The best novellas written by Black people about Black people

Destiny O. Birdsong Author Of Nobody's Magic
By Destiny O. Birdsong

Who am I?

Nobody’s Magic began, not as the series of novellas it became, but as a collection of stories I couldn’t stop telling. And it wasn’t just my characters’ comings and goings that enthralled me. It was the way they demanded I let them tell their own stories. I enjoy reading and writing novellas because they allow space for action, voice, and reflection, and they can tackle manifold themes and conversations in a space that is both large and small. At the same time, they demand endings that are neither predictable nor neat, but rather force the reader to speculate on what becomes of these characters they’ve come to know and love. 


I wrote...

Nobody's Magic

By Destiny O. Birdsong,

Book cover of Nobody's Magic

What is my book about?

Nobody’s Magic is a triptych novel (a group of three novellas) about Black women with albinism who live in my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana. Though they range in age from twenty to thirty-four, each of them is facing a coming-of-age crossroads, where they have to decide how they want to live, whom they want to love, and in one case, where they want to be. There’s comedy and tragedy, plenty of intrigue (not to mention a few unsolved crimes), and a few rounds of good sex. In the end, each woman comes a little closer to finding herself, and coming to terms with her complicated—but nevertheless Black—identity.

The books I picked & why

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The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

By James Weldon Johnson,

Book cover of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Why this book?

Every time someone asks me whether I, a Black woman with albinism, would have ever considered passing for white, I think of the unnamed protagonist of this book and his conflicting desires to uplift his own race while also escaping the dangers of being a Black man at the height of America’s obsession with lynching. (And let’s be honest, he also enjoys the social privilege and upward mobility that come with being mistaken for white.) Of course, the title tells us which choice he’s going to make long before we read it for ourselves, but I was still unprepared for the gutting last lines of this book. It is a master class in telling the story of the backward glance, and in what one loses by trying to save himself. 


Passing

By Nella Larsen,

Book cover of Passing

Why this book?

Although Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield are only old childhood friends, their relationship has intense sister vibes. Each woman’s mix of jealousy and curiosity about the other’s life, the latent homoerotic desire that serves as an undercurrent for so much of the rising action, a suspected affair, and the explosive ending to Clare’s ruse all illustrate the kind of sibling rivalry I love to explore in my critical as well as my creative work. Not to mention, one of my favorite literary flexes of all time occurs near the end when Irene’s plucky friend Felise has to check a white man who has the audacity to yell the word “nigger” at a house party filled with Black people. It is a moment, as is the entire book. 


Crick Crack, Monkey

By Merle Hodge,

Book cover of Crick Crack, Monkey

Why this book?

I sometimes see this book discussed as a YA novel, and it’s true that its protagonists, Tee and her younger brother Toddan, are facing some very typical kid-lit crises: the death of one parent and the departure of another, aunts and uncles with conflicting ideas about child-rearing, and the impossible choice of leaving home for what they’ve been told will be a better life, but what’s better than living on an island with everyone you already know and love? Even so, this impressive novella, penned by a Black woman who happens to be a Caribbean literary scholar, is rich with conversations about colonialism, respectability politics, and the importance of preserving one’s familial and African histories—in other words, remembering your ‘true-true name.’ Important lessons for every age. 


Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Triptych

By Marie Vieux-Chauvet, Rose-Myriam Rejouis (translator), Val Vinokur (translator)

Book cover of Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Triptych

Why this book?

I wasn’t far into Love before it became crystal clear why its author fled her native Haiti after publishing it, in spite of the fact that the novella is ostensibly historical fiction. The narrator Claire’s depiction of a Duvalier-esque commandant is a scathing one, and in truth, no one escapes Claire’s acerbic wit, keen eye for detail, and incisive observations about colorism, class, and the perpetual violence that is engendered by colonial rule and persists long after its end. Claire is both an unreliable narrator—she is jealous, petty, and bitterly indignant about her treatment by her family—and yet, a trustworthy one. Love taught me how to create a Black woman narrator who does not have to be trusted (or even liked) to be listened to, believed. 


Leaving Atlanta

By Tayari Jones,

Book cover of Leaving Atlanta

Why this book?

I have loved Black literature written in Southern AAVE since reading Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman in graduate school. But perhaps what I love most about the narrator, Octavia (also known as Sweet Pea), is that she’s fluent in many languages: the language of the hood where she lives, of the classroom where she excels, and of the playground, where her poverty is often a cause for ridicule, but where her sassy, outspoken nature is treated with grudging respect. Early 1980s Atlanta is an unsafe place for children: drugs, gangs, and the Atlanta Child Murders are threatening their very existence, and like many of the stories on my list, Octavia’s triptych also ends with a departure. However, her wit and savvy make clear that, wherever she lands, she’s going to be alright. 


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