In the 'Know'

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Author/lawyer to moderate a panel discussion at annual Bookfest

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

All Desiree Cooper ever wanted to be is a writer.

“From the family perspective, that’s like wanting to be a ballet dancer or a singer or a basketball player – ‘That’s fun, but what’s your real job gonna be?’ That’s how I got into journalism because it was the job of writing to make a living,” explained Cooper, 57, of Chesapeake, Va.

“When I was close to graduating, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to live independently as a cub reporter somewhere and needed a graduate degree… so I opted for law my senior year (of college). It was not a lifelong aspiration at all; it was a more of a strategy to be able to command more and to live independently.”

Cooper will moderate a panel called “A $500 House in Detroit” at the 15th Annual Kerrytown Bookfest in Ann Arbor on Sunday, Sept. 10 at 2:45 p.m. The panel focuses on author Drew Philp, who penned the memoir “A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City” (Scribner $26). After graduating from U-M, Philp – then 23 – bought a $500 abandoned Queen Anne house in Detroit’s Poletown neighborhood. While restoring the home, Philp also learned more about Detroit, discovering firsthand its problems with gentrification, racial tensions, and class warfare. Eventually, he found his footing in Detroit.

“(Philp) will discuss what he learned about himself and the city. We both came in as outsiders,” said Cooper. 

This is her second consecutive year at Kerrytown.

“I love that festival. It’s really great and well-supported by the community,” she said. “It’s big enough to have wonderful diversity of interests, but it’s small enough to be intimate where people can really connect with writers.”

An Air Force brat, Cooper was born in Itazuke, Japan. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree. While there, she was a member of both Phi Beta Kappa and Alpha Kappa Alpha. She later graduated with her juris doctor in law from the University of Virginia.

From 1999-2010, she was a columnist for The Detroit Free Press. She also practiced bankruptcy law for the prominent law firm Dickinson Wright, PLLC, headquartered in Detroit.

In addition to being a community activist, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist is a 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow whose fiction and poetry have appeared in several anthologies, including “Detroit Noir.”

 She has been a frequent for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” the BBC’s “Americana,” and a local Emmy-winning correspondent for WTVS Detroit Public Television. She also co-hosted and served as senior correspondent for American Public Media’s “Weekend America,” a weekend radio magazine that aired on more than 100 stations nationwide. She continues to pen a monthly column called “Detroit Proper” for BLAC Magazine, which has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Cooper is the author of “Know the Mother” (Wayne State University Press $15.99), a collection of flash-fiction stories. She also wrote the final chapter of “Detroit 167: Origins, Impacts, Legacies” (Wayne State University Press $39.99), a collection of essays edited by Joel Stone about the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit riot (which has recently been depicted in director Kathryn Bigelow’s movie “Detroit”).

“(‘Know’) took me 20 years to write,” said Cooper. “It’s such a skinny little book – it’s amazing it took that long to write! While raising children and juggling a career and a family, I continued to do my first love and that was writing fiction. Over time, I had a body of work that explored the dimensions of the ideal of mother and how that gets layered with racism, sexism, and even classism. I wanted to write not from the political perspective, but from the intimate perspective: What does it feel like to walk through the world with those kinds of pressures on your life?”

There are 30 stories in “Know,” the majority of them 750 words.

“Most of them are 750 words or less because that was the column length that I was used to writing. I tried to stay within that to see if I could tell (fiction) in that same space. People ask why flash-fiction. After 11 years of doing that, that’s my muscle. When I try to write longer (stories), things really fall apart. It there was no such thing as flash-fiction, I would’ve had to invent it,” she said with a laugh.

Her interest in the human condition was shaped by her childhood. Cooper spent her first nine years living on three different Japanese islands. She’s also lived in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Maryland, and Michigan (specifically Detroit, West Bloomfield, and Southfield).

“The best part of writing (‘Know’) has been sharing it with readers. When I make appearances, I don’t just stand in front of audiences, go through these stories, and answer questions at the end. I conduct it almost like a book group. I have the luxury of doing that because I can read an entire story in several minutes,” explained Cooper. “Everybody is literally on the same page. As a group, we can dissect the story and discuss the issues. What happens for me is people in the audience talk about how they relate to the themes presented in the story, and we have amazing conversations about racism, sexism, and classism in America. People say things that they’ve never talked about before and I discovered things that are embedded in my story that I didn’t know were there.”

 

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