The following is a conversation between writers Desiree Cooper and Crystal Wilkinson regarding Cooper’s new novel Know Thy Mother.
Desiree: I’m interested in why such a lyrical writer chose a novel in which to tell a story. What was the genesis of The Birds of Opulence?
Crystal: The primary characters in The Birds of Opulence first appear in my short story cycle Water Street so the germ of the idea was already formed. The characters and their circumstances continued to haunt me so I had to write this book, not just for the sake of my characters but for the many black women who suffer mental illness or those who have mothers or grandmothers or daughters who do. My previous books are short story collections and many of the stories in them are flash fiction so the short lyrical form is a form that I enjoy. You and I seem to have that in common. The daughters, mothers, grandmothers and even great grandmothers in The Birds of Opulence are navigating a kind of pathology that can be passed on from generation to generation. Dreams, memories, the impact of sexual trauma, thick love (as Toni Morrison calls it) in their lives just lent itself to a nonlinear plot and a lyricism so although it’s a novel it’s told in vignettes, in small doses. My chapters are short and I allowed myself the luxury of language to tell the hard and sometimes violent truths of these women but there is love there too. Lots of love. We both deal with similar themes. I chose a fractured novel structure and you the flash fiction form. How did your book come together?
Desiree: Know the Mother is a collection of 31 stories, most of which are 750 words or less. Many are as short as a few paragraphs. Although the stories are fiction, they rise from the truth of women’s experiences as mothers, wives and daughters. It’s my hope that women from many different backgrounds will be able to see themselves in these stories, and find some avenue to express feelings and desires that aren’t necessarily “becoming” of women, especially mothers.
That’s why I was intrigued by Birds of Opulence. Both of our books focus intimately upon the role of women as mothers–and more specifically–women as the scaffolding for all societal relationships. The burden is often dissonant with the internal desires of women, consuming them with conflict, anger and even madness. Do you think that black, Southern women are particularly prone to the mother/nurturer archetype?
Crystal: I think that black, Southern women are not only prone to the mother/nurturer archetype but also the stereotype of what mothering and daughtering is. We are expected to sacrifice everything for our children. There is no guilt as strong as a black Southern mama’s and this often results in smothering our children in their youth and sometimes enabling them in adulthood. We often sacrifice our own internal desires for another profession, our desires to leave a bad or unfulfilling relationship, our desires to travel, our desires to not have children at all because we are overwhelmed being super mamas. I sometimes cringe when I hear someone say “Now you know black mamas don’t play that” or “A black mama would have never let that happen.” We carry the burden of authenticity. To be an authentic black mother you must be the ultimate mother, the super mama. And when you add being geographically southern then the burden has even more gravitas. In The Birds of Opulence some of these characters see motherhood as oppressive and perhaps it’s post partum depression but maybe it’s something else. Being black and southern definitely gives you the automatic propensity to wear an S on your chest. Able to leap snotty noses or growling stomachs in a single bound, faster than patriarchy, racism and micro aggression. Sacrificing all no matter what. Holding it down with superhuman instincts that glitter and shine. I also think the potential for a tension-filled outcome or even a pathological one is greater when there is a layered intergenerational dynamic present. What happens when a woman is not only faced with pressure to be a good mother from her mother but the grandmother or even the great grandmother? How does this communal aspect of motherhood affect us?
Desiree: Yes, Lawd! The communal mother! So now we’re into Big Momma, the mother who always has 10 pots on the stove, an apron around her waist and a room at the table for any waif and ne’er-do-well who comes to her doorstep. We have the infinite capacity to nurture, as Southern women, don’t we? Of course, we don’t hold the monopoly on this stereotype/expectation. I’ve seen this woman in the fiction of Chinese women, East Indian women, and Irish women. Any tradition that is strongly patriarchal and communal conjures up their version of the Big Momma. I think what’s different about the black, Southern woman is the legacy of slavery, the destruction of the nuclear black family, and the additional stress that placed on the mother to be superhuman, to step into the chasm to become all to everyone, to make everything OK. We are the protector and the balm, the nurturer and fighter, the discipline and love. There is no space for self in the Big Momma narrative. I think the women in Know the Mother are not just fighting against sexism, but also against history, against the intersection of race and gender, where oppressions are conflated and the self becomes impossible.
Crystal: In The Birds of Opulence the extended family at the center of the book is run by Mama Minnie. She is absolutely the proverbial Big Momma and pressures her daughter and her granddaughter to be mothers who can do it all too. Both of these women handle it differently and the conflict between personal desire and familial guilt becomes too much for Lucy to bear. Even until the end of the book the question remains whether she was “crazy” and actually suffering from mental illness or if she was simply trying to break the mold and swerve the gender expectations. Of course in the south or a rural community and in the black community you are not supposed to talk about mental illness. But both of us deal with mental illness in our books. I deal with the idea of black women being crazy and whether that crazy is manifested by circumstances or blood. My own mother was diagnosed as being a paranoid schizophrenic and other women in my family suffer from mental illness. I really wanted to explore the legacy of madness or a presumed madness in black women. Why was this exploration of mental illness–crazy and all its manifestations– important to you in writing Know the Mother?
Desiree: Well, the word hysterectomy has at its root, “hysteria.” As women, we have been accused forever of being driven into lunacy by our menstrual cycles, the birthing process and even the moon. Everything has been blamed but the actual oppressive, patriarchal and racist constraints that can drive us to madness.
I, too, have dealt with mental illness in my family. My grandmother used to suffer from “nerves.” I still don’t know what is. And many of the women in my family have had chronic depression, and in later years, horrible dementia and related psychoses. As women, we are silent and often suffer undiagnosed. The stresses of our lives are ignored as factors in our mental health.
My stories seek to open the lid on the mental state of women. A mother has suicidal thoughts when she is nine months pregnant. An older woman with dementia can barely remember her daughter on the day of the daughter’s funeral. A young mother staves of postpartum depression. I hope that by reading books like ours, black women can find the freedom to begin to talk about these issues, and seek help from each other and from medical professionals.
That being said, black women – and mothers especially—really trust “women’s intuition.” Do you think that we’ve outlived the usefulness of that as a way to protect ourselves and our families, or is there still some validity to the old ways, the mother’s wit?
Crystal: Mother’s wit!! Yes! I am all about this. Having grown up in the hills of Kentucky, mother’s wit extends out to herbs and cures too. Those things are a big part of my bloodline and really a part of most black women’s ancestry and many of these things can be traced to the south and by extension on to Africa. I rejected all of those things as a daughter and perhaps some of the old ways especially where mental illness is concerned needs to be rejected because there is no amount of silence or praying that will keep a woman from having a “spell.” There is no potion to cure a chemical imbalance. But I do believe our ancestors knew what they were talking about in regard to many of their folk traditions. The older women, who would be called granny women where I’m from, are present in my book. I really tried hard to get as many of the traditions in as possible. Birds are symbolic in the book and I had a good time researching the folk traditions and much of that research into signs and ways were a part of how I grew up. I witnessed my grandmother reading signs. My characters watch their mothers and grandmothers read signs. This medicine–part intuition, part wit, part folkways, part black woman magic is a balm that I also hope to pass on to my daughters and granddaughters.
Speaking of magic, we talked about structure earlier in our conversation but you chose the flash fiction form to tell the tales of these women. One reviewer said that they were like “jewels—glittering and finely wrought.” I agree. Why did you feel that the short form spoke to you as a means to tell these women’s stories?
Desiree: I admire writers like you who can carry such a beautiful, lyrical narrative to the length of a novel. That’s what I’m going to do when I grow up!!! The reason I write in such a compressed form is because I come from journalism where I was a columnist for more than a decade. I got used to boiling down stories to their essence. That has translated to my fiction. I would also add that with my genre of flash fiction, there’s a presumption that the reader already knows the story. The scene or vignette or question posed by the story is only meant to trigger the novel inside, and have the reader fill in the spaces. This works very effectively when we talk about women’s issues, and the intersection of race and gender. This is where so many of us carry our own “novels,” the stories we know so well, and are just waiting for permission to tell.
A 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, Desiree Cooper is a former attorney, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and Detroit community activist whose fiction dives unflinchingly into the intersection of racism and sexism. Using the compressed medium of flash fiction, she explores intimate spaces to reveal what it means to be human. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Callaloo, Detroit Noir, Best African American Fiction 2010, and Tidal Basin Review, among other online and print publications. Her first collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, was published by Wayne State University Press in March 2016. Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets. She is currently a Kimbilio fellow, a national residency for African American fiction writers.
Crystal Wilkinson is the author of Blackberries, Blackberries, winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature, and Water Street, a finalist for both the UK’s Orange Prize for Fiction and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. The winner of the 2008 Denny Plattner Award in Poetry from Appalachian Heritage magazine and the Sallie Bingham Award from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, she serves as Appalachian Writer-in-Residence at Berea College and teaches in the Spalding low residency MFA in Creative Writing Program. The Birds of Opulence is her latest novel.