Looking for a place to call home: UMass alum Gabriel Bump has the reviewers buzzing about his debut novel, “Everywhere You Don’t Belong”

  • Chicago native Gabriel Bump, a graduate of the MFA writing program at UMass Amherst, is winning praise for his debut novel, “Everywhere You Don’t Belong.” Phot by Jeremy Handrup

  • The New York Times says Gabriel Bump’s first novel strikes a perfect balance between “heaviness and levity.”

Staff Writer
Published: 2/20/2020 8:22:24 AM
Modified: 2/20/2020 8:22:14 AM

When Gabriel Bump was a teenager on Chicago’s South Side, he saw two portraits of his neighborhood emerging in the media. There was the grim stuff, the crime and drug-related shootings, most often taking place between young black men. Then there was the inspiring story of a charismatic U.S. senator, Barack Obama, who came from Chicago and in 2008 became the first African-American president — and whose wife had grown up just blocks from Bump’s own home.

Somewhere in between those two extremes was Bump, a decent student with an interest in journalism who was just trying to keep his head down, avoid the violence and go on to college.

Now Bump has plumbed some of his experience, as well as his imagination, in crafting an alternately funny and dark first novel that’s getting good reviews. “Everywhere You Don’t Belong” is the coming-of-age story of Claude McKay Love, an African-American teen from South Chicago who’s trying to find his way in matters of the heart, in terms of a career, and a place he can really feel at home.

The book, which Publishers Weekly calls “astute and touching,” offers its share of social commentary as well. It also has a close connection to the Valley: Bump wrote much of the novel and eventually sold it when he was a graduate student in the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Now teaching writing at the University of Buffalo in New York state, Bump will return to the Valley on Wednesday, Feb. 26, to read from “Everywhere You Don’t Belong” at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.

In a recent phone call from Georgia, where he was doing a reading as part of his book tour, Bump, 28, said he’d begun the novel more as a series of vignettes/short stories when he was an undergraduate student at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Before that he’d studied journalism and sociology, and a bit of creative writing, at the University of Missouri before returning to Chicago to get more involved with writing at School of the Art Institute.

“I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” he said. “I was writing kind of from the perspective of the emotions I was feeling, things I’d gone through … I still was thinking I might end up in journalism or writing nonfiction of some kind.”

But one of his teachers, the fiction writer Adam Levin, suggested he pursue fiction more seriously at UMass Amherst, where one of Levin’s friends, the novelist Jeff Parker, heads the MFA program. And it was at UMass, where Parker was one of his teachers (and also his thesis advisor), that Bump said he began connecting the shorter pieces he’d been writing into a more unified work.

“I gave the first 100 pages I’d written to [Parker] and he said, ‘Man, it looks like you’re working on a novel,’ ” said Bump. “So I kept building on that.”

How to fit in

“Everywhere You Don’t Belong,” narrated in the first person, traces Claude’s story chronologically, beginning with some short chapters in which he looks back on his early childhood days, with scattershot images that can be laugh-out loud funny, like his father fighting with another man and demanding an apology from his antagonist. The man complies: “Sorry for saying you look like Booker T. Washington.”

But pretty soon Claude’s parents have both disappeared, and Claude is raised by his alternately wisecracking and fierce grandmother, who loves her grandson unconditionally but is determined to steer him straight — and to toughen him up, too. “Don’t be stupid,” she says to him at one point. “If you’re stupid I’m going to drop-kick you.”

Also in the home is his grandmother’s gay friend, Paul, a veteran of the civil rights movement of the 1960s who’s now a bit of a comic figure, but also a man of good heart who loves Claude. His conversations with Claude are, like much of Bump’s dialogue, presented in short, snappy sentences that almost read like lines from a screenplay and move the story along at a swift pace, with both wry and absurd humor.

But there’s plenty of serious stuff afoot in Southside, too. Claude gets assaulted by an older teen and ends up in the hospital. Meantime, out on the streets, he narrates, “Seven people were shot when I was away. The neighborhood was back to normal…. Ms. Germaine, from Seventieth Street, had a pistol stuck into her stomach for her Social Security check.”

As the narrative jumps ahead to Claude’s high school years, a gang known as the Redbelters moves in to take control of the local drug trade, luring some of Claude’s classmates into selling. A riot erupts after police kill a young black boy when he tries to run away from them. Claude feels increasingly adrift in the place he’s long called home, in part because his love interest, Janice, is now dating a hotshot football player.

“Claude is a very anxious kid,” said Bump. “He’s prone to depression, and he feels like he doesn’t fit in.” And while he’s also a pretty smart and sensitive kid, Bump notes, “he has trouble expressing himself and describing what he’s feeling.”

Claude is convinced he has to get away from Chicago, and he eventually enrolls at the University of Missouri to study journalism. But it’s his first experience living outside a black community, and events will soon take some unexpected turns that will force him to make another decision about just where he can find that elusive sense of belonging.

Bump says he’s drawn some of the story from his own life — “There were times I felt I didn’t fit in, or didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin,” he said. But he makes it clear the novel is not an autobiography. He was raised by a white father and black mother, and he says he still loves Chicago. The novel, in a broader sense, also explores the theme of African Americans feeling like outsiders in much of America, where “racist social structures loom like malevolent skyscrapers,” as Claude puts it.

At UMass, “Everywhere You Don’t Belong” got a boost from Parker, the writing program director, who liked it enough to send the manuscript to his own agent, Ellen Levine, who in turn passed it to one of her colleagues, Alexa Stark. Stark told Publishers Weekly last November that she loved the book’s “staccato prose and the tender, wry voice. It succeeded as a portrait of boyhood and racial politics.” She then sold the book in 2017 to Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Bump says he also greatly benefited at UMass from writing teachers such as Sabrina Murray, Edie Meidav and Noy Holland. He’s already completed a manuscript for a second novel, “The New Naturals,” and is now working on a third book.

Though he’s been back to the Valley a few times in the past few years to take part in some literary events at UMass, to be returning now to read from a novel that largely came to be during his time here “is just surreal. It’s hard to believe it’s happening, but it’s really exciting.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Gabriel Bump will read from and sign copies of his novel on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey bookshop. The event is free and is co-sponsored by the Mount Holyoke College Africana Studies department.

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