Sometimes, when characters are truly iconic, t-shirts are made with their names. There’s one with characters from A Little Life, “Jude & JB & Willem & Malcolm,” because, regardless of what one thinks of Hanya Yanagihara’s novel, these four undeniably come to life over those eight hundred-plus pages. Destiny O. Birdsong’s debut novel, Nobody’s Magic, manages to do the same in less than half the page count, with three young women so vibrantly portrayed, it’s easy to imagine a cult following wanting t-shirts to celebrate these characters too.
Nobody’s Magic is a triptych novel divided into three sections, one for each of these three Black women characters with albinism from Shreveport, Louisiana. In the first section, “Drive,” we meet Suzette, a twenty-year-old tired of being sheltered by her protective parents. She’s ready for some independence: wanting her driver’s license, though first, she needs bioptic glasses, which aren’t available in Shreveport. Suzette’s quest for independence is tangled with a budding romance with a mechanic who works for her father. And while she’s pampered, that’s not really her fault: “If I really am spoiled rotten, it’s cause Mama and Daddy was doing too much when I was little. I couldn’t go outside cause I might get sunburn. I couldn’t play with the other kids cause they didn’t treat me right… So it was a cycle: couldn’t do nothing now cause I didn’t do nothing then.”
We meet Maple in the second section, “Bottled Water.” Maple is working through the grief of losing her free-spirited mother, the victim of an unsolved murder: “The truth is that my mama got popped and she’s gone. She didn’t do anything to deserve it and nothing she did or didn’t do was able to save her. Not one single motherfucking thing.” While wrestling with the feelings of losing her mom, especially in such a sudden and terrible way, she connects with a guy dealing with pain from his own loss.
And in the last section, “Mind the Prompt,” we meet Agnes, a lecturer stuck in a bad relationship with a white man, and the trip to a university that changes her life, in part due to a lonely security guard who believes she’s magic. It’s the only perspective told in third person, and opens:
“Agnes Cherie Kirkkendoll always panicked a little when she wrote her name in perfect capital letters in blocks at the top of a Scantron. That extra k always threatened to keep it from fitting in, the same way it had two decades before at her high school in Louisiana, the first place where someone made a connection between her name and her skin.” “You white as a sheet. You must be the KKK,” said Dennis Drummond on the fourth day of classes during their freshman year.”
Receiving such comments are common experiences for all three women, dealing with ignorance and prejudice of others who, as many of us, believe race and skin color are synonymous. But this isn’t necessarily true for someone with albinism—these three women may have light skin, but they’re very much Black women. The complex dichotomy is fascinating terrain to explore, which Birdsong, herself a Black woman with albinism, does with poignancy and grace. The novel explores questions such as what does it mean to be a Black woman when the world doesn’t immediately perceive you as one? It’s an astute and moving meditation on the ways social and racial histories shape oneself.
The voice of each section is distinct, and these three women are very different and in very different situations, with the common thread of each being about Black women with albinism. Also, these characters are all at a crossroads; for each, the introduction of a man coincides with their quest for more agency over their lives. Based on the plot summary alone, one could argue these men are the catalysts for change, but that underestimates the force of these three women’s determination. It’s not the men who precipitate change, but the way these new relationships allow the women to better parse what they want and how to get that. And, further, how a romance gets tied up with our relationship to our family, how we can begin to see our familial histories and bonds differently, while understanding family can also include people we’re not related to by blood.
Readers wanting these three characters’ stories to converge in some way will be disappointed, but such expectations are unreasonable for a triptych novel. These stories are meant to be read as separate panels, portraits of each of these women, which complement one another, sometimes drawing parallels yet always feeling distinct. The novel is satisfying when read this way: like one does a story collection, taking each on its own terms, then looking at the thematic overlap—of which here, there’s plenty.A novel by a critically acclaimed poet is expected to be lyrical on a line level, so it’s little wonder Nobody’s Magic delivers in this realm: Birdsong’s debut poetry collection, Negotiations, was longlisted for the PEN/ Voelcker Award. What’s more noteworthy is the dexterity Birdsong possesses. She hasn’t just written good stories, but searing ones with unforgettable characters. These three women are so distinct and real they will undoubtedly be remembered by readers years later, the hallmark of iconic characters. Readers will come to love and know these three women so deeply, they’ll immediately recognize Nobody’s Magic’s characters if they see a Suzette & Maple & Agnes t-shirt—and likely want one, too.
Destiny O. Birdsong
Grand Central Publishing
Published on February 8, 2022