As part of The A.V. Club’s best of the 2010s coverage, we asked some of our favorite authors to share their 10 favorite books of the decade. Next up is Rion Amilcar Scott. Scott first visited Cross River, Maryland, in 2016; he set his PEN/Bingham Prize-winning debut short story collection, Insurrections, in the fictional town, founded in the early 1800s after the country’s only successful slave rebellion. He made a return trip to Cross River in his second collection, 2019’s The World Does Not Require You. “Scott makes his stories feel singular… Just as readers have a chance to get their footing, a bird screeches at such a loud volume that eardrums are shattered, and then things get worse from there,” writes Bradley Babendir in The A.V. Club’s review. Mythical and satirical, both crafting humor and depicting the traumatic legacy of slavery, Scott’s fictional world is at once moving and surprising. Here, in his own words, is Scott’s 10 (okay, actually 11) favorite books of the 2010s.
Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins (2012, Riverhead)
In this debut story collection, the American West is as much a character as any of the people who populate Claire Vaye Watkins’ stories. The stories take us back centuries to the Gold Rush and also set us down in the present day. Impressive, too, is the number of voices that populate the stories. It’s quite a revelatory performance.
The Tradition by Jericho Brown (2019, Copper Canyon Press)
So many poems in this book are showstoppers. From the first poem, “Ganymede,” which demands you read it again and again, to a poem like “Bullet Points,” which puts so many of our stray thoughts into poetic words: “…I promise that if you hear / Of me dead anywhere near / A cop, then that cop killed me…” Among the many things to admire about this book is the innovation; the hundreds of poetic forms in existence were not enough for the feelings and ideas in this book, so Jericho Brown created his own, the Duplex. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a lot more Duplexes out in the world.
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans (2010, Riverhead)
The first story in this collection, “Virgins,” shook me when I first read it and still shakes me every time I think of it, which is often. Teenaged girls try to rush into adult activities and find there are predatory men waiting in most corners. It could be said that many of the young women in this book are in over their heads in some way. Taken together, these stories give us a vision of the dangers and joys of Black womanhood.
Olio by Tyehimba Jess (2016, Wave Books)
This is quite simply a work of genius. That’s said often, but here Tyehimba Jess breathes new life into antiquated poetic forms, bombards the reader with a chorus of voices, supplements the poetry with prose fiction, line drawings, and pictures. It has the feeling of attending a musical performance out of another time, and at the end all you can do is stand and applaud.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014, Graywolf Press)
Claudia Rankine bursts boundaries in this book to create a work that is at once poetry but also a groundbreaking work of cultural criticism. Rankine shows us the true cost of microaggressions on people of color, specifically on Black people. The havoc of thoughtlessness to Black personhood can often mean death—devastatingly quick, or excruciatingly slow.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Can a book be a novel and a skit worthy of Chappelle’s Show at the same time? Paul Beatty tried his damndest to show us that it can be, and he succeeded many times over. A Black man re-institutes slavery (kind of) in a modern-day California town, and hilarity ensues. The laughs often feel illicit, like Should I be finding this funny, but on the other side of the chuckles is a profound understanding of what Black life in America feels like.
Women by Chloe Caldwell (2014, Short Flight/Long Drive)
This is a slim novella, but it has enough ache and longing to fill a work triple this size. The two women at the center of Chole Caldwell’s book find numerous ways to fail in making a connection. In the end, the reader is left thinking about what it is to make a connection with another person, and what we bring to each other’s lives even when we fail one another.
We The Animals by Justin Torres (2011, Mariner Books)
Justin Torres’ debut is most often described as a coming-of-age tale, and it is that, but it is one so viscerally written that the reader feels they are living the particulars of this coming-of-age. The short chapters and sentences are fablelike, so even when circumstances are familiar, it makes being in this family feel like a kind of dream.
The Source Of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison (2019, Knopf)
Perhaps this is a cheat, as most of these essays were published in previous decades, but they come together as a beautiful chorus reminding us what a powerful intellect looks like. Morrison shows us how she wrestled with a number of weighty ideas, and most notably how she thought about her powerful novels before, during, and after their creation. This book is the most generous gift.
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon (2018, Scribner)
There is a discomfort that comes with reading this memoir. Kiese Laymon writes with great candor about wounds that are clearly still open and may never heal right. He writes about abuses done to him and abuse he’s done to himself. Still he gives us all the tenderness and joys of being Black and alive and loved, even if it is an imperfect love.
How To Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (2018, Mariner Books)
It felt wrong to leave this off the list. Alexander Chee is full of so much insight, I imagine his grocery lists double as beautiful treatises on what this life is really about. This essay collection is a generous excavation of his origins as a writer, but also his self-creation as a human being. We see Chee as an AIDS activist, as a waiter, as a grieving son, but always as a writer. As generous as this collection is, it is also a flex—every essay, every sentence is so wonderfully constructed that each is a joy to read.