VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Desiree Cooper

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“The invisibility of writers of color is in fact a willed blindness. But we exist.”

With these words, three Los Angeles–based publishers launched #LitinColor to draw attention to overlooked voices. And in an industry that consistently reviews and awards men, women writers of color in particular need their voices amplified to avoid being rendered invisible. But, as Toni Morrison asked with regard to Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, “Invisible to whom?”

The remedy for a willed blindness is a willed focus. Women writers of color are visible, encouraged, and celebrated within various writing communities and social media movements. And now these writers will be featured regularly here at The Rumpus in my column “Visible: Women Writers of Color.” I begin by speaking with Desiree Cooper.

It is fitting that in Desiree Cooper’s debut collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, many of the stories take place at night. Even when there’s no indication of the time of day, Cooper’s prose conjures a darkening, overcast sky framing the story: A widow reflects on the resilience of her three young sons as the family takes a mule ride down a canyon wall. A woman has a miscarriage. A mother cannot spare her sons the searing indignities of Jim Crow, another kind of miscarriage. A daughter washes her dying mother’s back and is reminded of a song.

In thirty-three short-short stories, Cooper lays bare the thoughts and feelings mothers often keep to themselves: fear, desire, disappointment, and loss. So many different kinds of loss. It’s tempting to compare the book to a box of assorted, bitter chocolates, quick bites of lyrical, truth-telling about motherhood moments, so different from the typical “momoir” fare about minivans, playdates, boredom, and wine that was all the rage in the 2000s.

Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, Detroit community activist, and former attorney, writes with searing intimacy about race, gender, and the private lives of women. Her poems and stories have appeared in Callaloo, Detroit Noir, Best African American Fiction 2010, and Tidal Basin Review, among others. Cooper is a fellow of the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction, a national residency. She was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets.

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The Rumpus: What was the impetus for Know the Mother? When did you decide to pull this collection of stories together?

Desiree Cooper: Some writers say, “You’ve got to write the book that’s been writing you forever, and then maybe you can go to another topic.” I’ve never had any other topic but this topic, motherhood.

I was raised by a very traditional mother and father. By “traditional” I mean 1950s [style]. Dad is the breadwinner. He’s kind of got control over the family. Mom does everything house-related and kid-related. A very loving family. A military family.

But somehow, I felt empowered as a child in that environment to be who I wanted to be. Maybe part of it was that I took the love that was showered upon me in my home, and then the signals of “you can be what you want to be” from the outside world. I was born in the 1960s, so I was coming of age with the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. I just never thought that anything would be different because I’m a girl. I knew things would be different because I’m black. Because—and this is proven in studies—people have a racial identity very early in life, before things like gender, religion, culture come in. Racial identity is very early.

So here I am, thinking the world’s my oyster. This is going to be just great. Let’s go and have fun. Then all of a sudden, I start getting this pushback. No, you can’t because you’re a girl. Or, Do this because the girls are doing it. And I was offended by growing into adolescence and womanhood. I found it so offensive to suddenly be categorized as a girl, and “less than.” It was a shock to me.

As I got older, my mother also started growing into consciousness. And together, we grew into consciousness as women. So I grow and these roles just start tumbling on me. First, I go to law school and I’m practicing law, and it’s all male. These environments are just horrifically sexist. Then, I’m a wife and a mother. And at each step, I’m thinking, “What the hell is going on here? I don’t understand. What happened?”

I met my husband in law school. We got married after law school, and we started to practice law in the same firm. Then I had one child and all of a sudden, his life is just going and going, and I’m back in a cave where I’m supposed to take care of the baby and do the laundry and make sure there’s food in the refrigerator, while he progressed. And I was not prepared for that.

Also, I was not prepared for the violence of childbirth. I had a normal—quote unquote—birth, for both of my kids. I’d never been so beat up—like physically attacked—in my life! And I thought, “This is terrible.” And breastfeeding was painful for me. No one told me that was going to hurt!

So I fell into these roles, and I don’t understand what universe this is, because this is not the one I was prepared for.

Rumpus: This is not what I signed up for!

Cooper: Not at all! Not that I didn’t want children. I was madly in love with my children. I just didn’t understand that I was buying into a whole package of goods that I was in no way prepared for and that I did not accept.

So I ended up building a constellation of friends, and we would talk to each other intimately about these things. And over time, I had many similar conversations with my mom. She’s a very traditional woman, but she was able to meet me on these conversations of career and family and gender roles in the home, and the sacrifices that women make for everyone else.

So, motherhood is the only story I’ve ever had. And I’m sort of feeling like I’m not done with it yet. But I’m very lucky that I got to get this part out.

Rumpus: How did this collection of stories become a part of the Made in Michigan Writers Series from Wayne State University Press?

Cooper: One of the fiction editors at the press, M. L. Liebler, is an amazing writer and performer in Detroit. Aside from his own work, he is an incredible teacher and mentor for writers. He heard me read one day at an event for the Made in Michigan Writers Series. Later, in the parking lot, he pointed at me and said, “Hey, you, where’s your book?” I felt like he had kind of undressed me in public. Because I was just writing in my circle of friends and tossing things out here and there and feeling like I just didn’t have the time or energy to make a collection. And he said, “I’m waiting. Send me something.”

And that made me go home and look at what I had and pull it together. Within a week, I’d sent it, and he said, “That’s what I’m talking about”—that’s how he talks. And he took the collection to the press.

It just felt divinely ordered, if I can even go there with this. [In the collection], I’m having this silent scream and urge to have this conversation with women everywhere. And that one invitation in a parking lot made it possible.

Rumpus: So let’s rewind for a bit. You stopped practicing law after you had your first child?

Cooper: Yes. I went on maternity leave, and I never returned. It was difficult for me to make that decision on one level because when I entered that law firm, there was no maternity leave policy, period. You got leave based on how well-liked you were in the firm. And a lot of women just left when they decided to start a family. A lot of women stayed and just didn’t have children. I can’t speak for why they didn’t, but I will say that many of the women who were successful in that firm were childless, so they didn’t have to juggle. And I did a lot of work around gender discrimination law at that firm. So it was a little weird to fight for all those changes and then leave. But on the other hand, it wasn’t really about my son. I was dying there. There was no creative outlet.

If you were raised by a middle-class black family in the sixties and through the seventies, there was a zeitgeist that the doors had been opened, major barriers had been broken, and it was up to our generation to walk through those doors and be something. And so painter, dancer, writer was not on the list. Engineer, doctor, lawyer were on the list. So that’s how I ended up in law school and practicing. A few years in, and I realized, “This is not me. It’s not at all creative.”

So while leaving the firm was difficult on one level, it was one of the most peaceful decisions I’ve ever made. I knew I was in a place where I wasn’t going to thrive. It was soul-killing. I needed to be in a much more creative and interactive environment. So I left there, and I went into the non-profit sector and became very active in Detroit and the issues surrounding the city.

Rumpus: And you became a journalist who also writes poetry and fiction. That’s a lot of hats.

Cooper: I’ve never felt constrained by form. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and that’s one reason I liked law. I loved writing, and I wrote those briefs. Journalism is another form of writing and communicating, and so is fiction. And I did them all, all the time. And it just depended on what container that story needed to be in, for me. I would look at something, and it would strike me as poetic, and not journalistic, and so I’d write it as a poem. Toi’s mother [Toi Derricotte, Cave Canem co-founder] is my aunt, Toni Cyrus, and she used to have me come to her house and share my essays and fiction with her. She’d make me stand in her kitchen and read out loud, and she’d have her pencil and her eraser and her coffee and she’d go through things. So one day, she said to me “You’re ready. You’re ready to start sending out things.” That’s when I started to think, “This isn’t just a side job. I don’t have to do a job and then play at writing. If I work at it, maybe this is what I can really do.”

I got a few essays published. Somebody read them and then asked if I would do a column for an alternative newspaper called the Detroit Metro Times. Later, I became their editor. In 1999, somebody saw my work there and asked if I’d want to come to the Detroit Free Press. So by focusing solely on the work, other doors started to open up.

I left the Free Press in 2010. During my last two years there, I was also a correspondent for Weekend America in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Rumpus: You were also contributing to NPR’s All Things Considered. What kinds of stories did you contribute there?

Cooper: Many of them came out of my columns, and sometimes I would just pitch something from the ground. But they were personal stories about gender and race, for the most part. Some of them were family history.

Rumpus: Who do you write for? Toni Morrison has said, “I write for black people.” Who is your audience?

Cooper: For a very long time, I was just talking to my mom. Whatever story I was writing, even if it was very Detroit local, even in my journalism. I’d talk about my kids, and I’d talk about the stupid things I did. People would say, “How could she say these things?” But if I’m talking to my mom about this, I can talk to anyone about it. This is what I want to talk about. So for a very long time that’s how I saw my writing, even my creative writing. My mother has Alzheimer’s now, so as I got closer to the Know the Mother collection, I realized how much of my mother is in there, in terms of me losing her, the conversations I’m never going to be able to have with her.

Overall though, the conversation in the book extends to women. And not women of any particular culture or race. I’ve been around a few blocks. I’ve lived in a lot of different places, and I can sit down and have this exact same conversation with women all over the world. So I’d say that that is primarily my audience.

Rumpus: The stories in Know the Mother span eras and generations and continents, and I just loved the sweep of that. It was big, but intimate, still. You’ve lived in the places where many of the stories are set?

Cooper: Yes. My Dad was in the military, so I was born in Japan, and we went back to Japan two other times. So in my first fourteen years, nine of them were spent in Japan, off and on. For one year, my dad served in the Vietnam War, and so we went to live with his mother in the country, in Virginia, while he was off in Thailand. I was about six or seven years old, and I was profoundly impacted by living in Virginia. That’s probably the place I’ve lived in the least, but it shows up a lot in my writing. Culturally, I feel like a Virginian. My parents were born and raised in Virginia and have known each other since they were children.

I’ve also lived in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Florida, Maryland, and Michigan. I’ve lived in Michigan thirty years, and Michigan has been super good to me, I’ve had a fabulous, crazy career path and all kinds of adventures in Michigan, but I just love Virginia.

Rumpus: So you needed a book cover that would capture the breadth of places and experiences covered in the collection. How did you come to choose that cover art?

Cooper: I googled images, “African-American surrealist.” I didn’t want anything on the nose, like a woman opening a door or something like that.

Rumpus: Or those chocolate Harlequin novel people.

Cooper: Yeah. So I found the image that is now the cover, and the artist is Karen Miller, a white South African. Her art is amazing. The image is called “Guess Who?” and I just fell in love with it. I love that it has a 1950s feel to it. To me, that represents the template we are all imprinted with as American women, and probably globally, in some way. That perfection, that standard of beauty.

When you first look at it, it looks like someone has white kid gloves over the woman’s eyes. But when you look at it more carefully, it’s not gloves. It’s actually hands. Do we have blinders on ourselves? Or are other women blinding us? If you flip the book over, the image is in reverse, so that it’s happening across racial lines.

I was really committed to finding a black woman artist. I would have been super proud to have had a black woman do the art, but the world served me up a white South African. So I went with that. We’re having a big conversation here, and I’m glad that it’s inclusive even in terms of the cover art.

Rumpus: Why don’t we see more writing about motherhood by black women?

Cooper: That’s a book in and of itself. One place we do see a conversation is around quote-unquote single motherhood. And that terminology makes me cringe. I do think we’re allowed to raise our voices when it comes to single motherhood, but we’re on that pedestal of “hero” and “Big Mamma.” Just taking it on and making it work and keeping our babies safe and keeping that Sunday dinner going. We’re not allowed to say, “This hurts. This is ridiculous. Some of the rest of y’all need to step up here.” I always say that there was a women’s movement but nothing else moved. We need to have a men’s movement. We need to have a community movement, because nothing’s moving here.

So when black women do talk about motherhood, we talk in terms of single parenting and defending ourselves, or taking the edge off that terminology. We experience that, as do women of all races, but I think that the larger society only wants us to have that conversation. They’re not ready for black women to be part of the big girls’ table of what motherhood is about.

Another one of my pet peeves is that we get caught in that conversation of race versus gender as black women. If we really talk about motherhood, it’s hard not to talk about fatherhood. It’s hard not to talk about the role that the rest of the community plays in how motherhood impacts black women’s lives. And so you get immediately into, “Are you going to be bashing the community?” or “You don’t like black men” or “You’re always criticizing.” I think that silences a lot of black women.

But if it’s a world where even white women aren’t talking about [inequality in parenting], how do we get in there? We’re still whispering. I’ve gone into cocktails parties and shut them down when I say I don’t like babies. People look at me like I’m a witch! And then some women will come over and say, [whispering] “I’ve never heard anyone say that, but I don’t like babies either!”

For me, that was the most horrible thing ever, to be stuck near a baby. And by virtue of your ovaries, you’re supposed to know where everyone’s socks are. I didn’t have that.

I wanted to nurture, but I wanted to nurture the way a coach nurtures. And that’s why as my children got older, I fell more and more in love with motherhood. I loved reading the books that they were reading and having a talk about them. I couldn’t wait to buy Charlotte’s Web—one of my favorite, favorite books—and give it to my daughter. I would peek in on her reading, and then one day I heard her sobbing upstairs and I ran upstairs like, oh shit! I forgot that Charlotte was going to die. And I wanted to be there with her so we could go through that together.

Seeing a child become a thinking being, seeing the growth and inner development was so fascinating and so invigorating for me. So I love that coach aspect. “Let’s take this higher, let’s try this!” Infants don’t give you that. It was very, very difficult.

So if white women aren’t allowed to say that, I don’t know where black women are going to have that space. I really was hoping that another generation, the third and fourth wave of feminists, would be able to open a conversation, but I think we’re still stuck.

Rumpus: Why does “single motherhood” make you cringe?

Cooper: I honor the strife that women go through when they have to raise their children without the benefit of a partner. But I do often say that all mothers are single mothers. Society is structured in such a way that women have to devise, invent, and cobble together motherhood, each and every time, on their own. And I’m talking about childcare, healthcare, homemaking. Even though they may be partnered, their partner is not involved in the business of family. So I think that most women still today would say the onus is upon them to do all of this, whether or not they have a partner in raising a child.

But on the flip side of that, I think the “single mother” has become so political and so racialized, that it does such a huge disservice to broad spectrum of women who are raising children unpartnered.

Rumpus: Why do some women, across generations, still reject the label “feminist”?

Cooper: I embrace that term. But I do know that in the black community, it’s racially charged as well. It’s not just a generational issue, but a feeling that the feminist movement did not include women of color, and that it was time to devise a new movement for that. And sure, but movements evolve and movements change. That doesn’t, to me, negate the incredible gains that the feminist movement made for all women, including black women. So I’m proudly a feminist. I consider my mother a feminist, and my grandmother, everyone who kept it together for the rest of us. God bless them.

Rumpus: What’s on your activist heart right now?

Cooper: I told you I’ve only got one story. Reproductive rights. I’m the communications director at Planned Parenthood in Michigan. I’ve been there over five years now. A big concern of mine is women having access to the care they need, so that they can be the people they want to be.

Looking at these stories that I’ve written, I’m very aware that how and when you choose to have a family is a huge decision for women. Because of the way society’s structured, the impact of parenthood is so profound upon women. So without that ability to choose, a lot of women would have trouble self-actualizing and being able to contribute in the way that they want to in their families and in their societies. So that is my number one priority.

Rumpus: Who are the writers whose work inspires and encourages you?

Cooper: I love writers who break structure and experiment with narrative. My constant question is “How did they do that?”

Here are some of the writers who always amaze me:

I’ve always loved Kate Atkinson’s prose. She writes crime stories where everyone is a human being. No “bodies.” In Life After Life, she pulled out the stops. The story is an amazing “what if?” Each scene loops back through itself, with one small change that makes the trajectory of the main character’s life bounce in different ways. What if she’d been stillborn? What if she survived? What if she lived in London? What if she lived in the country? What if she married and had children? What if she’d remained single? So it’s a broken narrative. Something like that just blows my mind. It makes me put my computer in the closet and say I can never write again.

Edwidge Danticat. Of course. Her books are about women’s lives and the burden that sexual and social politics puts upon their relationships as wives, mothers and daughters. She writes from inside Haitian culture, but we see our lives inside of their stories. She is an amazing visual artist with words.

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. I can’t believe a man could know women so well. I love books that authentically inhabit the characters, especially when the author is not at all like the character. I think Pearl Buck was a great example of that as well with her books set in China. When do we have permission to tell other people’s stories?

Julie Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic is the story of Japanese “picture brides,” written in the plural. We are not allowed to focus on one woman’s American experience. We experience all of their stories at once. She makes you take all of those women with you. I still can’t understand how she pulled that off. The effect was mind-blowing.

ZZ Packer. Just the range of her short stories, the topics, the situations. She pushes hard against the straight jacket of “black writing,” or “black writer,” whatever that means.

Barbara Kingsolver. She is also a writer who engages culture, boundaries, and the roles of women. In the Poisonwood Bible, her characterization is so strong, you know who is talking simply by syntax and diction. Masterful.

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife is a crazy narrative that is broken and combined in incredible ways. In one scene, the wife might be six, and the husband might be eighty-five. And then in the next, the husband’s sixteen and she’s thirty-seven. Both characters jump around time, but somehow a linear narrative is formed. I can’t understand how she plotted this story.

Rumpus: Recently on social media, you shared an experience in which your mom asked you, “Who’s your mother?” How did you respond?

Cooper: This is when I got the copies of my book while visiting my parents here in Virginia. So all this happening all at the same time. And it is almost too much to bear. But I said to her, “You are always going to be my mother.” My mother is the consummate 1950s mom, so there’s that big high school graduation picture of me and my brother in the den. And then there are my wedding pictures. A wall of pictures. I said “Look! Who’s that baby?”, and I pointed at the picture, and she goes, “That’s Des.” I said “That’s me. I’m Des. I’m your daughter,” and she really didn’t understand, at that point. Today, she understands, so I know I haven’t lost her forever. But for someone whose life goal has always been to be the best mother for her children, to lose that identity through Alzheimer’s is unbelievable. It’s horrible.

Rumpus: Loss is a thread that runs through Know the Mother. All kinds of loss. We don’t talk enough about what mothers lose. Daily, not just in the tragic sense, but in the loss of self.

Cooper: From miscarriage to loss of yourself and your identity. There’s a story [“The Massage”] of an older woman who goes to get a massage. She’s completely lost her ability to care for herself. It just feels wrong. It feels terrifying.

Rumpus: You have a line in that story that says, “To be touched without demand or desire.”

Cooper: Yes. Everybody inhabits us but us. When I say “everybody,” I’m not just talking about your whole family, or the person you bring in as a partner. I’m talking about like the government. Everybody has a say in how your body is inhabited. There’s just no room for you in there!

Rumpus: Your children are adults now, and you have grandchildren?

Cooper: I have one grandson and a granddaughter on the way. And nobody’s allowed to call me “Grandmother.” They call me Zsa Zsa.

Rumpus: Like Zsa Zsa Gabor?

Cooper: Yes!

Rumpus: Do you have a favorite story in Know the Mother?

Cooper: Maybe “Second Sleep,” because I like the line it walks between poetry and prose, and I’ve always loved the way my mother’s family accepts the supernatural along with the natural. “Princess Lilly” is my favorite for bridging the global lives of women. And “Graveyard Love” is the only one in the collection that touches upon sexuality (lesbianism). It has some humor as well. After I wrote it, I kind of wished I’d written more stories that have humor and discuss sexuality. Maybe next time!

Rumpus: What’s next for you?

Cooper: I’m trying desperately to stay with this momentous moment in my life of having my first book out, and enjoy it rather than pushing the next project. At the same time, the transitions with my parents, with my children, are going to be huge this year. So why wouldn’t it be for me that my roles as daughter and mother start to consume my art? I do have a handful of stories about military life, and some about Detroit during the Great Recession. We’ll see!

I went for much of my life thinking that this was never going to happen. So I’m going to really give myself a chance to savor it. I’m fifty-six. I remember people saying to me, “Well, Des, so-and-so was eighty when she got published.” What? It doesn’t give me hope to know that she got it in before she hit the casket. What if that person had been writing, if they had been able to get that done, at age twenty? What else could she have given the world? There’s so much there, for so many women, but [wife and mother] roles can be a huge stop for all their other gifts.

Publishing until very late in life is cool. There’s some argument that the story isn’t done for you, and you can’t tell it until you’ve gone through it. I get that. But nobody says that to men.

Rumpus: And no one tells men, “You can wait until your kids grow up.”

For these next three prompts, can you give a single-word answer? Motherhood is?

Cooper: Hard.

Rumpus: Mothers need?

Cooper: Space.

Rumpus: And mother writers need?

Cooper: They need a whole ’nother universe in which to explore. They need their own galaxy.

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Want more VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color? Visit the archives here.


Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Deesha's writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Brevity; Stepmom, Essence, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. She's a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a recent Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. Deesha is a two-time recipient of an Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. More from this author →