A Novel About Black Women With Albinism in All Their Messy Complexity
Destiny O. Birdsong, author of "Nobody’s Magic," on AAVE in literature, Sista Soulja, and resisting tidy endings
Destiny O. Birdsong’s Nobody’s Magic is, despite its title, completely imbued with the stuff. It is a book that transfixes and mesmerizes, so much that you find yourself staying up until the wee hours of the morning so enthralled you can’t put it down.
Birdsong gives us what she likes to call “messy” characters in three interconnected novellas. Each character is on a journey of self-discovery. Suzette is precious to her father. Protected and shielded from a world he forbids her to see, Suzette works to find a vision for herself. When Maple tragically loses her mother, she is forced to find who she is outside of her being her daughter. Academic Agnes must find a way to determine her own fate as opposed to letting a man and the job market do it for her.
Nobody’s Magic is about three Black women with albinism on a journey of personal freedom, but where we, the readers, find them is at that precious moment of precipice, where change is both exhilarating and frightening—where, by the time you see it through, you wonder if maybe there was a little bit of magic involved after all.
Birdsong’s debut poetry collection, Negotiations, published by Tin House in 2020 was longlisted for the 2021 PEN/Voelcker Award. Nobody’s Magic is her first novel but her prose can be found in Catapult, The Paris Review and elsewhere.
I spoke to Birdsong via Zoom and what follows is less of an interview and more of a conversation about AAVE in (capital L) Literature, albinism and good endings.
Tyrese L. Coleman: I’ve been finding that I feel a lot of thankfulness toward Black women writers who are—instead of capitulating to some sort of standard that doesn’t really exist—are writing with their heart what they know.
And it’s funny because I just read, for a podcast called Book Fight, The Coldest Winter Ever by Sista Soulja. And when we were talking about the book, one of the hosts of the show brought up a review of the book when it came out in the mid-late 90s that said her prose was undisciplined. And I was surprised because it didn’t sound undisciplined to me at all. I thought “This sounds actually really meticulous, like she’s really stepping into this voice.”
The way that most Black women writing now—with a certain voice, with a certain articulation of regionality and things like that—what that shift was between someone saying something like Soulja’s work is undisciplined (because you know what they’re talking about) and how now it feels like “this is what they want.” I don’t know. It’s not really a question, but—
Destiny O. Birdsong: You know, I have never thought about that, like when that shift happened. You know, and I think it certainly had to also be socio-political.
It’s interesting that you bring up Sista Soulja. I think maybe an org. had posted a clip of one of her interviews on Instagram. She was so ahead of her time, and I think that she was deeply misunderstood because of that. And I am almost certain that some of that misunderstanding played into the reception of her work. I mean, it may not have been for that particular review, but I do feel like she was just doing and saying things that feel like very much part of the moment now, or we’re not part of the moment when she was doing and saying them.
TLC: It feels like something happened. We always are stuck in the middle between wanting to live up to some literary standard and wanting that critical acclaim, right? Wanting to have that recognition from the white, westernized literary whatever, and then also wanting to stay close to who we are and representing the voices that we hear not only from ourselves, but the people around us that we grew up with, being authentic to that experience.
I feel like we’re somewhere in the middle. Especially when you are writing literary fiction or literary fiction that is about Black folks. Tell me if you agree or disagree, but those folks over there that are like, “literature must sound like this” have started shifting towards where we are instead of us going in the opposite direction.
DOB Yeah, yeah. You know, I’d like to think that they just sort of came to their senses and came to understand that our literature is good, that it’s interesting, that it’s hard to put down. Because that is a response that I’ve gotten from readers and from white readers: “I couldn’t put this down.”
I was a little worried because the first story is in AAVE. I taught literature that was in AAVE, and sometimes my white students were like, “Well, I can’t access it because I don’t like the language. It’s hard for me to read. It’s hard for me to read because I can’t hear it or like, it’s not familiar to me” Or whatever, right?
If the unfamiliarity was the block back then, part of that has changed just because of the co-opting of Black culture. That is no longer a thing. Queer culture too. Like some of the idioms that we often use just sort of on a daily basis. Those are coming from cultures that have now become commercialized, which I think is a good or bad thing, depending on where you stand and how you look at it.
But maybe once those kinds of cultural veils were kind of lifted a little bit, then those readers did start to look at our literature and think, “Oh, like, well, this is also really interesting. And it’s also, yeah, and I think this is really well crafted.” And it’s offering stories beyond like, you know, wealthy family loses money and, you know—
TLC: Man buys a boat—
DOB: Yeah. Maybe that’s it. I think it’s a good shift. I think there’s still more work to be done, but I’m here for it. I’m here for it as a reader and also as a writer.
TLC: Yeah, I am too. I’m happy to see it. It feels fresh and new and exciting.
Maple’s mom in “Bottled Water” says, “You ain’t supposed to find love, you supposed to make love.” I dogeared that page because I feel like that is a central theme in this book for your characters. I feel like she was right. And also, she contradicts herself because I feel like in some ways they all find and make love. So I wanted to ask you how Suzette, Maple and Agnes find and make love for themselves?
DOB: That’s a good question, and I hadn’t thought about that quote being one of the central themes of the book.
You know, I do think I think you’re right that it’s a little bit of both. I think specifically of the end of Suzette’s story. I think that she sort of finds out some truths about their desire for her. But then she also understands that she has autonomy now, right? That she can actually sort of decide what she wants for her life. It’s not going to be easy, but she has this new found sense of agency. And so she is finding love with other people, but also making it.
I think maybe the same is true even for the end of Maple’s story. I think Agnes is a bit more tenuous. Like, it’s not clear what’s going to happen to her. It’s clear that she needs to be where she’s going, but nothing else is clear. I think the characters are unpredictable, so we don’t quite know what Agnes is doing right now.
I think it’s a little bit of both. Maybe it should be that way. I see Black love as world building. From a craft standpoint, I have to build a world in a work where it can exist, if it so chooses, and where the story of that love can exist in ways where it is not always being intruded upon by the white gaze.
But then also the love itself is world building. I feel my safest when I am around Black people who I know love me, whether it’s romantic or otherwise. And we might not be safe in the meta sense, right? Like we could die at any time. But, while I’m in the presence of that love, I feel endless. I feel like I’m in a world where I have agency, I feel like I’m in a world where I’m protected. I feel like I’m in a world where I can be expressive and that those expressions are not policed or looked askance at or anything like that. So yeah, it’s a little bit of both, making the world and also finding that world and other people.
TLC: One of the things I enjoyed about Nobody’s Magic is that the endings did not feel like endings but they felt—oh, I don’t want to use the word resolved either—ready for the next part of their lives. There’s not really a question around that, but can you talk about that sense of readiness—how these stories end and what made you land there?
DOB: As a poet, I often tell people that the best piece of advice I ever got was from a poet named Chiyuma Elliot. We were in workshop together at Cave Canem, and I was like a baby poet. And I loved these grand finishes like “THIS is what the poem is about,” and, she very lovingly said, “you know, at the end of the poem, you can leave the door open.” That fundamentally changed how I wrote poems and I think when I began writing these stories, I also wanted that.
I think about my characters as real people. So I often wonder what they’re doing right now. But I think just from a creative standpoint that the possibilities for the characters remain endless, even as there’s like resolution at the end of their particular sections.
TLC: But that’s like real life.
DOB: In thinking about them as people in real life, your story doesn’t stop after you get in the car and leave. There are different stages. I like endings that are kind of messy, and sort of open. I love that in poems too.
TLC: But it’s not a low-feeling open. Literary fiction sometimes gets a bad rap for being melancholy. And this is—I don’t know what happens to their characters a hundred percent, but I feel like whatever happens next is going to be OK.
DOB: Yeah, that’s what I wanted. I wanted their stories not to feel neatly resolved, but you have the sense that things were gonna be alright, that they were going to figure it out. I definitely wanted that.
There’s so many things about literary fiction that I chafe against because I do think that some of those things—and I’m actually writing about this right now—some of those things are actually anti-Black and anti-people of color.
There’s this push for so much interiority and these characters who are self-analytical. And I’m just like, “you know, sometimes we learn about who we are in concert with other people.”
And particularly because these characters have albinism and people with albinism both, in sort of the larger cultural narrative, but also within literature itself, have often been seen as on the outskirts of communities, on the periphery. To have these characters be in deep community with the people around them while coming into themselves as they interact with those people, for me, it was really important in terms of representing those characters as Black women with the condition of albinism, but just as Black characters. We learn about who we are communally. And there is self-reflection and all of these things. But for me, some of the richest moments are when the characters are interacting with each other and they are sort of coming into a greater understanding of where they stand in relation to the people around them and the people they love.
TLC: I think what happened when we were colonized is that our ancestors were taught to suppress emotion. The expression of emotion is looked at as a savage thing, an uncivilized thing. And so that’s translated throughout time to our art and things like that and we have always been taught to suppress emotions, suppress your feelings, et cetera, et cetera. And to me, I agree that’s very anti-Black. You know, I don’t have time to be sitting around thinking about my feelings all day long and then carefully describing the furniture in my room.
And, in terms of your comments about albinism, how does that translate among your characters? How does albinism connect your characters not only physically but connect them emotionally?
DOB: I want to go back to what you were saying about the suppression of emotion. If we think of slave narratives or even just more broadly, poetry or literature written by enslaved people, which would include the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley, they had to suppress emotions because they were trying to prove that they were human. I was thinking about Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, and that title is polite because those were not incidents. Those were crimes. She could not say that because in many states at the time, you could not commit a crime against property. I think that external white gaze requirement has always been an essential part for successful African American literature. Like, Charles Chestnut was doing it. It’s an intergenerational kind of thing.
I think that actually relates to what I’d like to say about the characters and albinism and how that connects them. Again, I wanted them to be messy? Was I interested in doing the cultural work of introducing readers to characters with albinism who are more complex than the characters I’ve seen? Absolutely. But in the process of doing so, I didn’t want to make them martyrs for the cause. I wanted them to be complex. I wanted them to be trifling. I wanted them to do things that in some cases made you dislike them. I wanted them to be fully fleshed out human beings. You know, like Maple’s sarcasm and when she threatens to push her grandma into the lake. And Agnes’ destruction of property. And even Suzette’s self-absorption in the early pages of her story. I wanted those things to be there because I wanted the characters to not try to live up to these impossible standards of virtue and goodness. And I didn’t want that to be the thing that humanized them. I wanted their regular, trifling selves to be the thing that humanized them. And so I think for me that that’s the connection between them.
Shruti Swamy, who wrote a really great review of the book for The New York Times, said that these are also coming of age stories, even though Agnes is in her mid-30s, I think that also connects them. They have been living lives that in some ways have been really controlled by other people, even Maple, who deeply loves her mother. I think that so much of her identity was attached to this other person, I don’t know that she would have ever been able to fully be herself if that attachment had not been severed. I mean, it’s unfortunate that it was, but it’s also true that I think that the journey she embarks on might not have been one she would have been interested in taking if she didn’t have to. All of them are coming into themselves in some really important ways that will hopefully speak to the balance of their lives and change the balance of their lives for the better. Unfortunate circumstances create those necessities. I feel like that has certainly been true for me in my life.