It’s a hot and sunny morning in the heart of literary Brooklyn, and 31-year-old Jumi Bello is sitting outside the Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie shop in Gowanus trying to grapple with the meteoric rise, and even faster fall, of her writing career.
Bello’s debut novel, The Leaving, was supposed to be published by Riverhead Books this month. “Not only did I get a top agent, but I got a top publisher and the top editor,” she marvels, referring to Calvert Morgan, one of Riverhead’s executive editors. “When I look at the writers Cal has chosen to champion, they have been writers who come from marginalized backgrounds, and he elevates their work to art.”
If all had gone according to plan, this 2021 Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, who wears a silver septum ring and has a large shoulder-to-back tattoo, might now, like so many of Morgan’s authors, be receiving glowing coverage in the major book reviews, traveling on a coast-to-coast book tour, and perhaps even selling her novel’s screen rights to Hollywood.
Instead, Riverhead, which purchased The Leaving for $225,000 and helped it garner a spot on many of publishing’s “most anticipated” lists for 2022, canceled Bello’s book this past January.
Not that it advertised the news. In fact, the only official mention of it was a four-sentence item in Publisher’s Marketplace, which noted that neither Riverhead nor Bello, nor even Bello’s agent, Amy Williams, who “reportedly no longer represents Bello,” had responded to requests for comment, and that “metadata for the book has been removed from online booksellers.” The tantalizingly brief notice ignited massive publishing-industry gossip, including rumors of possible plagiarism.
On May 9, Bello broke her silence with a long essay on the Literary Hub site entitled “I Plagiarized Parts of My Debut Novel. Here’s Why.” In the essay, Bello characterized her plagiarism as a misbegotten stopgap measure intended to fill a hole in her manuscript. “I go online and tell myself that I’m just looking for literary descriptions of pregnancy,” Bello writes. “I’ve never been pregnant and my narrator is. … I tell myself I’m just borrowing and changing the language. I tell myself I will rewrite these parts later during the editorial phase. I will make this story mine again.”
But just after graduating from Iowa, Bello, who has schizoaffective disorder—a psychiatric disorder characterized by certain schizophrenia symptoms as well as mood-disorder symptoms—and also chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, had a psychotic break that resulted in her being involuntarily hospitalized. The day after she was released, she signed her book contract. But she didn’t share this information with Morgan and Williams. “I didn’t want Cal or Amy to fully comprehend how sick I was,” Bello tells me, “because I was afraid if they did, then I would lose the book deal.”
“When I stabilize, I realize I haven’t revised the words I had borrowed,” Bello writes in the essay. “Throughout the summer and fall, I told myself it was merely an act of influence. I had looked at the manuscript almost a dozen times, but still, I couldn’t admit to myself what I had done.” By the time Bello realizes her mistake, she writes, “I am only steps away from publication.”
For all its confessional nature, Bello’s essay did not specify which authors she had copied from, nor say to what extent. Bello also seemed to be pinning at least part of the blame for her plagiarism on the pressures of publishing, noting that Riverhead had asked her to finish revising her manuscript in two months instead of the originally agreed-upon eight. (Morgan and Williams did not respond to requests for comment.)
Just a few hours after Bello’s essay was posted, it was removed from Lit Hub’s Web site and replaced with a message: “We’re sorry, but the content you are looking for doesn’t exist. Perhaps searching could help.”
Cached copies of the essay began making the rounds. “def googled part of the essay, and it popped up online as something someone else wrote :/,” tweeted Riverhead author Kristen Arnett. Just one minute later, she tweeted again: “the part about the history of plagiarism!!!!”
Arnett was right. In a paragraph on the history of plagiarism, Bello had committed plagiarism yet again, this time in hewing too closely to the words of Jonathan Bailey, who runs a Web site called Plagiarism Today. (Lit Hub posted a statement that afternoon, saying that the essay had been retracted due to “inconsistencies in the story” and “a further incident of plagiarism.”)
“That was a mistake I made in not citing,” Bello says now. “I’m sorry to the guy I plagiarized. [But] I didn’t plagiarize his personal feelings or his story or his way of looking at the world. It was the history of plagiarism.”
But the irony inherent in the incident unleashed a wave of online Schadenfreude. Soon some of the discourse was breaking down along racial lines, with many BIPOC writers hastening to her defense. “This industry is not safe for Black neurodivergent writers and the people in power are not interested in making it safe,” tweeted the best-selling novelist Akwaeke Emezi. “When it goes well, everyone and their mama was now involved, but when it goes to shit, it’s only the author who takes the fall.”
In a paragraph on the history of plagiarism, Bello had committed plagiarism yet again.
“White people who are excited and happy to be cruel and judgmental towards a Black woman who’s obviously struggling—you’re showing yourself,” tweeted Terese Marie Mailhot, author of the best-selling memoir Heart Berries.
Bello sees things somewhat differently. “I don’t think what happened to me is because I’m Black,” she tells me. “I think what happened to me is because I committed plagiarism.” But, she adds, “the reason that The New York Times and The Guardian picked it up is because I’m a Black woman.”
The weekend before her essay was published, Bello introduced the writer Roxane Gay at the Wave In literary festival at Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas, where Bello is a Ph.D. fellow in nonfiction. Gay says that backstage, she told Bello, “White people plagiarize all the time and they face consequences, but there is generally a path for redemption. We should be able to have that too but oftentimes, we don’t. It’s in your best interest to own up to what you did, without trying to justify it because running from it will only make things worse.”
“Jumi Bello isn’t the villain of your gossip,” Gay tweeted after Bello’s essay was retracted. “She made mistakes. Surely there is a space for redemption at some point. I look forward to her next book, hope someone lets her write it.”
Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today says the kind of plagiarism that Bello committed against him is “not the kind that should necessarily end her career.” More concerning, he says, was her habit of literally copying the work of others into her manuscript and “changing the language,” with the goal of re-writing it later. “That’s not how creating original content works,” Bailey says, noting that Bello’s flawed process is all too common among younger authors. “It became normal to write in order to evade or avoid [plagiarism] software, rather than learning how to write true or original work.”
In the end, Bailey says, Bello “got her own novel shut down because she knew she had plagiarism issues in it. That shows awareness which I don’t think a lot of other young authors have. But if that’s not what happened, and she didn’t own up to it, that’s much more worrisome.”
A Preventable Event?
Bello’s unpublished novel, The Leaving, is about a young, Black, mentally ill, pregnant woman named Sumatra, who has lived in Asia, as Bello has, and who tells her life story, via recording, at the prompting of her psychiatrist, so that she can be sure her child will get to hear it, even if Sumatra becomes too sick to tell it herself.
Riverhead acquired Bello’s novel in the spring of 2021, less than a year after the murder of George Floyd, as the publishing industry began to dedicate more resources toward publishing and promoting books by authors of color. “We saw many agents and publishers go on a buying spree for titles that highlighted the many systemic issues faced by Black Americans,” says Faylita Hicks, the author of a poetry collection called HoodWitch.
“I am so lucky to have the chance to work with you on this extraordinary novel!,” Morgan wrote to Bello, via e-mail, on June 28. “Of course, my first read was done quickly, in a mad rush of delight at its gorgeous, soulful, pain-wracked storytelling, its brave and beautiful language, most of all its insight into the experience of mental illness, of the challenge of surviving as a ‘Black woman in a world where racism is real,’ as you put it.” Morgan then went on to give notes about the kind of changes he was seeking. “Since we both want to get this done in short order,” he concluded, “I want to make sure you have everything you need in order to get this under way.”
“Two months to edit an entire novel? That would have been just ridiculous for anyone. Especially someone who not only has neurodiversity and mental health challenges, but had just gotten out of the hospital,” says Tessa Cheek, a writer friend of Bello’s from Grinnell College. “She should have been given the respect and time due a serious work of literature.”
“What Bello experienced, in terms of publishing demands, is similar to what I’ve heard from dozens of marginalized writers,” Hicks says. “Plagiarism, in this case, wasn’t just a personal failing but a preventable event that more than the author is responsible for.”
This past December, Bello’s plagiarism hadn’t yet been revealed, and yet she already felt caught. “I didn’t know a way forward, how to redeem myself, how to repair the harm that I had done,” she says.
In her Lit Hub essay, Bello wrote, “In December, I told my publisher of my indiscretion. I didn’t want a version of the book to come out that wasn’t true to my own work even if it meant losing the book contract.”
Bello now says that she asked Morgan, “‘Can we review this section? I think this is too close to a James Baldwin story.’ And so [Morgan] was reading my book while I was reading a passage from James Baldwin. I asked him to tell me if it was plagiarism, and he said it was. ‘This is the exact words’ is what he said.”
According to Bello, Morgan asked whether she had taken words from any other writers, and she mentioned the experimental novelist Carole Maso. Bello says Morgan then told her he would have to submit her manuscript to a legal read, and that he would call her the next day. She never heard from him again. It was Amy Williams who called with the news: The Leaving had been canceled.
By that point, Bello had already been paid $95,625—half of the original $225,000 advance, less Williams’s commission—and per her termination contract, she will not receive the rest. On the contrary, she has agreed to “use best efforts” to sell her book to a third party “on terms most likely to result in the repayment” of the money she has received from Riverhead.
“Two things that are opposite can be true,” Bello says. “Someone can be a monster and also be the victim. I feel like someone who has made mistakes, who has hurt people terribly—Amy, Cal, Riverhead. They all believed in me, and I let them all down.
“But,” she adds, “I’m someone who suffered under a lot of pressures, and I combusted, as any person would. Getting married, starting a Ph.D. program, moving across the country, trying to find a new psychiatrist, trying to get access to medication, revising my manuscript for the end of August, being a good stepmother.”
In the summer of 2021, Bello says, she missed her final appointment with her University of Iowa psychiatrist who had approved her prescription refills every three months. As a result, and because she had a gap in her health insurance coverage due to switching plans, she says did not have enough psychiatric medication to last through the season. “I slipped into episodes,” she says.
“It became normal to write in order to evade or avoid [plagiarism] software, rather than learning how to write true or original work.”
Bello says that she told both Williams and Morgan about her mental illness. “I told Cal but in a general way,” she says. Bello shared more with Williams. On August 24, with her manuscript due but not yet turned in, she texted Williams at 7:02 a.m., “Hey Amy. To be honest, I might need a call with you today. I’ve been like entering another episode, I think.” Three and a half hours later, Bello texted again: “GOT A PSYCHIATRIST FOR TOMORROW!” Williams gave the message a thumbs up. “Good news,” she texted back.
“I wish I had been less of a friend who was like, ‘You can do this!’” says Bello’s friend Cheek. “It was easy to forget to ask if she was actually okay, and she wasn’t okay.”
A Flawed Process
Bello and I are sitting outside at Winemak’Her Bar in Park Slope, eating quiche, when she tells me that she will e-mail me the version of The Leaving that Cal Morgan annotated for plagiarism, based on material that Bello herself flagged at his request, via Amy Williams, and also additional material that Morgan discovered on his own.
But when I get back to my desk later that afternoon, I am reluctant to open the document. The next day, when I finally do, I see that the magnitude of Bello’s plagiarism is on a scale worse than I imagined.
In a nearly 300-page manuscript, approximately 30 separate instances of plagiarism have been flagged. Bello copied passages from Carole Maso’s 2000 memoir, The Room Lit by Roses: A Journal of Pregnancy and Birth. Descriptions of mental illness, and other writing, she took from French author Marie Cardinal’s autobiographical novel, The Words to Say It, which chronicles a woman’s descent into psychosis. Bello also copied part of a letter from James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” about a math teacher coping with his brother’s drug addiction and arrest, editing the letter so that it could now be sent from Sumatra to her sister.
Of these three authors, only Maso is still living, and so I call her at Brown University, where she is a professor of literary arts. “I’ve tried to keep somewhat of a distance from [this] … so as not to be distracted,” Maso says. “It would have been nice to get an apology, but I haven’t heard from the writer at all.”
As she sees it, Bello’s explicit plagiarism is “oddly less harmful” than what Maso calls “another form of insidious plagiarism,” whereby mainstream authors co-opt the narrative strategies and forms of writers who are “less read and less well known, and working on the peripheries.”
“When reviewers review these books, and they’re praising them as so deeply original, and they’ve never seen anything like it,” Maso says, “that’s a little frustrating and actually upsetting.”
But Maso, who has no Twitter account and spends little time online, seems to have more equanimity than most—most writers, anyway. “It all kind of balances out,” she says. “An artist’s syntax is part of the fabric of any specific work, and it’s also a part of a writer’s DNA, and so it can’t really be stolen. And in that way, I just feel that nothing can really be stolen.”
After I share with Bello that I have spoken with Maso, and that she says she would welcome communication from her, Bello e-mails her an apology. “Carole Maso wrote back to me,” Bello texts the next day. “I could cry.”
As I make my way through the annotated manuscript, I now see that, in addition to plagiarizing from Maso, Cardinal, and Baldwin, Bello has also taken several lines from Matthew Olzmann’s poem “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised As a Love Poem,” and a passage from Marin Sardy’s 2019 nonfiction book, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia. Even a line on the last page of Bello’s book—“because what is a girl but a body of water, what is a woman but an attempt to return”—closely echoes the title of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s 2020 novel, A Girl Is a Body of Water.
“[Morgan] was reading my book while I was reading a passage from James Baldwin. I asked him to tell me if it was plagiarism, and he said it was. ‘This is the exact words’ is what he said.”
I then go back and re-read the opening pages of The Leaving and am struck by a sentence that neither Bello nor Morgan had flagged: “To be young, to be black, to be a woman is to face your own destruction in innumerable ways, or to flee it or the knowledge of it, or all these things at once.” The first time I read it, I had thought it felt familiar in the way that good writing often does.
But now I’m not so sure. I google it, and the first result is a link to Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of My Nonexistence, a 2020 memoir that contains this line: “To be a young woman is to face your own annihilation in innumerable ways or to flee it or the knowledge of it, or all these things at once.” When I read Bello her line, and then Solnit’s right after it, she sighs. “I have a flaw in my writing process.”
That process, she says, consists of her playing music on repeat, sometimes for hours, in order to arouse the emotions she would like to feel. Right alongside her work in progress, Bello will have open a Word document filled with all of her favorite passages from a single author. “I’ll read them over and over again in hopes that I will feel that creative force,” she says.
I then read Bello a line I had liked from the last paragraph of The Leaving’s first chapter—“I didn’t just show up in this life already destroyed”—and then a nearly identical line from Nigerian-American writer Bassey Ikpi’s 2019 memoir called, of all things, I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying. “These are all writers I’ve read,” Bello says, “and they’ve all passed through my work.”
Bello told me that while she had initially thought her novel was 10 percent plagiarized, she heard from her second agent, Rayhané Sanders—who placed her Lit Hub essay, and who is now, like her first agent, no longer representing her—that Riverhead put the figure at 30 percent, which now makes more sense. (Sanders declined to comment.)
“This is really traumatic stuff for me,” Bello says. “I wanted my book to be good. I thought I had time to change it later. People will say that I was being lazy, being inconsiderate. Maybe I was. I don’t know how to exonerate myself.”
But why bother, I ask, to use the words of others?
“Writing fiction, I feel I’m writing myself into a world where I belong,” says Bello, “because most of the time I don’t feel that I belong. Because of my illness. Because I’m Black. Because I’m a woman. [It] makes me feel more legitimate.”
“When you write a book that’s within a certain tradition,” Bello says later, “you’re answering a question that other writers have posed, or you’re asking a question of your own in reaction to the question that’s posed to you.” Plagiarism, she says, is “you saying the same thing back to a person that they’ve said to you. That’s not a conversation at all.
“The genius thing about stories is that they teach us that there are different ways to get to the same place.” What place is that? I ask. “The truth,” Bello tells me. Plagiarism, she says, is thinking that the way that was already taken was “the best way, so you’re taking that way again instead of inventing your own. It’s about the anxiety that you won’t be able to invent something as good.”
Crabs in a Bucket
I am sitting in the audience of a crowded New York City school auditorium on a Saturday morning when Bello sends me the following text: “There’s one more incident that I didn’t tell you about. It just occurred to me.” And so this other part of her story begins.
Bello started writing after her Haitian-American mother, a divorced opera singer, died of cancer when Bello was 12. “Writing poetry was a way of coping with that loss,” Bello says. “I felt wildly alone.” After her mother’s death, she began shuttling back and forth between the Washington, D.C., area homes of her grandparents, her maternal aunt, and her Nigerian father.
It was during this period that Bello first attempted suicide, after which she was put on the anti-psychotic drug Seroquel. Two years later, following another attempt, she was hospitalized. As her narrator, Sumatra, puts it in The Leaving, “people never really want to hear the truth of a child who has lost their mother. The first step toward breaking a child: take away the mother.”
“I had lived a life where everything felt like a guest room,” Bello says of her teenage years in D.C. “I didn’t want to feel like that anymore.” And so, after graduating from Grinnell, in 2013, she moved to Asia, vowing never to come home again. “Being an expat is like escaping your own fucking life,” she says. “It’s to be like someone else, to talk like someone else, to make decisions like someone else.”
Bello taught English in Jinan, a city in eastern China, and in Taiwan, where she learned how to speak Mandarin, drive a motorcycle, and scuba dive, and she also traveled to the Philippines, where she fell in love with a dive master. In 2018, she arrived in Beijing with the goal of becoming a writer. “I thought when I moved to Beijing, I could re-invent myself and be this writer that [people] would listen to,” she says. “I wanted to be listened to.”
By this point, Bello had already been blogging about her life in Asia for Grinnell Plans, a Web 2.0 alumni social network, but now she wanted to take writing more seriously. With that in mind, she signed up for an online fiction workshop with the indie publisher Catapult and also entered a poetry-slam competition hosted by Spittoon, a Beijing literary journal that was part of the city’s expat-writer community.
The first time I read it, I had thought it felt familiar in the way that good writing often does. But now I’m not so sure.
One night, off one of Beijing’s old narrow lanes, or hutong, in front of an audience of about 50 at a bar called Hot Cat, Bello performed two poems. The first was an “I Am” poem (I am this / I am that); in the other poem, called “Dogs!,” Bello spoke about dogs as a metaphor for racism, occasionally even barking. About eight writers performed in total, and Bello won the competition.
But soon after, someone e-mailed Spittoon to tell them that Bello had plagiarized “dogs!,” by Danez Smith. “At first she was upset,” recalls her friend Jamaal Pemberton, who put together the competition, and who was dispatched to break the news to Bello that her title was being rescinded. “She was saying, ‘It’s my words, it was my words.’” But eventually, he says, she relented. “‘I didn’t mean to do it,’” Pemberton recalls her saying. “‘I’ll try [to be] better next time.’”
Bello says that she put up no resistance at all. “I said, ‘O.K.’ That’s what I always say when I get caught. I dissociate. It’s not that it doesn’t have emotional impact, it’s that I’m so impacted that I don’t let myself feel what I feel about myself in that moment.”
Bello says she used to watch Button Poetry videos and HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and would “write down the passage or rewind the video to listen to a passage over and over again because it felt like my truth.” A line from one poem described how “the birth of [the poet’s] baby brother was the first taste of heaven he’d ever experienced. It was beautiful,” she says, “and it captured my own feelings toward my own brother.” And so she put it in her “I Am” poem. “Writers have to carve words from stone,” Bello says. “My problem is that I picked up stones that were already carved.”
After her slam title was rescinded, Bello never wrote another poem again. Instead, Bello took some more online fiction workshops, ultimately applying to several fully funded M.F.A. fiction programs back in the U.S. She used two autobiographically inspired stories as her writing samples: one called “Black Girl on Bike by Night,” which is set in Taiwan, and another called “The Bends, or a Brown Girl’s Guide to Loving Yellow Boys,” which is set in the Philippines.
When, that spring, Bello was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—the oldest and most prestigious creative-writing M.F.A. program in America, whose alumni include 17 Pulitzer Prize winners—she was amazed at her luck. Bello had only been writing fiction for one year, and yet they wanted her.
Perhaps the first mistake that Bello made at Iowa, even before ever setting foot in Iowa City, was choosing her three housemates from a workshop listserv. One of them, she later learned, was quite wealthy, a member of one of the Ivy League’s most exclusive secret societies, and the daughter of a major retail executive.
“They were all very radical politically,” Bello tells me. “They were always talking about the surveillance state, and I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ I just came from living under Mao Zedong,” she jokes. “When you live outside the country and you come back, you look at the Left and you think that they don’t realize how good they have it.”
“I was just alienated from my own generation,” she says. “They were connected in a way that I just didn’t understand. And the anger about Trump? I didn’t live in America when he was elected. People assumed I was just as angry. They ignore the life experiences people have and how they crucible you into a different shape.” Which is why Bello had gotten her shoulder-to-back tattoo, which incorporates both Taiwanese and Nigerian symbols, before moving back to the U.S. “People look at me and they just see a Black American girl. But I’m more than that.”
On the afternoon of November 9, 2019, during her first fall at Iowa, Bello ran out to buy party snacks, including hummus from Oasis Falafel, an Israeli-owned Iowa City institution. She was in a great mood: not only was her literary idol, Carmen Maria Machado, herself an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, coming to Prairie Lights bookstore to give a reading that evening from her new memoir, In the Dream House, but Bello and her housemates, two women and a trans man, were throwing the after-party.
But as soon as Bello returned home, she says that one of her female housemates “was like, ‘I don’t condone you bringing these products in my house because you’re promoting Zionism.’” The male housemate piled on, “yelling at me about how I was enabling genocide. I broke down crying, so I was late to the reading.” When Bello got there, it was already full. “I was devastated,” she says.
Bello’s housemates later apologized, and the two women spoke to the man about “how you can’t talk to a person of color about genocide. But they had allowed it in the moment because they thought their political beliefs were more important,” Bello says. “It was an uneasy truce.”
“Writers have to carve words from stone,” Bello says. “My problem is that I picked up stones that were already carved.”
“It was a very tense, very ugly fight,” says a former Iowa student who was at the party. “It obviously escalated to something that was not about B.D.S. at all. I think so much of the way Jumi was treated at Iowa had to do with race. People expected Jumi to be more progressive because she was a Black woman. But she often went off script, and I think people wanted to punish her for that, even people who claim they had progressive politics. It was all virtue signaling.”
Further complicating matters was the fact that just one month earlier, during the critique of her second submission to her fiction workshop, three or four students said, “‘Hey, this kind of reminds me of Carmen Maria Machado,’” as Bello recalls the exchange. “‘It’s almost word for word. You need to change it,’ and I said, ‘Oh, really? I will.’ And that was the end of it. For me, anyway.”
The passage in question was Bello’s description of the first sexual experience of Sumatra, the woman who would later become the main character in The Leaving. Bello wrote the scene in the second person: “You are nervous, excited … The feeling reminds you of a piano; someone is twisting the tuning pegs and your strings are getting tighter.” In 2013, in a story called “Inventory,” Machado wrote, “I was nervous, excited. I felt like a guitar and someone was twisting the tuning pegs and my strings were getting tighter.”
“What I would do in the past,” Bello says, is “turn to books that have already been done to show me how I can do it. I was reading [Machado] to research how to write a narrator who was embodied but alienated from her own body.” According to another former Iowa student who overlapped with Bello, however, the issue was not only Bello’s use of Machado’s words but also her narrative structure. Nonetheless, the student says, “We sort of moved on. It just didn’t occur to anybody to hammer on it. It’s Iowa. It’s grad school. It just felt like a non-issue.”
That said, news of what had happened flew through the program. On the day Bello’s Lit Hub essay was published, Santiago Jose Sanchez, who was in that fiction workshop with Bello, and whose debut novel, Hombrecito, is forthcoming from Riverhead, tweeted, “Jumi isn’t a victim of the stress or pressure of publishing. It’s an open secret that she had a history of plagiarism at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and no one did anything about it.”
Meanwhile, Bello continued having conflicts with her housemates. “It’s not like they ganged up against her,” says the former Iowa student, who knew them all. “But at the end of the day it was three against one, and it was very stressful for [Jumi].” Bello soon moved out of the house.
Then came the pandemic. Virtually Bello’s only solace during this difficult period was her boyfriend, Sam, an Iowa local and divorced father whom she met on Tinder. Sam, who had not graduated from college and who worked for a farm-equipment manufacturer, would eventually become Bello’s husband. But, Bello says, “my roommates never accepted Sam. He’s not a writer, and second of all, he’s a white man. They thought he was boring. They thought he was a simpleton. They just never gave him a chance.”
While Bello was now somewhat socially isolated at Iowa, she was still outspoken, particularly in her belief that practical matters such as how to get an agent should be openly discussed in the program. But Lan Samantha Chang, the first woman, and Asian-American, to serve as director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, saw things differently. She “wanted to do as much as she could to protect this time that we had,” says a former student.
Bello felt that by keeping the publishing process shrouded in mystery, Chang, under whose leadership the program had become more diverse, was inadvertently “replicating the inequity in the system she was trying to combat.” And so Bello went ahead and did it anyway, hosting a series of publishing talks over Zoom called Black Tea, with Black Iowa alumnae such as Dawnie Walton. “I was ambitious,” she says. “I wasn’t just a victim.”
By this point, several literary agents were already interested in representing Bello, a fact that was well known within the fiercely competitive Iowa community, where such news is celebrated, envied, and analyzed ad nauseam. “Money is power in New York,” says Bello. “Writing is power in Iowa. It’s a currency.”
Or, as one Black M.F.A. student who is currently in the program tells me, “It’s sort of like a crabs-in-a-bucket mentality.” When this student was accepted into Iowa, a professor called to proudly promise, “‘You’re going to be with a bunch of really supportive writers. You’re going to have people read and love your work. And you’re going to grow so much as a writer.’ And then,” the student says, “you come here, and you’re just with a bunch of people who are really awful to you.”
In October 2020, Bello texted one of her former housemates with what she considered great news: “[the literary agent] MEL FLASHMAN WANTS TO READ MY NOVEL.” “I thought we were friends,” the former housemate texted back. Less than two weeks later, he sent Bello an e-mail expressing anger that she had dared contact the “number one agent i felt totally set on reaching out to.” He then accused Bello of having written “material that is formally similar to my novel.” (This former housemate didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)
“There was nothing about words being borrowed,” Bello says. “His was a genderqueer novel. My novel was about being Black.” This time, she went to Chang, who was her adviser, for help. According to Bello, after reading over both her work and that of her former housemate, Chang decided that the allegation against her was unfounded. (In an e-mail, Chang wrote that she was unable to share information about any student’s record, adding that “we take these issues seriously and have processes to detect and address plagiarism when a concern is raised.”) Bello also says that, some months later, she and her former housemate were able to reconcile.
The Next “Great”
It was during this period that Bello conceived of a second book project, this one nonfiction, about how the war on drugs intersected with the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill, and she applied to nonfiction M.F.A. programs, including Iowa’s, where she was accepted. But on March 10, 2021, an e-mail chain in which the university’s nonfiction-writing faculty were discussing how best to make the case to get Bello a fellowship was accidentally sent to all nonfiction-writing graduate students in the program.
“Jumi Bello is a star,” wrote the nonfiction-writing program’s interim director, Meenakshi Gigi Durham, “and when her book is published, it is sure to get a lot of attention. (She has already been approached by 10 literary agents, and the project is still in process.) She has had offers from other M.F.A. programs. She is one of few applicants of color we have had this year.
“If we don’t fund her, and she goes somewhere else, we lose the association with her success. This has implications for fundraising, and for DEI, and for recruiting faculty and graduate students. Her work is on the level to which we aspire and upon which we’ve built a reputation. She is the next ‘great’ coming out of the NWP [nonfiction-writing program] and the WW [Writers’ Workshop].”
“To be reduced in that way?” says a former Iowa student. “And to see that it’s not about you as a person or you as a writer, but what credibility you can give to the program? It’s very dehumanizing. ‘She will make us look good.’ That’s so much pressure. Why would you come into a program with that weight on your shoulders? How would you manage those expectations? It’s like setting someone up to fail.”
In the end, Bello did not receive the fellowship, but one month later, her debut novel, The Leaving, sold to Riverhead for $225,000. She was going to be a star. Maybe even the next “great.”
Instead, Bello has become the butt of jokes not only online but also at Iowa. At an Iowa Writers’ Workshop talent show last winter—before Bello posted her Lit Hub essay, but after word of her book’s cancellation had spread rapid-fire through the program—a current student who was onstage doing stand-up said, “I can’t even make this joke, because the workshop wouldn’t be able to handle two plagiarism scandals in one year.”
“I saw a lot of second years laughing,” says a current M.F.A. student. “For someone to feel comfortable making fun of Jumi in front of Sam Chang, who worked with Jumi and who I believe mentored her? I think it speaks to the culture of professors not doing anything to make this a safe space.”
“Jumi isn’t a victim of the stress or pressure of publishing. It’s an open secret that she had a history of plagiarism at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and no one did anything about it.”
“While I disagree with the characterizations of our program,” writes Chang, “I respect and support our students’ personal views. The workshop process is an intimate one that engenders strong feelings. We do our best to meet the writers where they are and to support them as they navigate their way through their creative lives.”
“[Bello] came into the program with an ear for language—that raw material—but craft-wise wasn’t there yet,” says a former Iowa student. “She needed more time. She started writing her novel to take out into the world when she was still at this stage where you want to be another writer. You’re copying a lot. You’re at this stage you need to get through. You’re just like a carpenter in a carpentry shop looking at what other people have done and trying to put it together.”
When Bello was admitted to Iowa, it was on the strength of stories based on her own personal history. Given that, is it any surprise that the autobiographically inspired parts of The Leaving are the most interesting and most affecting parts of her book?
One such scene takes place in flashback, just after Sumatra’s mother’s funeral service. Outside the church, a man named Mr. Giles, who is based on a friend of Bello’s mother’s, approaches Sumatra and, in an attempt to comfort her, tells her about the death of his brother:
I thought it was strange that I didn’t cry, but I did cry, he says with a wonder to his voice.... One day I was home alone, and I was climbing the stairs, and it hit me with such a force that I just sat down on a stair. Suddenly I cried, the hardest I’ve ever cried in my life....
There will be a time when you will cry, he tells me. It might not be now, but you will not, cannot, escape it. It will come. The despair will find you and it will swallow you. Don’t be afraid of it....
I thought I had cried. But listening to Mr. Giles, I realized that I hadn’t. Not in the way he was telling me I would.... The length of the cry matters. It’s the length itself that dilates, creates the door for you to open.
Jumi Bello is now working on a memoir.
Johanna Berkman is an investigative journalist who lives in New York. Read her previous article about Trump and Wollman Rink here