Spill just never stops being Spill
Spill the Beans on Spill
by Adelaide Gaughran-Bedell
these reviews are part of the undergraduate class Black Public Intellectuals taught by Duchess Harris at Macalester College, Spring 2018
Spill, by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, is an eighth-grade English teachers worst nightmare. Grammar be damned——in this book, Gumbs makes the English language do her bidding not the other way around. Spill rejects a traditional narrative in favor of brief, poetic snippets of life. Each page tells a different story of ‘black feminist fugitivity,’ as described in the title. She derives the title Spill from celebrated Black Feminist scholar, Hortense Spillers. Gumbs sprinkles differing definitions of the word ‘spill’ throughout the book. We are given an overarching definition of the word on the title page of the book “spill/ verb Origin Old English spillan ‘kill, destroy, waste, shed (blood)’; of unknown origin”. These themes of blood spilled, of Black Feminist fugitivity, will characterize the work to come.
This book brings us into a dreamlike state; a consciousness populated by black feminist literature and imaginative narratives of life. Gumbs asks a lot of her reader as she throws all literary norms to the wind. We must work our way through one-hundred and fifty pages without any characters, plot, capitalization rules, or grammatical coherence. Instead, the writing uses emotion as it’s literary guide. In this book, Gumbs is attempting to capture the feeling of black feminist fugitivity on a piece of paper. This means that the prose is often difficult to center in reality (at least any tangible reality). Gumbs uses other literary devices to bring her surreal prose back to reality.
The full title of this book is: Spill: scenes of black feminist fugitivity, this title plays an important role in the storytelling. The second section of the title: ‘scenes of black feminist fugitivity,’ is a powerful tool because it ties the elusive narrative to the real world. Without a plot, characters, or a setting, the readers are left grasping for something to anchor themselves within this book. The title allows these scenes of life to become more than just poetic snippets, it organizes these narratives under the umbrella of Black Feminist fugitivity.
Gumbs has split these narratives into ten sections: “How She Knew,” “How She Spelt it,” “How She Left,” “How She Survived Until Then,” “What She Did Not Say,” “What He Was Thinking,” “Where She Ended Up,” “The Witness the Wayward the Waiting,” “How We Know,” and “The Way”. These titled sections are the closest things that we are given to a plot arc. They allow the reader to assign different narratives meaning within these categories. These segments give a sense of growth and movement within a non-chronological story.
The first section of the title: Spill and its subsequent usages throughout the book gives the reader a theme to grasp to, as well as a clue as to how these stories should be interpreted. This word spill is the only commonality throughout the book. Before each section of the book she puts a definition of this word, using a different one every time. Even in the title, she is showing us how many different forms language can take. Her ambiguity is intentional, the definition of the word is up to the interpretation of the reader, as well as the context it is put in. This is the case with the book as well, the overarching message of the book (or just an individual story) is not in the hands of Gumbs, but our own. To Alexis Pauline Gumbs, spill means Hortense Spillers, yet she did not title the book An Ode to Hortense Spillers or Hortense Spillers Inspired Work. She called the book Spill, a word that her readers will know and be able to attach individual meaning to.
What Gumbs is giving us is brief, imaginative, narratives of emotion. What we do with those emotions, how we characterize within reality or decide they are trying to say is entirely up to the reader. The ambiguity of this book allows it to be each readers reflection on life, and not just an individual authors narrative.
Gumbs writes every word in this book in this unconventional, nontraditional style. It may seem natural for authors to write their books in their style, but most authors will deviate from their writing style in places such as the foreword and the afterword. Gumbs never deviates from her poetic prose, even in the parts of the book that were not technically part of the book: namely the the foreword (titled: “A Note”) and the afterword(titled: “Notes”). But Spill just never stops being Spill. Gumbs is not just experimenting with different literary exploits in Spill, she has developed her style of writing to defy traditional American English writing standards. Her stylistic choices are intentional and drive her activism.
As a Black Feminist, her existence defies traditional American standards, so why should her writing fit into them? Instead of writing within the bounds of traditional language, Gumbs is reworking traditional language within the bounds of her style. Her unique and unprecedented writing is reflective of her activism. As a queer, intelligent, black, woman writer Gumbs does not fit into a singular American box, she creates her own box. That is what she is doing with her own writing, creating her own box. Her work is not poetry, it is not fiction, it has no explicit characters but still draws from characters, it cannot be confined within any traditional literary group, but still manages to be a powerful piece of literature. She does not lay out what her readers should get from Spill, the point of her writing will be up to the readers.
Although Gumbs leaves the interpretation of her work up to her readers, she is not writing for them. This book is for the Black Feminists who have come before her, and who will come after. It is for those living and dead who have experienced what it is to be a Black Feminist, a fugitive. It is also for the women throughout history who were unable to fight the Black Feminist fight. Be it because of death, disease, fear, enslavement, she writes for the Black women fighters who were unable to fight. She writes for those who have been killed, destroyed, wasted, for those whose blood has been shed. She writes for those who have been Spilled.