FPP spoke with Detroit legend Desiree Cooper, author of Know the Mother, about the plural experience of motherhood, gobbled-up twins, cultural genocide in Detroit and Harlem, and more. See Cooper read on Tuesday, September 20th at the FPP Season Premiere at Shrine in Harlem, 7pm.
In Know the Mother you write flash stories from multiple maternal POVs. Do you consider motherhood a mighty “we”? Would you speak to the tension of “I” vs “We” when it comes to motherhood?
The acts of gestating, birthing, adopting, guiding, mentoring, and nurturing are plural experiences. If you are mothering, you are always “we.” In assuming the role of mother, you must split our consciousness and share your most intimate spaces—body and mind—between often warring drives. What is best for the we is not always best for the I.
I am fascinated by stories of twins in the womb, one absorbing the other. Years later, the surviving twin finds tumors with teeth and hair, remnants of the twin who vanished. This is what happens to so many mothers. If you’re lucky, you remember there’s a “we,” an enumeration of the individuals who make a whole. But motherhood can also produce a royal “I,” where mother and child are enmeshed identities, one living fully, the other absorbed into someone else’s life.
Know the Mother speaks to that tension. But no matter the POV, every story taps into the universal we-ness of a role that is laden with responsibility, fraught with conflict, wrapped in piousness, devalued as instinct, yet necessary for human survival.
Have you ever written anything in first person plural or the “we” voice? Do you embrace or resist such an idea?
The first story in my book, “Witching Hour,” is written in first person plural. It’s about that moment at 3:15 a.m. when so many women’s eyes pop open and their spirits will not let them go back to sleep. I chose that voice because I was so confident that it was a widely-held experience, especially among women.
I think the “we” voice is almost always in my head when I begin to write a story, because I am intent upon illuminating common, secretly-held experiences. As a columnist, I had the benefit of immediate reader feedback that you don’t get in writing fiction. I learned quickly that people are holding their breaths to read something that makes them exhale and say, “I thought it was only me.” No matter what voice I chose to paint a narrative, I’m writing to the we-ness of our experiences.
Detroit v. Harlem
Can’t we make that “Detroit and Harlem?” A few years ago, I was showing an out-of-town guest around Detroit. We hit all the new sights – an award-winning waterfront park, the baseball stadium, the theater district. Suddenly, I was feeling profoundly sad. The pride I always feel for Detroit had fizzled out of the tour. Silence filled the car. Finally, I turned to my friend and said, “I know what you’re thinking: Where did I put all the black people?”
Detroit, like Harlem, is seminal to the history of the African experience in America: the music, the food, the churches, the art, the cars and the rise of the black middle class. Gentrification is not just class war. It’s cultural genocide. Both Detroit and Harlem are losing the battle to keep what’s ours in the face of change.
Urgent advice for emerging writers?
Don’t write alone. That’s like hitting a tennis ball against the wall and thinking that you’re a pro. Share your work, get feedback, listen and consider, then write some more.
What are you reading, watching, or listening to now that others should, too?
I am watching the coming race war and trembling in my sleep. I am watching cities slide into rising seas and wondering why we did nothing to stop it. I’m am watching seismic change in our social structure that I never thought possible. I am watching POC, women and the LGBT communities awaken to a new we.
We should all be hyper-aware, reading, watching, listening…and deciding what part we will play in the new global consciousness.
Oh, and I’m also watching Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, and rejoicing that Oprah got her groove back.