Story by Kyesha Jennings
When Alexis Pauline Gumbs, a self-identified “Queer Black Troublemaker. . . and an aspirational cousin to all sentient beings” received word by phone that she would receive a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she froze. In today’s world of technology and instant communication across a wide range of platforms, receiving a call from an unrecognized number with news as momentous as that can be strange. “I probably sounded a little bit like a robot because I was like, ‘Oh. Okay. Thank you.’ It was a very deadpan response. But it was because I was experiencing shock,” Alexis said.
In 2020, Gumbs was awarded a fellowship from the National Humanities Center to support her work on a book: The Eternal Life of Audre Lorde: A Cosmic Biography. She’s in the final stages of Lorde’s biography now and the NEA’s creative writing fellowship will allow her to complete the book and keep writing. For Alexis, receiving the NEA’s recognition and financial support gives her the space to dream—to be imaginative and creative. “There’s so many things,” Alexis says, referring to what could come after the biography. “There's astronomy-based poems that I've been writing. There's an ancestral one-act: kind of like a play; kind of like a poem. There's maps that I want to make. I've really been interested in indigenous constellations and stories about the stars. I would say that's one of the centers of my research right now—astronomy, but indigenous relationships to sky.”
More important, as an independent artist Alexis can focus solely on her work without the distractions of landing paid gigs or seeking other revenue streams. “It just gives a little breathing room. And I think that's the intention of most fellowships for artists—to give the breathing room that’s necessary,” Alexis said.
Once the shock settled and Alexis recognized the magnitude of her recent achievement, she took to Twitter to celebrate the news. “I know that when your work transforms form you can’t expect recognition. My work as a writer so far has been instead to remind my communities how familiar they are with the unrecognizable. I’m disloyal to form.” When asked what it means to be disloyal to form, Alexis replied that what she writes reveals its own form—a writing gem that she learned from one of her teachers, Zelda Lockhart, another award-winning writer based in North Carolina. “She says, don't put constraints on your writing. As it comes through, it will tell you what it is,” Alexis said. “I don't sit down and say, ‘Well, this is going to be a novel.’ That's not what my creative practice looks like.”
A graduate of Duke University, Alexis’s free-spirited literary style has led her to write four critically acclaimed texts: Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals; Dub: Finding Ceremony; M Archive: After the End of the World; and Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. She is the co-editor of the anthology Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Frontlines. Her writing merges poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and activism while honoring the traditions and principles of Black feminist thought.
Many Black women literary figures—Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker are notable examples—have been recipients of the NEA’s creative writing fellowships. Alexis describes following in their footsteps—even in specific, institutional ways like this fellowship—as a “feeling of intimacy. A closeness there. A feeling of being put in [the same] room with them. I feel a lot of gratitude for the bravery of Audre Lorde and so many other people who came before me.”
As Alexis reflected on what other aspirations, tangible or spiritual, she wished to fulfill as a writer, she thought about the teachings of her late father. A motivational coach, he encouraged her to identify indicators by which she could measure her success. Alexis said that success, for her, is quite simple: “The way that the work of Audre Lorde, for example, and Zora Neale Hurston, and so many writers—the way that their work has impacted me is so profound that, even though I'm a writer, I'll never be able to put it into words. And if I could have that impact—if there could be people who felt that they'd gotten that ‘thing’ that I've received from these earlier writers—I'm good.”