Publisher: AK Press
Released: November 17, 2020
Undrowned is a book-length meditation for the entire human species, based on the subversive and transformative lessons of marine mammals. Alexis Pauline Gumbs has spent hundreds of hours watching our aquatic cousins. She has found them to be queer, fierce, protective of each other, complex, shaped by conflict, and struggling to survive the extractive and militarized conditions humans have imposed on the ocean. Employing a brilliant mix of poetic sensibility, naturalist observation, and Black feminist insights, she translates their submerged wisdom to reveal what they might teach us. The result is a powerful work of creative nonfiction that produces not a specific agenda but an unfolding space for wonder and questioning.
Part of the "Emergent Strategy" series, the book is divided into eighty short meditations, each grouped into “movements” with names like “Listen,” “Breath,” “Stay Black,” and “Go Deep.” A graceful use of metaphor and natural models in the service of social justice, it explores themes that range from the ways that echolocation might inform our understandings of visionary action to the similar ways that humans and marine mammals do—or might—adapt within our increasingly dire circumstances. Gumbs’s narrative moves seamlessly between dolphins born in captivity and Black political prisoners giving birth behind bars, between the migratory patterns of dolphins and the Atlantic slave trade. An absolutely unique read!
Praise for Undrowned:
"I've recently been consumed by reading a book of meditations that has truly expanded and deepened the way I think about our relationship with the ocean and the life around it, particularly the animals...Reading Undrowned has made me reflect on beautiful and adaptive ways of living within our changing and increasingly precarious times." —Enuma Okoro, Financial Times
"Undrowned is written lyrically and drifts somewhere between a study, a taxonomy, a love letter, an instruction, a meditation. I could keep listing the possibilities it practices, but what it does most effectively is reach for all these forms and more, subverting them into something altogether more breathable...Undrowned has a feeling of possibility soaked into it." —Ada M. Patterson, Small Axe
"A heart- and mind-opening book that includes a critique of scientific language and practices that is very necessary." —Orion Magazine
"Poetic and enchanting. Its lines are melodious and elegiac. It is a masterpiece of metaphorical artistry and a survey of emergent strategies." —Tupelo Quarterly
"Compassionate, inventive, and politically astute, Undrowned offers a new kind of critical praxis equal to the complexities of our time." —Gavin Steingo, Boundary2
"Undrowned is one of its kind; the work defies all categorization. Undrowned is generative, devotional, bursting with life and hope, and teaches us to mourn, survive, and most importantly to love."—Feminist Pedagogy
"In Undrowned, Alexis Pauline Gumbs has written a singular hybrid of hymn, field guide, and self-care manual that urges us to reassess our place among our fellow living beings. Its intellectual risk centers on the premise that love can be our most radical and transformative act. Her tales of sea life entwined with meditations on Black feminism become modern fables that offer new methods of feeling, and insist with the best of environmental literature that protecting the planet’s collapsing animal ecologies is vital to saving what makes us human. This wild prose poem is about an Other that turns out to be ourselves."
—Whiting Foundation Selection Committee
“Alexis Pauline Gumbs pushes us out of our comfort zone and into the sea, where other species are moving and mothering in ways that can teach us how to survive. With her beautifully rendered reflections on the habits and habitats of seals, otters and manatees, Gumbs shows us that humans aren't the only ones affected by climate change, and that other mammals know the pain of having their children hunted. Undrowned is a gift and its message is clear: The natural world offers solutions if we just pay attention.”
—Dani McClain, author of We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood
"Reading Undrowned, I am re-convinced of the revolutionary potential of the life sciences, and in particular, of the necessity of a Black feminist biology. Alexis Pauline Gumbs listens so carefully to everybody —humans, whales, dolphins, corals, all beings, living and ancestral. It is a blessing that she has shared with us both what she has heard and the experimental methods for how she enacted her expansive listening. In Undrowned, Gumbs offers much-needed examples and practices for how to become sensitive and responsive to our sensitive, responsive kin-beyond-species. It is this loving attunement that makes Undrowned a work of poetry and of biology at its most perceptive and generative."
—Kriti Sharma, author of Interdependence: Biology and Beyond
“Undrowned profoundly exemplifies the distinct ways that Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a liaison between the seen and unseen. Her words are libation, meditation, and an incantation that invites us to re-member the interconnectedness between humans and marine mammals. In centering Black feminist praxis, Undrowned is a non-Christocentric baptism into the depth of the ocean and the depth of ourselves. Dr. Gumbs’s offering reminds us that what is dark, hidden, and immersed in water is sacred and holy. Read it alone and with others, in parts, and whole. Come to the sea and be healed."
—Aishah Shahidah Simmons, creator of NO! The Rape Documentary and author of Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse
“Alexis Pauline Gumbs breaks the surface of living as human and deep dives the depths of life in the planet’s oceans, where human life began but is now a danger to. Gumbs’s riveting, loving, genre-bending embrace of marine mammals and the human peril facing them, her mammal love, charges us to rethink and re-behave what it means to be human as she reminds us humans are mammals too, all life is sacred. On every page, Alexis Pauline Gumbs offers us a new definition of philosophy, a new definition of evolution. If we truly want a more just way of living, of being interspecies. This is a smart, black feminist, queer poetic; a love evangelist trouble making abolitionist offering. Take it. And be the change.”
—Alexis De Veaux, author of Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde
“This book is a devotional. An invitation to live more intentionally, more in harmony/Aligned.In this book, the Divine Mermaid, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, dives inside the wails of the Ancestors as she gives testament and testimony to the brilliance of Knowing Spirit beyond the veils of time, place and embodiment. Here, Alexis serves as guide and translator of vibrational realities of dreaming into how to survive, thrive and shape shift this world.”
—Sharon Bridgforth, Doris Duke Performing Artist
“Alexis Pauline-Gumbs takes us on her journey into deep relationship with marine mammals to offer a much needed mapping for these times. She shares with us how these ancestral whales, dolphins, seals, manatee and walrus cousins know to navigate and survive our carelessness and what they have to teach us about how to show up to ourselves and each other. She weaves brilliantly, as always, a tapestry of investigation, history, enlightenment, and truth-telling. She weaves with a poetic commitment to connect us with our fierce sea species relatives as they help us know how to move forward in a shared commitment to the possibilities of a lived love and justice.”
—Tema Okun, author of The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching about Race and Racism to People Who Don't Want to Know
"Following Lorde’s definition of survival at the margins, Alexis Pauline Gumbs takes an innovative approach to what it means, in her terms, to be “undrowning”. Like Lorde, Gumbs advocates for a communal approach that recognises wider kinships, but also beyond that, that recognises our (that is, an inclusive us as planetary inhabitants) shared use, abuse, and reliance on our fragile ecologies. The titular “undrowned” are identified with not only the also-titular marine mammals, but also the descendant survivors of Black enslavement and, through our communal responsibilities, all of us. The book offers a set of meditations on a variety of interrelated themes derived from both Black feminist praxis and marine mammal behaviour."
—Aimee Hinds, University of Roehampton
"In Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, Alexis Pauline Gumbs captures the feeling of being called out of name, grappling with ways oppressed people are both mistreated and commodified for manufactured worth, and also how we persist in our existence in spite of and influenced by all sorts of obstacles."
—R.B. Brooks, Midwest Institute for Sexuality and Gender Diversity
Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a poet, independent scholar, and activist. She is the author of Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, M Archive: After the End of the World, and Dub: Finding Ceremony. She is the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship and the recipient of the Whiting Foundation Winner in Nonfiction in 2022.