+Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis

Memoir is the wild west of literary genres. Anything goes.

Case in point, Warren Ellis’s illustrated book about a piece of gum chewed by legendary American singer Nina Simone.

The story of this piece of gum, how Mr. Ellis came to have it, how he kept it safely locked away for decades and how it came to be part of a Danish art exhibit all make for a surprisingly interesting and moving read. But the gum also serves as a jumping off point for a host of other topics ranging from the author’s youth, the love of music, the wonder of live performance before the age of cell phone recordings and of course the life of Nina Simone.

What unites all of these disparate topics is Mr. Ellis’s love of things. Nina Simone’s Gum is a book full of lists of things. If Mr. Ellis has anything in his possession that could contain things, he has filled it. Because he is not a collector but an accumulator of things, the lists make for fascinating reading, sometimes bordering on found poetry. As a bonus for this reader, Mr. Ellis includes lots of photographs of the things he lists.

Lists are like a collection of clues. What does this collection of items show us about the person who collected it? Can we assemble what looks like a set of random items into some conclusion that means something?

If you live long enough, maybe you already have, you’ll find yourself having to clear out someone’s things. What can you learn from all that stuff in your grandfather old toolbox or the bottom drawer of your mother’s bureau or that odd shoebox full of papers on the top shelf of the hall closet?

In Nina Simone’s Gum Mr. Ellis is trying to sort through his own life. The lists of things are all his. Sometimes they take him to the memory of a certain event or a certain person. Sometimes they are just puzzling.

The piece of gum is different from the rest. He took it from the piano where Nina Simone put it before beginning her final London performance. An action done on impulse, when no one was watching. Years later, when he decides to let it become part of a public exhibit and to make copies of it, the gum passes from his care into the hands of other people. Everyone involved takes the gum very seriously. It makes for moving reading to see how much everyone who works with the gum cares for it. You have to wonder. How seriously would you care for a piece of chewed gum?

I admit, I’m a big fan of Nina Simone. If I could only take one person’s music with me to the desert island there’s a very good chance that it would be hers. I think if I had come into contact with this piece of gum, I would have been afraid to touch it. There is something very personal about it. I would be terrified about becoming the person who damaged it or lost it.

Mr. Ellis does not look at religious relics in Nina Simone’s Gum but after reading it, I have a much deeper understanding of the power they have over believers, they awe they can inspire.

I found Nina Simone’s Gum through the BBC radio program A Good Read which you can find on the BBC’s iPlayer or anywhere you get your podcasts. It’s an excellent program and has become a go to source for good reading.

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