complete messes, and the obsessions above (and probably more) are what they have in common. 

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?

I wrote a story in which a man attempts to hang himself from a balcony, which is something I’ve never done or seriously entertained, but I can’t imagine writing that story without glimpsing the balcony from my couch. 

When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?

It’s not.

What is the responsibility of the writer?

The only responsibility of a writer is to zealously chase his or her obsessions to every weird logical and illogical end.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?

To write is to define. Individual words are inadequate when it comes to defining our nuanced and ever-shifting emotional states. So many times while reading I’ve found explanations to feelings and thoughts I didn’t even know I had. To create literature is to help create an emotional and intellectual lexicon. 

Where is your favorite place to write?

I suppose I don’t have a “favorite” writing place. Any place I can keep my own company—meaning any place I can achieve solitude without gnawing isolation—is a place I can get the work done.

What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?

I would send said dictator Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Why We Can’t Wait, which features King’s masterful “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which to my mind is the most clear-eyed explication of the need for aggressive, intelligent, and elegant resistance to oppression. That essay features such hit sentences as: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” and, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I’m skeptical of the humanizing nature of literature on those not open to being humanized.  An authoritarian with love of literature remains an authoritarian. However, after reading King, our aforementioned dear leader will be reminded that there is intelligence and human resolve locked behind those gates, and there is little he or she can do to stop writers inside and outside of the country’s prisons from continuing to use their words to resist.  

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?

To observe is to do a human thing. It’s how we learn about the world and each other. I don’t know where my fiction—or anyone else’s—would be without observation. Surveillance has a nefarious purpose, or at least an ulterior motive. 

Rion Amilcar Scott’s work has been published in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, Fiction International, The Washington City Paper, The Toast, Akashic Books, Melville House, and Confrontation, among others.  His short story collection, Insurrections (University Press of Kentucky) was published in August 2016. Wolf Tickets is forthcoming from Tiny Hardcore Press. Presently, he teaches English at Bowie State University.