An Interview with Destiny O. Birdsong

S. Tremaine Nelson

I first read Destiny’s work in the bundle of poetry our editors Mike McGriff and Alyssa Ogi sent back in the fall of 2020 for our first issue of the new Northwest Review. Her poetry, like her prose, sings and screams and endures like the voice of a close friend, or a family member, who confesses unforgettable secrets to you. Destiny received her MFA in poetry at Vanderbilt University and also completed her PhD there, too, writing her dissertation on mother-daughter relationships in Afro-Diasporic women’s literature. As I myself studied literature at Vanderbilt many years ago, I have always felt a kinship with fellow authors who know Nashville and have worked with the ambient noise of Music City as their artistic backdrop. Destiny’s stunning debut novel NOBODY’S MAGIC is now available wherever books are sold. Fierce, funny, and unforgettable, the book delivers a searing tale of female strength and self-discovery.

Northwest Review
If there was a single book of poetry you could require every incoming first year U.S. college student to read, what would you assign?
Destiny O. Birdsong
I’d probably recommend Warsan Shire’s forthcoming Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head: Poems. First of all, U.S. college students need to read books by people who are not American. We all need a wider perspective of the world beyond our borders. Also, I haven’t read a single page in that book, but I already know it’s going to be amazing. No one writes about love, loss, the immigrant experience, and a troubled relationship to home/homeland like Shire. Even Beyonc√© cosigned on the greatness when she hired her to write the poems/monologues featured in Lemonade. We’re not ready.
NWR
Your debut novel NOBODY’S MAGIC is now in bookstores: which of your characters did you love the most when you started writing the book, and was there a different character, perhaps surprisingly, you started to love more or differently as you continued to write and revise?
DB
I think that Doni, who is a supporting character in Suzette’s triptych, was probably my favorite. I love his gentleness, his quiet knowing of random things, and his genuine interest in Suzette. Also, the way I imagine him, he’s pretty hot. But it’s the kind of man he is that made me love Suzette’s character more and more because of what he required from her as their relationship evolved. I neither loved nor hated Suzette or Maple at the outset, but I came to love both over time. I definitely hated Agnes, though, who is the focus of the final triptych. She’s arrogant and misguided and sometimes self-serving, but as her story progressed, she earned my appreciation and compassion. She’s made me think through some of the most pressing issues relevant to her current state, including family dynamics, the dangers of misaligned ambitions and what it costs to truly be happy. She’s my girl. I still don’t have a favorite though. Or if I do, it changes all the time.
NWR
As I read NOBODY’S MAGIC, I found myself empathizing with Suzette’s father: he wants to protect her, as I read him, but he doesn’t know how to see her as a young adult woman; how much of their conflict is related to wealth and social class, versus his own inability to realize she’s all grown up?
DB
I have a great deal of understanding about why Curtis Elkins is who he is, but not a lot of sympathy. I think the bulk of his conflict with everybody, including Suzette, is about his need to be in control of everything–the shop, his wife, and his child. Time and circumstance have given him the means, the power, and the excuses to do what he does, but I think that at heart he’s a narcissist who presumes his way is best and to hell with anyone else’s autonomy. He’d be that way even if he didn’t have a penny to his name, and I doubt that he would ever change.
NWR
As an artist, where do you find the frontier in the American South, either geographically or psychologically? Where is the “undiscovered” space?
DB
The frontier is Black women artists, and the undiscovered space is the same. I remember going to a literary festival in Memphis in 2018, and hearing a writer named Addie Citchens read. I was transfixed. A Mississippian with a knack for hilarious, sexually uninhibited characters and great storytelling, she had the rest of the room spellbound too. I thought to myself, “Why have I never heard of her?” And even now, I still have trouble finding her work online. Recently, there’s been an explosion of Black Southern women writers–Angie Thomas, Deesha Philyaw, Dantiel Moniz, Dawnie Walton, and Katori Hall–and I hope it keeps going because there are many others too, whose work I love and whose love has sustained me as a writer. That festival was organized by Jamey Hatley, another amazing writer who invited me to join a panel even though I didn’t have book the first. Southern literature is a brighter landscape because of these women. And I want to see more work from all of them.
NWR
Could you tell us a little about your PhD work at Vanderbilt? Is there another book you’re working on that’s borne of those musty stacks of the library?
DB
I think Vanderbilt shaped me in ways it probably never intended. For one, it taught me that my place in the academy is a very different one from what I had in mind when I enrolled. It taught me that brilliance and kindness don’t always go hand in hand. They must be cultivated. It taught me that you can and should always ask for what you deserve. It taught me how to make moves in silence, and that sometimes the most well-meaning advice can be wrong because no one knows what I’m capable of or what I want for my career besides me, and, hell, sometimes even I don’t know.

Vanderbilt also gave me space to explore my interests and write in multiple genres, and that’s proved indispensable to me as an author. I penned my dissertation on mother-daughter relationships in Afro-Diasporic women’s literature, and I did so without the slightest clue that I’d one day write fiction that tackles these very same relationships. All that research and thinking about characterization and narrative–and even theory–has informed my work immensely. As for books in the offing, there’s always another book coming. I hesitate to say any more than that because sometimes I think it’s going to be one thing and it turns out being completely different. But yes. More books about something! Stay tuned.

NWR
Nashville’s growth in the past 10 years has changed the city forever: where are the places you love the most that you hope will never leave?
DB
Right now, I love where I live the most; it’s an ungentrified neighborhood with lots of trees and cardinals and deer, and my general hope is that there are still neighborhoods like this left to live in. Also, the parks, the hiking trails, the houses that are not McMansions with their huge front yards, which I drive past on Highway 70, Buena Vista Pike, Woodmont, Riverside, and Brook Hollow. The mom-and-pop restaurants where twenty bucks still gets you a decent-sized meal. I don’t know how long any of it is going to last, but I’m hopeful.
NWR
Describe the ideal reader you hope will wander into their local bookstore and pick up NOBODY’S MAGIC: what are the other books they have already read and loved that might give them the same feelings or dreams or hopes while reading your novel?
DB
One of my dear poet friends taught me to ask, “Who are you loving?” when you write, and I used to think it was a question I only had to ask myself once in my career. Right now, I feel like I should ask it with every book. For this one, I am loving Black women with albinism, Black people with albinism, people with albinism, Black people, Southerners, women. They are the people I was thinking of as I was writing, but honestly my ideal reader is anyone who is down for a good story. If you’ve ever stayed up all night to finish a book like Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow, Toni Morrison’s Sula, or Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies because the people in them, the places they were from, and the stories they told made you feel something, then this book is for you. And more broadly, if you love women or Project Pat (of course these might sound like mutually exclusive categories, but they’re not), or sitcoms or P-Valley, this might be your jam. If you’ve ever wanted to lose your shit at work or cuss out your grandma for being a hypocrite, or go sit with your beloved beside some water, then I think you’ll love this book.

Destiny O. Birdsong is a Louisiana-born poet, essayist, and fiction writer whose work has either appeared or is forthcoming in the Paris Review Daily, Poets & Writers, Catapult, The Best American Poetry 2021, and elsewhere. Her debut poetry collection, Negotiations, was published by Tin House Books in October 2020, and was longlisted for the 2021 PEN/Voelcker Award. Her debut novel, Nobody’s Magic, is forthcoming from Grand Central in February 2022.

Educated in Tennessee, married young in Alabama, S. Tremaine Nelson is a former poetry reader at The Paris Review and an alumnus of the fiction department of The New Yorker. He is a fourth-generation Oregonian living in Portland, where he was born and raised. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and the Columbia University MFA program.