Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 1.33.08 PM

Feministing Reads: Desiree Cooper’s Know the Mother

“To all the women whose stories are never told, I honor your sacrifice with my words.” This is how Desiree Cooper ends the acknowledgments for Know the Mother (March 2016, Wayne State University Press) a collection of 31 prose vignettes that serve as snapshots into the lives of women by way of the multitude of characters she has created. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, Detroit community activist, and former attorney, specializes in telling the stories of everyday people—for her, there is often something extraordinary in the ways we live our daily lives. In Know the Mother, Cooper deftly spins tales about the intricacies of the lives of women and we, as readers, become keepers of these stories. Through her collection, we meet women who are very different but linked by their roles as daughters, wives, and, of course, mothers. With quiet intimacy, these slice-of-life stories assert the value of the mundane experiences and struggles of a diverse group of women.

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 1.33.08 PMThe opening story, taking up only the first page, pulls the reader in with a series of questions: “Why do we wake each night in that spiritless moment between worlds, we mothers and daughters and wives?… And why do our men snore so easily while the horror gathers?… Where is the mercy for those of us who lie awake, weeping in the eternal hours before the crucifixion?” Cooper invites us to find something familiar a “we” that encompasses all women. In the book’s first vignette, she tells the story of women abandoned—by the night, by our men, by whatever substances we use to drown out the noise and dim the intensity; but at some point, we have to face what is coming for us. And what comes for us, at least in the next pages, is a pursuit of perfection over passion in “Nocturne,” multiform love, illness and morphing visions of womanhood in “Leftovers,” fear, a drifting and a betrayal in “Night Coming,” resentment and a shift into unwelcomed mundanity in “Origins of Sacrifice,” and above all, a quest to find happiness.

Cooper is clear that whatever similarities readers find in her “we” do not trump our differences. The stories are often at their best when parsing through racial politics. One of my first favorites of the collection, “Queen of the Nile,” explores how a woman’s name and appearance is used by those around her to try and racialize her, constantly and often incorrectly. It is, at once, a story about her desire for privacy, her pushback against assumptions made about her, and an underlying distrust that she will ever be treated carefully. Many of the stories call back to each other, traversing similar themes despite dissimilar characters.

In “Reporting for Duty, 1959,” a black, upper middle class family of four takes a road trip and attempts to find a place to stay as daylight turns to darkness; instead, they find an indignity—not being viewed as worthy enough to be offered a room comparable to what white patrons would be offered. “Fifteen Items or Less” follows a presumably white single mother after she realizes that she doesn’t have food for her kids at home and must take a trip to the grocery store with them after work. Each of these stories is ordinary in its subject matter, but Cooper paints them so humanely, being unafraid to delve into both the beauty and ugliness of her character’s contexts and of the characters themselves. She offers a depiction of a father’s stern rule over his family counteracted by his utter lack of control in the context of a racist society in the former; a mother’s total frustration and feelings of incompetence amplified by what she feels she lacks in the latter. Although Joyce, the mother of “Reporting,” plays a backseat role to her husband and children, a sense of frustration and helplessness sweeps the entire family. Cooper provides us with glimpses into family life that, in turn, help illuminate the external forces that shape these relationships.

The last five stories of the collection are where we meet older women—those who, for the most part, have lived more than they have left to live. In “The Massage,” we meet Emma: an Oprah-watching, fish-cooking, married woman whose kids are all grown. In this moment where we meet her, she is anticipating receiving a massage—a gift from her children. At first, Emma is skeptical but as the masseuse works on her back, she realizes that this is something she has never felt before: “what it was like to be touched without desire or demand.” Aging is universal and familiar—we all experience it in some form—but this story is also distinctly Emma’s.

To me, “Mourning Chair” is the standout story of the collection. In this thirteenth vignette, Cooper offers a tale of a mother waiting for her daughter to return home with equal parts love, resentment, and dread guiding her by hand through the night. She imagines giving a description of her daughter to a police officer, thinking of the worst circumstances that could potentially befall her child. After a few physical details, she settles on maybe the most relevant description: “My daughter is easy to recognize, officer. She’s the one with her heart beating in my pocket.”

Though many of the stories are no more than three pages long, this was not a collection that I wanted to rush through. I took time to read each story, sometimes re-reading, often pausing at the story’s end to digest. There were a few moments, such as the ends of “The Disappearing Girl” and “Home for the Holidays,” that I found to be too easy. I felt that the dialogue was used as a way to tie an unsatisfyingly neat bow on the end of the story. Since so many stories in this collection wrestle with questions and conflict, including these particular stories, I would have appreciated ends that added complexity, as opposed to ends that diminished it. However, these moments are minor when considering the entirety of the work.

In her stories, Cooper embodies working class women, upper middle class women, black women, white women, Asian women, younger women, older women, but never queer women. In “Graveyard Love,” she comes the closest, but doesn’t quite hit the mark. We meet a woman reflecting on her years of motherhood, paralleled with her youngest daughter coming home with a close female friend. Taylor and Leesa are “joined at the hip,” but “a strange pair” in the eyes of Jan, Taylor’s mother. Jan intermingles her musings on the problems she encountered while raising her older daughters with thoughts of Taylor’s ability to stay out of ‘trouble,’ meaning trouble with boys. It’s a don’t-ask-don’t-tell of parenting—thinly veiled, an unfortunate mask. In a collection that brings forth the stories of so many, the only way queerness is depicted is through a non-telling. The lack is made more acute by the hints.

Of course, Cooper never claims, even in her introduction to a “we,” to provide universal snapshots of womanhood—these aren’t lives that everybody lives, but they are lives that somebody lives. For me, Know the Mother doesn’t illuminate as much as it validates. None of the experiences depicted felt particularly novel, but often, the way they were portrayed added a level of complexity. What does it mean to be a keeper of the stories of women? Here, there is nothing we can do to change the circumstances of these women. We do not know their fate, since we are only allowed a look into their lives, but what we can do is bear witness.


Abigail Bereola has grown up all over the place. She aims to be a socially conscious creative.

Abigail Bereola has grown up all over the place. She aims to be a socially conscious creative.

Read more about Abigail

Join the Conversation