My own Devices by Dessa
reviewed by jim hepplewhite
"My formative experience as a rapper happened in his Fiesta, idling in the parking lot of an Old Country Buffet.
He was behind the wheel, I sat shotgun. He put a beat on the stereo. 'Alright, rap.'
'Man, I really don't want to do this.' I hadn't written many lyrics yet and was painfully self-conscious about performing them in front of someone so good.
'You just gotta do it.'
'I'm too shy with you right here.'
'Okay.' He opened his door. 'Roll down your window a little.'
He left the car, came around to my side, and starting pounding a beat on the metal roof above my head.
I started a verse, quietly at first, then louder.
He listened through the cracked window.
When I was done, he got back in the car. It was good, he said. He thought I had real promise. But, 'Why don't you rap like you write?'"
Dessa (Ms. Wander), a multi-disciplinary rapper, wrote her Dutton debut My Own Devices (an essay collection) in a direct and spare style. It demystifies the life of a semi-successful touring rapper, in love, sadly, with one of her Doomtree crewmates (minimized as X). My Own Devices isn't only about that relationship, but it's the main feature. The sequencing of essays is great, too.
Gossipy part: Yeah, her torch songs are about X. And through Ms. Wander's word processor, the reader sees his prodigious charm. He led her, gently, into rapping. He arrives a half hour late to a couple's counseling appointment, with a copy of The Ethical Slut. It's tragic that both parties cannot make the intense attraction work in an ongoing fashion.
"[T]hat trick - getting people to like you a little bit right away - is not achieved simply by administering a small dose of the same magic that could get them to love you for a lifetime. They are different compounds entirely. Charisma is an excellent attractant, but lousy glue."
Like many great writers, Ms. Wander finds the telling details and executes their telling well. You can intuit that the touring life of an independent artist is difficult, but she shows you the 3 am catnaps slept sitting up in a Wal-Mart parking lot between cities. Or that South By Southwest fleeces its artists each year with the possibility of a life-changing payout, but she uses a Chuck Palahniuk hypothetical to illustrate it. Can you kick a Clydesdale horse to death in 20 minutes if doing so released every political prisoner? Probably not, but you gotta try. (As long as you're not vegetarian or vegan, admittedly.)
In "The Fool That Bets Against Me", Ms. Wander acknowledges the rancid chestnut of "what do I do if I lose the the heartache that powers some of my best work" by writing to Geico or Lloyd's of London to insure her heartache. The only eyebrow raising moment in My Own Devices came when Ms. Wander wrote the phrase "a website called Reddit" and later used Bandcamp, the best paying storefront for your music short of your own website, without introduction.
Her telling of grinding a life in New York City will resonate, I imagine, with anyone who lived in NYC. In peak New York City, the essay ends with Lin-Manuel Miranda offering her a spot on the Hamilton soundtrack. In peak Minneapolis (the city she moved to New York from), that spot on the Hamilton soundtrack made her maybe $100.
"1. My gut says monogamy has moral virtue-that's just how love is best done.
Well, guts say a lot of things. And throughout the course of human history, guts have been epically, disastrously wrong. Particularly when they're aligned with prevalent cultural attitudes that have outlasted their utility.
Maybe this monogamy thing is just the vestige of a medieval Judeo-Christian moral code, more concerned with property rights than romantic intimacy. Even if monogamy was somehow 'natural' to us, that still wouldn't make it morally right. Among a lot of primates, cannibalism is natural too."
To impose cyclical-ness on the book: X introduced me to Ms. Wander's work ten years ago. Through My Own Devices, Ms. Wander reintroduces me to X, ten years later. She writes with kindness, perception, and specificity.
I try not to read books twice, and I read My Own Devices twice in a week.