Know the Mother: An Interview with Desiree Cooper
A 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, Desiree Cooper is a former attorney, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and Detroit community activist. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Callaloo, Detroit Noir, Best African American Fiction 2010, and Tidal Basin Review, among other online and print publications. Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets. She is currently a Kimbilio fellow, a national residency for African American fiction writers. I had the extreme honor to discuss motherhood, race, feminism and her first collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, recently published by Wayne State University Press.
You were born and spent a large chunk of your childhood in Japan; you have ties to Virginia and you currently live in Detroit. Where is home?
I was born in Itazuke, Japan. My dad was in the Air Force and I spent nine of my first 14 years in Japan (three separate tours of duty). No, I don’t speak Japanese, except for catch tourist phrases. To this day, my mother says hello in Japanese to me every morning. And I sing Japanese nursery rhymes to my grandson.
My parents have known each other since they were about six, and are from a small town called Waverly in central Virginia. Somehow, I consider myself a Virginian, although I spent very little of my life there. (I’ve been in Detroit for nearly 30 years.)
I have lived in Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, Michigan and Florida. Many times in my life, I was the only black person I knew, outside of my family. When my dad served a year in Thailand during the Vietnam War in 1966, we went to stay with his mother in Waverly. There, I was living in complete racial segregation. I remember that as an especially blissful time, even though my grandmother’s house had no indoor plumbing, and cooking was done on a woodstove.
What is your earliest memory?
There are many snatches, all around the age of three: Wishing I was old enough to get on the school bus, waking up in the middle of the night believing that I was alone and that I was going to raise my baby brother myself, and my mother at the door at dinner time calling “Iki ma shoka!” (“Come here” in Japanese). But the biggest memory is walking into the living room one afternoon while we were living in Lubbock, Texas, and seeing my mother sobbing in front of the television. I’d never seen her cry before. I was horrified and shaken. It was the day President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
Tell me about the birth of your first child. How did that experience redefine you? What new things did you learn? What could you no longer stand?
When I got pregnant with my first child, I was practicing law in Detroit and had been married to my law school sweetheart for two years. We’d met on the first day of law school and had been planning our lives together ever since. Our son was planned and wanted (although I’d be the first to admit, I didn’t have that inner ache to be a mom. I just knew that I wanted children in my life, and, at 27, it was time to get started).
Immediately, I was shocked by the transition of my body from something I took for granted to something that overtook my life. I had morning sickness for six months. Food, smells, sleep and motion overwhelmed me. An elevator ride with someone wearing strong perfume was a nightmare. I took my life in my hands every time I opened the door to the refrigerator—the smells!!
I was used to working 12 hour days, eating when it was convenient (and skipping meals when it wasn’t). Staying up past exhaustion. Partying late and going to work early. I was used to being the commander of my body. Suddenly, my body was commanding me. I could do none of these things without risking serious illness. It was my first glimpse of what it must be like to live with a disability.
I loved scary movies. I remember going to one while pregnant and feeling this odd negativity/fear. I felt like I was opening the door to something awful for my child. I’ve never felt the same about horror and mayhem on screen.
I watched as my ability to participate fully in life became limited, while my husband’s life remained largely unchanged. At work, a senior partner said to me that if I wanted to have children, it would make sense for me to take 12 or 13 years off to raise them, then think about practicing law again. (WTF???) Another exclaimed with disbelief that he couldn’t understand why the firm was paying women to have babies (commonly referred to as maternity leave). Another woman said that if I was happier about my pregnancy, I wouldn’t have morning sickness.
On November 6, 1987, I performed a miracle. I went into labor on my husband’s birthday. My son was going to share a birthday with his dad. Amazing!!! But what started out as a long-awaited birth of the first grandchild on both sides of my family soon turned into a nightmare.
Let me say first that I had a “normal,” 12-hour labor (induced by pitocin), and that my son and I emerged healthy and whole. But I was not prepared for the violence of childbirth. I was being assaulted from within my own body. I felt on the verge of both life and death. The pain was so searing, it was animal. The prodding and poking from the medical team was completely focused on me as a machine, and not as a human being. The experience was so primal, jarring and cruel, I couldn’t believe it. I felt my bones parting for this new life, my muscles pushing against themselves, my spirit separating. When the doctor said “push!” I thought, “You must be frickin’ crazy. Why would I hurt myself like that?”
By the time my son was born, I was exhausted and traumatized; I barely wanted to hold him. I wanted to be left alone to sob. It was not the beautiful, sublime life event that you see on TV and in magazines.
Sometimes I wonder if I suffered a sort of PTSD from the experience.
I deeply admire flash writers, but it is so restrictive. Can you share why you gravitate towards flash over other types of prose? How do the rules about flash reflect in your own life? Do they reflect in your mothering?
All I’ve ever wanted to do, since the age of four, was write books. Novels. I’ve always been a voracious reader and I love the sweep of a great story. To this day, I still want to write a novel when I grow up.
My first writing job was as a columnist. After being in journalism for most of my professional life (I left the practice of law after five years), I discovered that something had happened to my brain. I’d become hot-wired to tell complicated, wide-ranging stories in the space of a newspaper column. I’d learned how to shuffle through details for just the right one, how to build a story arch in a tiny space and how to mince words.
To help me with journalistic discipline, I started studying poetry as a way to train myself to collapse powerful narratives into miserly spaces. Twenty years ago, I became a founding board member of Cave Canem, a nationally recognized incubator for black poetic voices. Breathing the air of poets profoundly influenced my work as a journalist.
After leaving journalism in 2010 (I was laid off), I made a surprising discovery. Certainly my love of poetry and fiction had influenced my journalism, but I had not realized how profoundly journalism had affected my creative writing. Over the course of eleven years as a newspaper columnist, I had developed the muscle for compressing stories into tight spaces. Compression became my creative writing weapon of choice.
That’s how I became obsessed with flash fiction. The genre has many definitions, but typically flash stories are 1,000 words or less. My flash generally has a 750 word limit because that’s closer to the column length I was used to writing—and because I want to challenge myself to continue to communicate an entire story in the length of a typical newspaper column.
How much different is it to mother adults? Was the change a subtle one or more abrupt? How is your relationship with your children similar and different to your relationship with your parents?
News flash: I hate babies, but I didn’t know that until I had them. Being the mother of a newborn was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I was overwhelmed by the constant needs of a little one, the lack of sleep, the inability to carve out even the simplest of life’s joys for myself (that would include taking a shower). Unlike the common mythology of Blessed Motherhood, I found infants to be exhausting and unfulfilling. I was constantly thinking about things I’d rather be doing, like reading a good book, going to a foreign film, eating out at an Indian restaurant—going to WORK, for heaven’s sake. I was isolated and understimulated. It was very hard.
But then came amazing toddlerhood!!!!! OMG, the hilarity and awe of a human being unfurling before your eyes! The attitude!!! The likes and dislikes coming from nowhere! The constant discovery (ice!) and acquisition of language (shit!). That began the miracle of mothering for me.
I am one of those few women who didn’t cry on my children’s first day of school, or who never longed for them to be “frozen” as babies. I honestly fell in love more and more with my children the older they got. Going out with them, traveling, talking, reading, sampling foods, camping – it was all sublime. I LOVED my teens, and I love my adult children.
Now I’m a gran..grand.. No. I can’t say it. Not ready for babies again. But, as life would have it, another miracle has happened. My grandson is my heart (he’s almost three). I am calmer and in less competition with him for my own heart’s desires. I can hold a little one and just stay in that moment. I have learned to love babies. But he still can’t call me any version of a “G” word. My grandson calls me “Zsa Zsa.”
How is parenting my parents like parenting my children? Not even close to the same. With children, you have that long-leash of forgiveness. They don’t know any better; they haven’t learned to do it yet; they aren’t able to control impulses yet. You get that and you relax about it.
With parents, there’s that constant tug between what they’re actually capable of, and what they can no longer do. It’s not an exercise in forgiving, it’s an exercise in forgetting, for both of us. I know that each day is the best day I’m going to have with them. There is no anticipation of growth or discovery. Instead, it’s a long lesson in release. It is a very hard road.
But at the same time, I believe my children gave me the patience, flexibility and blind faith that it takes to ultimately parent your parents. I am ready to wrap my needs around theirs. I’m ready to love them to the end.
What inspired you to write these essays? How long had you been working on the collection?
First, I want to be clear that these stories aren’t autobiographical, and they aren’t essays. They are both fiction and true, the way all good fiction is about a universal truth. (Sometimes the only way to write a real truth is through fiction.)
I’ve been writing these pieces forever. “Night Coming” was collected in Best African American Fiction 2010. I wrote the title piece, “Know the Mother,” well over 20 years ago. Back then, I had already decided that if I ever had a book of short stories (I wasn’t writing flash then), that Know the Mother would be the title.
I think it’s no exaggeration to say that women’s gender roles (motherhood and wifehood) have been my singular obsession. They say that writers have one story to tell and that’s mine.
The stories are inspired by the conversations I have never had with my mother, tried to have, should have had, or have had a million times over. They are inspired by the women who are my beloved “sisters,” and women I only know of when their lives become news. There are so many unexplored aspects of womanhood, wifehood, motherhood, and daughterhood. I have discovered that lending voice to those conversations through fiction is liberating and empowering to women from all walks of life. Many women who have read my fiction have said to me, “I thought I was the only one.”
I’m not sure I’ve exhausted my singular obsession with this collection, we’ll see. I suspect I won’t be finished with the topic until the world changes significantly for women and girls.
What role does the power of memory serve in your work?
Memory is key, but not for the reasons you think. Memory is faulty, incorrect and subjective. That’s why it’s very powerful for a fiction writer. Memory is apart from reality, and it helps to distill the actual events down to an emotional truth for the memory-holder. When writing things that require a memory of details for authenticity, I write first, and research later. I don’t want the “facts” to bog down the storytelling.
I think that in my work, I’m also reflecting a collective memory. I haven’t been abused, or survived cancer, or experienced the death of a spouse or raised a lesbian child. But I have had so many conversations with women, I have lived through the experiences of my best friends, I have sat at the knee of my mother and grandmother. I have traveled and read and learned. I draw on women’s stories about their lives, outside of the particular life that I have led.
What does it mean to mother as a black woman in the post-Civil Rights Era?
My son, 27, has never voted for a white person for president. I’ll let you sit with that. When I think about it, it almost makes me cry. This is what it means to be a black person today.
But this is the same son who has been harassed by the police repeatedly, including being handcuffed and hauled to jail because his car’s exhaust was too loud. I pray for him when he goes to mostly white areas to shop or hang out. I pray for him when he goes to mostly black areas to shop or hang out. My daughter, 25, was called a nigger at her job at a veterinarian’s office. As in, “I don’t want my dog to be touched by a nigger.”
Raising a child as a black woman in America has never been easy and it still isn’t. All mothers pray so hard that the world will be good to their children. Black mothers just spend more time on their knees.
Now for the question I am rarely asked: What does it mean to be a woman in the post-feminism era? As an African American woman, I have been asked many times about which offends me more—racism or sexism? I try never to fall for the game of comparative miseries. But on these occasions, I lean upon the words of the great African American abolitionist and feminist, Frederick Douglass. He once said, “A discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency …, than would be a discussion of the rights of woman.” That’s a pretty strong indictment of sexism coming from a former slave.
But the longer I live, the more I believe that sexual equality is a profoundly subversive idea, because it is at the root of nearly all human relationships. While I have found refuge from racism in the arms of family and friends, there is no hiding from sexism. Even at home, the people I love most believe I know where their socks are by virtue of my ovaries. For me, sexism always comes as a shock because it erupts in the most familiar places.
What does it mean to be a mothering daughter to your elder parents in this era?
I’ve been dealing with my mother’s illness pretty actively for about seven years. Her true diagnosis is Lewy Body Dementia which presents a lot like Alzheimer’s, but one of the key differences is the prevalence of hallucinations. So far, I have been able to handle her illness ineptly from afar with frequent visits and medication. It’s advancing to the point now where she will need more intense care. My brother and I will soon have to make much harder decisions.
Here’s the deal. When I was raising my two children (both born in the 1980s), I was angry and appalled at how little was available to help women juggle the duties of raising and caring for tomorrow’s citizens. They were not just my kids, they were someone’s future employee, spouse, boss and/or collaborator. How is society supposed to advance if childcare is an ad hoc, hit-or-miss proposition?
I always say that there was a women’s movement, but no one else moved. Not men, not institutions. So there I was, a new mother and an attorney at a law firm that had no formal maternity leave policy before I came there, wondering how I was supposed to find childcare. Who would I invite into my home? How would I know if they would be loving to my child? As always, I had to rely upon the kindness of other women to help me find support. I was well-educated and well-paid, and it was a nightmare. I can’t imagine the horror for women of more modest means and resources.
Flash forward 25 years. My daughter has her first child and, unimaginably, the horror begins again. NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Children fall into the laps of whomever can provide for them at a negotiated price. Mothers continue to struggle daily with the all-consuming work-home balance.
And now my parents are facing end-of-life challenges. And, once again, I’m finding no public interest in the process of dying. Each family must cobble together their own resources, make up their own patchwork of services, navigate insurance and money alone. I am aghast with the arrogance of our society that will not deal with an issue that affects every human being simply because “the women will take care of it.”
For all of our remarkable gains, those who give birth and those who give comfort to the infirm and dying – women – must do so because they must. There really isn’t much of a choice. Without my “sisters,” none of these roles could have been navigated. I appreciate their wisdom, work, knowledge and empathy. But it’s time for our society to invest in human development. That’s not women’s work. That’s everyone’s job.
What have you learned from the women in your life that directly impacts how you raised your children?
From my dear mother-in-law who raised seven children: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Let them figure it out on their own. They won’t die if they have to live with consequences for ten minutes.
From my dear mother, who raised two children: Be completely available to your children. Give them the best of yourself. Dote on them and dry every tear.
I have had both recordings in my brain the whole time I was raising kids. It made me completely schizo.
What impact has your own tribe of girlfriends had on your mothering?
I could have not survived wifedom, motherhood and now (caregiving) daughterhood without my friends. I marvel at the media that always portrays women as cutthroat and back-biting. My experience of sisterhood has always been that of profound support and love. My girls don’t ask how they can help or what I need—they just do it.
What other aspects of your life do you find being a mother has changed you?
Mothers are invincible. They juggle an amazing number of priorities with stunning success. They buck up and get it done. They are resourceful and efficient. They know how to “deepen time.” That translates to everything. It’s better than military basic training.
Mothering changes everything from how you work (do you pass over that promotion because you’re needed at home?), to how you play (leave the kids with a sitter, then worry about them the whole time you’re gone), to how you sleep (with one eye open, of course), to how you luxuriate (a closed door, “Scandal,” red wine in a coffee mug), to how you shop (go out for a new purse for yourself, come back with clothes and shoes for the kids).
They were right. You’re never the same.
What has motherhood taught you about yourself?
Contrary to the long, somber (and somewhat angry) answers to these questions, I actually acquired a sense of humor as a mother. The kids have taught me to look at life from 1,000 ft. From up there, the pile-on of stress and pop-up problems make my life look like an “I Love Lucy” episode. Motherhood has taught me to disengage with the drama and just laugh. You really can’t have your chubby kindergartener knock you over in his excitement to see you at the end of the day, thereby exposing your underwear to all the other kids and parents without thinking: “This is a hot mess.”
And patience. Lawdy, I never knew I had it in me. Stand back and let them figure it out, no matter how long it takes. Endure a crying jag from your first grader because she just needs to cry. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Be consistent to the point of brain death. Smile and hug to de-escalate. Answer that question with the same enthusiasm and calm despite the fact that it’s been asked 1,000 times.
What is the mirror your children hold up to you and how do you deal with your reflection?
Evidently, I’m a grunter and a sigher, according to my daughter, and now her grandson. And I’m Mr. Furious behind the wheel.
They call me on it, but I believe that I’m entitled.
Purchase Desiree’s brilliant collection, Know the Mother.
All photos courtesy of Desiree Cooper.