Gabriel Bump’s arrival in North Carolina could easily have been the opening scene of a novel.
Driving from Buffalo to Durham in the middle of winter, Bump passed through an intense snowstorm in New York and Pennsylvania.
“There was this horrible blizzard and the further South I got, the blue started opening up,” the writer tells me in a recent conversation. “It felt great coming down.”
Straightforward symbolism like this—stormy weather leading into welcoming skies—would never be found in Bump’s fiction, however, especially in his just-released novel, The New Naturals. Bump isn’t interested in the uncomplicated. This second book—his first, Everywhere You Don’t Belong, published in 2020—takes the idea of a utopian world to examine the very un-utopian decisions people make.
What does it mean to care for each other in a world that seems intent on breaking us? In our present day, is retreating—forming a bunker, even—the only sensible path?
Upon moving to North Carolina, after that long drive in 2021, Bump began work as an assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s creative writing program. When he arrived, faculty were still in mourning: during Bump’s hiring process for the position, the renowned writer Randall Kenan, a long-standing member of the program, had suddenly passed away. Bump learned more about Kenan’s legacy once he was on campus and welcomed by his new colleagues.
“I knew they were happy I was here, but you know they would prefer if their friend was still there …. He was beloved and just a brilliant, talented figure,” Bump says. “I felt like I got to know him well, in a strange way.”
The escalating reach of grief is a topic Bump knows well. The New Naturals begins in the present day with Rio and Gibraltar, a young academic couple, and the birth of their daughter, Drop. A few weeks after her birth, Drop wakes up with a horrible cough and her lungs give out. The doctors, after first dismissing Rio’s concerns, can’t provide much help as she passes away. The devastating loss of their “celestial beauty … in this brilliant small package,” Bump writes, leads Rio and Gibraltar through pain and isolation and, eventually, toward an unexpected idea: an underground community beneath the hills of western Massachusetts “for people to live, and love, and hide.”
Rio and Gibraltar are Black and the community they create seems intended to be both an escape from their pain and a place for themselves and others to find a communal love denied to them by a society hostile to caring for people like them. While writing the novel, Bump researched Brazilian quilombos—small, deeply hidden communities that runaway enslaved people established in the jungles starting in the 17th century.
Eventually, some of them became welcoming sites for Indigenous people and wayward travelers within Brazil. In The New Naturals, Rio and Gibraltar’s underground haven soon begins to attract others who are feeling frustrated and alienated.
Those same feelings are ones that Bump has dealt with in his own life during periods of deep depression and anxiety. During his MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and immediately afterward, Bump received critical praise and support for his work. Outside of writing, though, he felt suicidal and alone.
In conversation, he talks about those times with a ruminative balance, understanding that his life is better now, but with an inherent wariness that depression could always return. The poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Bump’s UNC colleague in the English department, describes Bump as being “as much a philosopher as a fiction writer.” He does write about his characters with a sort of earned wisdom—he’s honest about their flaws, yet they seem even more sympathetic and humane because of those flaws.
“He is a wise old soul,” Jeff Parker, the director of the University of Massachusetts’s creative writing program and Bump’s graduate school mentor, tells me, “full of compassion and with a generous, if realistic, view on life.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Bump’s childhood was shaped by the 1990s-era Bulls teams led by a particularly talented UNC alum. His room and wardrobe were full of Bulls paraphernalia.
“My dad and his friends bought season tickets the day Michael Jordan was drafted,” Bump says. In The New Naturals, one of the main characters is a former college soccer player struggling with the mental and emotional toll that sports can place on male athletes (this is a theme that Bump also explores in his first novel). Growing up watching the Bulls and Chicago high school basketball, college basketball fandom was new to Bump. But he has quickly taken to the local culture: when UNC beat Duke at Coach K’s last game, Bump and his wife, Lauren Christensen, rushed Franklin Street.
Professionally, these days, Bump has started to settle into his work with UNC’s heralded creative writing program, impressed by both his colleagues and his students. They seem just as impressed by him.
“Gabe was a writer one had begun to hear about,” Calvocoressi shares with me. “We all felt, and feel, so lucky that he chose to come be with us.”
But, as Bump tells me, “North Carolina is a complicated place” for deeply personal reasons. Last January, Bump and Christensen, who was 20 weeks pregnant at the time, found out that their daughter, Simone, was dying in utero.
“It was this awful, world-ending, I don’t even know … just earth-shattering news,” Bump says. Due to the recent legal restrictions placed on reproductive care in North Carolina, the couple’s local doctors advised them to leave the state to get the treatment they needed. Bump and his wife left their Chapel Hill home for New York, where Christensen is from, and where her family lives. She terminated the pregnancy there.
Bump had written about his characters, Rio and Gibraltar, losing their daughter before his own loss occurred. When putting together his initial few drafts, he’d wanted to write about a real situation that could motivate someone to do an extraordinary thing like remove themselves from their known world. I asked him if he had considered going back and revising the book or even putting it completely aside.
“I was going through copy edits when I looked back at those sections when they first feel the grief [of their dead daughter],” Bump says. “And I feel like those sections were true.” The story stayed in the book.
The publication of The New Naturals coincides with Christensen’s second pregnancy. Bump is on leave this semester, and the couple is spending the rest of the pregnancy out of North Carolina and up north. After what they went through previously, they wanted to be surrounded by their families, with access to care. He seems ready for what comes next.
“Life is just horrible and messy sometimes,” he says, “but there is all this beauty around it.”
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