I am so excited to welcome Desiree Cooper to The Debutante Ball. Desiree and I are both Kimbilio fellows. Kimbilio is a national residency for fiction writers from the African diaspora.
Desiree is a 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, former attorney and Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist. Her debut collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, is a 2017 Michigan Notable Book that has won numerous awards, including 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Award. Cooper’s fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2018, Callaloo, Michigan Quarterly Review, Hypertext Review, and Best African American Fiction 2010, among other publications. In 2018, she wrote, produced and co-directed “The Choice,” a short film about reproductive rights which has been selected for and awarded by film festivals internationally. Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for black poets, and in addition to Kimbilio, has received a residency at Ragdale.
Read through to learn more about Desiree AND to get your chance to win Know the Mother!
While deconstructing the complex archetype of the mother, Know the Mother takes the reader into the intimate experience of gender and race. In a collage of meditative stories, women find themselves wedged between their own yearnings and their roles as daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives. The diverse stories are searing, evocative and, for many women, unnervingly familiar.
You can follow Desiree online at:
And now to the interview!
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
As a teenager, I worked in a factory that made vending machine sandwiches. The factory was cold in order to ensure that the food did not thaw in the assembly process. So, although it was in Virginia in the scorching, humid summer, I had to wear thick clothing, a knitted hat and a sweatshirt to work. Most often, my job was putting buns on the conveyor belt for 8-hour shifts. Sometimes, it was squirting chili on the hotdogs. Once, the company was giving out free hot dogs at a baseball game, so we had to make thousands in one shift.
That experience was very formative for me. There were “old” women (when I look back, I’m guessing they were in their 40s or 50s) who had worked there for decades. They had back problems and were wracked with arthritis from standing so many hours in the cold. Some clearly had cognitive disabilities or mental illness. I realized that by some stroke of luck, I would only be doing this job for a summer, not a lifetime. I’ll never forget the people who work so hard to make possible the things we take for granted. The experience also gave me insight into life on the assembly line, Henry Ford’s innovation which is credited for revolutionizing industry. What isn’t touted so much is the dehumanizing effect it has on the workers, who have no creative input into the repetitive, mind-numbing work.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What kinds of things did you read?
Yes, I was an avid reader as a child. I read so much, that my parents decided to pay me for every book I read as my “summer job.” I devoured what every girl read in the 1960s: The Little House on the Prairie series, Nancy Drew mysteries, Misty of Chincoteague, Black Beauty, Heidi. Recently, while cleaning in my parents’ house, I found my first “Dick and Jane” readers. I loved those books.
But I’m still a bit mystified how those books—none of which represented me as a black child—inspired so much in my imagination. I was nine or ten before I read any books that related to the black experience. (Sounder comes to mind.) I’m sure I did what many children who live outside of the mainstream do—I translated the stories in my head. Maybe that’s where my love of reading fed a love of writing. I had to create a universe that included me.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
I bought my first desktop computer in 1990, the year my second (and last) child was born. For context, it was an IBM with a black screen and eerie, green, glowing text. It cost a month’s salary. That purchase was my “rebellion gift” for myself. I knew that my life was about to get sucked into the 24-hour mommy cycle, especially because I also continued to work outside of the home. I knew that time for myself would be rare, so there was no time for laborious handwriting and transcribing. If I had 20 minutes to write, I needed to be able to do a lightning-fast brain dump, and a keyboard was going to be the only way to get it down. I still have copies of the work I did back then, printed with a horrible dot matrix printer.
Buying that computer did so much for me as a writer: 1) It proved that I was capable of investing in my own dreams (something many women struggle with, especially those in caregiving roles), 2) It validated me as a writer long before I had published anything, and 3) It removed any excuses that I had for not writing.
(I need to add that the second-best money I spent was on a good publicist when my book came out decades later. It was worth every dime.)
Which talent do you wish you had?
I am sooooo jealous of people who can make music, either with their voices or an instrument. I can’t sing. I took clarinet, piano, and guitar and have yet to find an instrument that stoops low enough for my talent.
Tell us about one of your proudest writing moments.
Except for the brief interlude when I was inspired by the Apollo moon landing to become an astronaut, I have only EVER wanted to be a writer. I started writing as soon as I started writing. I wrote even when I couldn’t. I wrote through the years of considering it a hobby. I wrote with no hope of publishing. I wrote in secret, for myself. And then, at the age of 55, I got my first book contract. Wayne State University Press was going to release my collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, in March 2016!
I was driving to work on the freeway in Detroit in December 2015. It was a clear morning, no snow, no ice, sun shining brightly. Suddenly, I heard a roar, and my car was out of control. I didn’t know it then, but a tractor trailer had hit the back of my car sending it spinning across three lanes. Another car hit me head on. My side impact air bag deployed (which would be the source of a brain injury). While I was spinning, I thought three things: 1) Why is my car suddenly out of control? 2) This is going to hurt, and 3) No matter what happens now, they can’t take it from me. My book will be published with or without me.
I have clearly lived to tell the story, and perhaps to write more books. But what’s most important to me, is that I lived long enough to become a writer—and for the world to know it.
For extra entries, comment on this post. We’ll choose 5 winners on Friday, October 4 and contact them shortly afterward.
Learn more about KNOW THE MOTHER
While a mother can be defined as a creator, a nurturer, a protector—at the center of each mother is an individual who is attempting to manage her own fears, desires, and responsibilities in different and sometimes unexpected ways. In Know the Mother, author Desiree Cooper explores the complex archetype of the mother in all of her incarnations. In a collage of meditative stories, women—both black and white—find themselves wedged between their own yearnings and their roles as daughters, sisters, grandmothers, and wives.
Available pretty much anywhere books are sold:
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