Writer Jumi Bello recently saw her highly-anticipated debut novel The Leaving pulled from publication by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group. The reason is that Bello reached out to her editor and conceded that she had in fact plagiarized several passages in the book.
A few months later, Bello published an essay on LitHub (archived) explaining how and why she did what she did. It's a surprisingly moving essay, one that viscerally explores Bello's struggles with mental illness, and the pressures she felt not only as a person with a mental illness living in a country with a slipshod healthcare system, but also a Black woman who is suddenly and unexpectedly been welcomed into the upper echelons of the elite Literati culture she has viewed from the outside for so long. As she explained:
Early in the new year I finish my novel. I've written over two hundred pages of new material in the space of a couple months. I want the book to be done.
This is the moment when the plagiarism occurs, when I go online and tell myself that I'm just looking for literary descriptions of pregnancy. I've never been pregnant and my narrator is. I need more descriptions of pregnancy in my book for my novel to work. 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. I would have told myself anything at that point. I would go to sleep at 8am because of keyed-up nerves and wake up at midnight. I stay up all night, writing through the days. I just want to get through it, to a place where I can sleep again. Looking back on this moment, I ignored my instincts. I ignored the voice inside that said quietly, this is wrong wrong wrong. By April, I sold my novel to a major publisher.
This, on its own, is not some egregious trespass (though it does invoke some shades of the inspiration vs theft discussion surround the infamous "Bad Art Friend," another recent literary controversy). But Bello ultimately did not revisit those lifted passages until it was too late. By her telling, she was paralyzed by shame, unable to overcome her own sense of imposter syndrome and face what she had done.
I don't know Bello's exact mental health diagnosis. But as someone with ADHD, I do understand where she's coming from. A lot of people with ADHD have tendencies to lie about small, often inconsequential things — either because we genuinely forgot something, or are otherwise trying to mask our symptoms, and let our impulsivities take over in the momentary panic. There are plenty of times where I've had a manager or editor ask me about progress on a project and I blurt out some positive-sounding status report that is absolute BS. That manager/editor is usually just asking out of curiosity — it's their job to check in, right? — but the question sends overwhelms me with anxiety, like, "Oh shit they're going to think I'm not far along enough, and then they're going to find out I'm a fraud, and then they're going to fire me." So you utter the words that wish could be reality, then work like hell to make it so. So in that regard: I can totally sympathize with Bello here.
Where it gets weird, however, is that Bello's essay on LitHub in which she explained all of this … also plagiarized some passages. She wrote:
Plagiarism has been with us since the birth of language and art. For as long as there have been words to be read, there has been someone there copying the passages. It goes as far back as 8 AD with the poet Martial who caught another poet Fidentinus reciting his work. He called Fidentinus a plagiarus, meaning a "kidnapper."
Which, Gawker noted, was which lifted and lightly re-written from a decade-old article published on — no joke! — Plagiarism Today. Or perhaps, irony or ironies, it had been lifted from a 2019 turnitin article on "5 Historical Moments that Shaped Plagiarism," which also maybe plagiarized from Plagiarism Today?
What's particularly weird is that Bello's essay didn't really even need to include that passage on the history of plagiarism. I suppose it's impossible that it was a deliberate homage, dropped into the essay as a sort of meta-textual easter egg — that Bello intentionally plagiarized a passage about the history of plagiarism in an essay about plagiarism to demonstrate her reflexive self-awareness of the situation.
Upon realizing what had happened, LitHub initially removed the offending essay without comment. The site's editors later added an update, saying:
Earlier this morning Lit Hub published a very personal essay by Jumi Bello about her experience writing a debut novel, her struggles with severe mental illness, the self-imposed pressures a young writer can feel to publish, and her own acts of plagiarism. Because of inconsistencies in the story and, crucially, a further incident of plagiarism in the published piece, we decided to pull the essay.
This is a complex situation all around. It certainly doesn't look great for Bello — though, to be fair, she's also likely facing additional unfair scrutiny just for being a Black woman. It's an unfortunate choice as well, as she seems like a very talented writer who could have probably just laid low after her novel's cancellation and still found success later on. I hope she finds what she needs, whether that's help or validation.
I Plagiarized Parts of My Debut Novel. Here's Why. [Jumi Bello / LitHub]
Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons