Know the Mother

De­siree Cooper

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews Adult Fiction - RE­BECCA FOSTER

Wayne State Univer­sity Press Soft­cover $15.99 (112pp) 978-0-8143-4149-0

Am­biva­lence about moth­er­hood and Amer­ica’s on­go­ing racism fac­tor in to these of­ten po­etic sto­ries.

“I was tired of the dou­ble habi­ta­tion of my body, the split du­ties of my soul,” says a woman about her preg­nancy, in De­siree Cooper’s flash-fic­tion col­lec­tion, Know the Mother. In a mix­ture of his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary set­tings, these thirty-one short sto­ries ex­plore am­biva­lence about moth­er­hood, and on­go­ing racism in Amer­ica.

Med­i­cal prob­lems, bad tim­ing, and lack of sup­port are com­pli­cat­ing fac­tors that make Cooper’s char­ac­ters ques­tion the wis­dom of be­com­ing moth­ers. “If you wanted to have ba­bies, why did you go to law school?” a fe­male em­ployee hears when re­quest­ing ma­ter­nity leave in “Ceil­ing.” Child­birth changes these women; some du­ti­fully carry on, but others can­not cope. Race is an equally chal­leng­ing is­sue, with African Amer­i­can char­ac­ters be­ing de­nied a de­sir­able Hol­i­day Inn room or get­ting ha­rangued by red­necks.

Va­ri­ety in the nar­ra­tive voice keeps things in­ter­est­ing. About a third of the sto­ries are in the first per­son and many of the rest are in the third per­son. How­ever, a few use less com­mon points of view: two eerie tales—one fea­tur­ing para­noia over in­trud­ers and another where a ghost is ob­serv­ing a fam­ily gath­er­ing—are in the sec­ond per­son, while the open­ing story, “Witch­ing Hour,” uni­ver­sal­izes in­som­nia and worry through first-per­son plu­ral. Cooper has also pub­lished poetry, as is ev­i­dent in the ef­fec­tive al­lit­er­a­tion in “Ichthyophobe” and the care­ful at­ten­tion paid to colors in “Cartoon Blue.”

Skin color, too, plays a sym­bolic role. In “Feed­ing the Li­ons,” one of the stand­outs, a bira­cial woman car­ing for her Viet­nam War-vet­eran fa­ther de­clares, “I am a cock­tail of genes—my mother’s hair, black as bean paste … My teak skin is not like his skin, which is South­ern-gravy brown.” Else­where a mother whose daugh­ter is her school’s only black stu­dent re­mem­bers feel­ing in­vis­i­ble be­side white school kids in 1967. The ex­cel­lent “To the Bone” recalls Toni Mor­ri­son with its three gen­er­a­tions of black women and ref­er­ences to down-home cook­ing.

Slightly longer sto­ries, buoyed by deeper char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and mul­ti­ple scenes, are of­ten more suc­cess­ful than the snap­shot ones, but her sharp in­sight into moth­er­hood and race makes Cooper an au­thor to watch.

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