A Year in Reading: Destiny O. Birdsong

December 11, 2020 | 3 books mentioned 4 min read

A Year of Shorts

This year, it was hard to stay focused on anything that wasn’t the news, so I found it difficult to finish books, though I did manage to squeeze in a few, including rereads of some of my faves, like Tommy Pico’s Feed, ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, and Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam. Truthfully, I found it much easier to finish shorter pieces, some of which informed me about current events, while others helped me contextualize some of my personal life changes.

Late one April night, I stumbled on Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s “The Black Plague,” a piece in which Taylor breaks down how the intersections of race, class, and longstanding health disparities have made African Americans one of the most vulnerable populations for COVID-19 deaths. She also takes us to the places hardest hit but rarely spoken about, like jails, factories, and small Southern towns. So too did Anna Wolfe’s “The Mystery of Death,” a news story about Shalondra Rollins, a 38-year-old Black Mississippi woman who was the first to die of COVID-19 in her county after initially being misdiagnosed by a doctor who, at the time, was sitting on the city’s pandemic task force. Both articles made it clear to me how, as Southerners and Black women, me and so many people I love are vulnerable to this disease, but nothing hit home like reading about the death of Rana Zoe Mungin, an Afro-Latinx writer whose short story, “Love, from Mexico,” is a testament to the brilliance of Black women writers exploring the multiplicities of Diasporic identity. Each of these pieces reminded me that the numbers we often see flashing across news screens are only a fraction of the story. This year, we’ve lost Black and Brown brilliance in the form of artists, caretakers, daughters, parents, and peers. We’ve lost love and beauty. We’ve lost the heartbeats of so many communities.

Shortly before the pandemic began, I lost my job at a large university that let me go with little support and even less concern about how I would survive the 2019 holiday season and beyond. Still, I struggled to disentangle myself from the desire of working in the academy, in spite of the fact that, for several years, all signs have pointed to the fact that I simply might not belong there. Then, my friends and I read Sarah Viren’s “The Accusations Were Lies, But Could We Prove It?” with our mouths open; surely no one could be so desperate for a job that they would potentially sabotage two people’s careers to get it, would they? The answer is yes, and while it could happen in any profession, reading Viren’s piece made me think about the ways universities create economies of lack that make such wildly dangerous backbiting plausible, but at the same time fail to make use of their vast resources to protect women, queer people, and non-tenured faculty members. Lauren Michele Jackson’s “The Layered Deceptions of Jessica Krug” was another important read in every sense of the word; Jackson’s critique of white women cosplaying Blackness dovetails into a stunning (and completely accurate) call for Black Studies institutions and scholars to start investigating how “the lightest among us have a way of perpetuating their lightness over generations, prizing it as it is prized by the institutions they move within,” and thereby creating a culture wherein Black-passing scholars like Krug are given “so much benefit of the doubt.”  I finished both essays with the distinct feeling of relief. At least for now, these are politics I don’t have to navigate in order to write what I want to write, and to be the kind of writer and scholar I want to be.

For the past few years, I’ve been a poet in an illicit love affair with prose, and trying hard to figure out how to be better at it. For this reason, I took Meg Pillow’s online sex writing course, and goodness, those course readings were amazing. I particularly loved Roxane Gay’s “I Am a Knife.” There’s sex, hunting, burly men, magic, and plenty of blood—in short, it’s spectacular. And I will never again think of exotic animals without thinking of dear Paloma from Kristen Arnett’s “Birds Surrendered and Rehomed,” a touching and hilarious tale about a woman trying to find love after her partner’s death, continuously cockblocked by a pet parrot who can’t let go of the past. I also read some amazing essays written by a few of my friends, including Greg Marshall’s “Corey,” which is also about the death of a secretly ill love (and Marshall is equally adept at rendering sardonic humor in tense moments), and Melissa Febos’s “Les Calanques,” a somber celebration of sobriety that also pays tender homage to a past, broken self. In a year when I too am coming to terms with my body’s history and limits, its future and fearless strengths, each of these pieces gave me space to mourn and laugh, to honor and to plan.

I’ve been rounding out the year trying to spend less time on social media and more time writing, but I couldn’t resist catching a few pieces about the election, including Taylor Crumpton’s viral “Black Women Saved the Democrats. Don’t Make Us Do It Again,” whose final paragraph begins with a mantra I repeat every time I sit down in front of the keyboard: “The Black women’s movement has never centered exclusively on the ballot box in our journey toward liberation and freedom.”  I also particularly enjoyed Katherine Morgan’s “About That Wave of Anti-Racist Bestsellers Over the Summer…,” which reminds me that performative activism is always <<<< to the revolutionary work done in silence and, more often than not, in solitude. In spite of a year of so much scarcity (including in my attention span), I’ve found myself surrounded by a wealth of words, little missives that have spilled light through the cracks of my small cave, and have offered me new ways to think and feel, and in so doing have made my life seem much larger than this small, sheltering space.

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is a Louisiana-born poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has either appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, Boston Review, Catapult, African American Review, and elsewhere. Her debut poetry collection, Negotiations, was published by Tin House Books in October 2020, and her debut novel is forthcoming from Grand Central in 2022. She earned both her MFA and PhD from Vanderbilt University, and now lives and works in Nashville, Tennessee.

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