Review: Dessa’s “My Own Devices” bubbles with heartache and sparks with wonder

The rapper’s debut essay collection will be released Sept. 18.

Maddy Folstein

The inside flap of the debut essay collection by musician, writer and University of Minnesota philosophy alumna Dessa states she “defies category.” “My Own Devices” reflects this defiance. It begins with a narrative overview, which is followed by a glossary of rap definitions and character descriptions. We hear a story before we know how to define it.

The book, which is set to release on Sept. 18, offers a tour of Dessa’s personal histories. It makes stops at “The Fool That Bets Against Me,” in which she attempts to insure her heart, the muscle behind her portfolio of sad songs. Another essay, “Going Empty,” chronicles her “Sound the Bells” music video shoot off the coast in Mexico. She soars to New Orleans, New York City, Seattle and beyond. (Twin Cities readers will recognize many familiar landmarks, from a downtown Minneapolis park to West Bank’s Hard Times Cafe.)

As disparate as the notes in Dessa’s essay collection seem on the surface, a narrative of heartache sews these moments together. She fixates on a years-long relationship with a person she refers to as “X” (another member of Doomtree — it’s not hard to guess who) whom she describes as a broad-shouldered lover of gas station beverages, amongst other attributes.

But “My Own Devices” is a memoir of Dessa carving her own path. She’s intensely analytical of her own life, passionate about both philosophy and behavioral science. The collection walks a line between art and science; she writes of calculating numbers in tour vans and contacting neuroscientists to zap the memory of X-induced heartache from her brain.

If you’ve listened to Dessa’s music, you can imagine how rich with imagery and packed with wit her writing is. Her sensory details are particularly lush — she describes the feeling of a heavy necklace by saying “maybe gravity in New Orleans pulled harder on beautiful things.” In “A Ringing in the Ears,” she stops at an anechoic chamber in Minneapolis — in one of the quietest spaces in the world, she digs in to the particular qualities of silence, from her creaking joints to the sound of her heartbeat.

The lines I underlined (or annotated, or drew hearts next to) range from descriptions of airplanes to reflections on the nature of love. I learned about everything from gliding aircrafts and farming to behavioral science and philosophy from “My Own Devices.”

Ultimately, I devoured most of the book in a single afternoon. I will probably return to it later, to linger on the lines I underlined but didn’t fully digest.

“My Own Devices” is more than just a collection of essays — it’s an invitation to consider another perspective. Maybe we won’t want to insure our own hearts or map the trails of our exes in our brains. But Dessa’s words are an articulation of the universal — the discoveries, the achievements and the heartaches, of course.

Grade: A