Helene Cooper Interview

Author Q & A:

1- How did writing your memoir differ from writing as a journalist? Did you apply any similar techniques? What challenges did you face?

It was completely different, and that’s probably why it took me so long to finish. I approached the first draft of the book as a journalist, and reported it, interviewing my family and Liberian politicians, and spending time researching Liberian history and my ancestors. But when I wrote it all down, the manuscript lacked emotion. I had avoided my own feelings about what had happened. I hadn’t examined why I did the things I did. I was used to reporting just the facts, so my biggest challenge was looking deeper and getting at the emotion.

2- What kind of reader did you imagine when you wrote the book? How do you hope your story will affect these readers?

I’m hoping that readers who never heard of Liberia can find something to identify with in the book.

3- Why did you choose to include Liberian history in your memoir? How do you see Liberia’s history and that of the freed black Americans as being your own history?

Perhaps because I’m a journalist, I find it really difficult to write anything without including the context or the history. Liberian history in inextricably linked to my family’s history, and the coup in Liberia, and everything that happened after. So it was automatic for me to include the Liberian history in the book, because it explains so much of the why behind what happened.

4- Civil and international war continues to tear through Africa. What can readers do? Where can we go to learn more about current unrest?

The root cause of much of the strife that plagues Africa is poverty. The United Nations Millennium Project seeks to turn that around through village-based projects. To help Liberian villagers learn how to make something out of nothing, including getting access to clean water, mosquito bednets, better crops, and more schools, go to WWW.millenniumvillages.com and look for the Liberian village project.

5- You’ve done a wonderful job of recapturing the voice and tone of a youngster to tell the story of your childhood. Was it difficult to reconnect with your childhood self? Did you use journals, photos, or family interviews to help spark your memory?

I used everything I could get my hands on, including photo albums, old journals, video tapes, and interviews with my family. But the truth was that it wasn’t that hard to re-connect with the fourteen-year-old that I was—or even the seven-, eight-, nine-, or ten-year-old. It was like taking a walk down memory lane.

6- At the outbreak of war Eunice goes back to live with her mother and you write, "How do you re-become what you were seven years ago? Can you erase seven years?” In hindsight, how would you answer this question? What were some changes you noticed in Eunice? In what ways did she stay the same?

This is a tough question, and I don’t think I know the answer to it, because I wasn’t there to see the changes in Eunice. There’s the superficial: She went from living in a mansion with air-conditioning and servants to living in a zinc shack with no running water. But the more fundamental change is that she no longer had us—her family for seven years.

7- Do you think devouring Nancy Drew books in your youth played a role in your becoming a journalist?

Hmmmm. That’s not out of the realm of possibility! I’ve never wondered about that before. Lemme see. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a journalist until eleventh grade, when I read Woodward and Bernstein's All the President’s Men.

But Nancy Drew books taught me to read and to enjoy reading. And reading taught me to write and enjoy writing. So, from the start, there was always a part of me that LOVED my English classes and hated math and science.

Nancy Drew was a sleuth, so that probably planted something in my head about the joys of digging for clues and figuring out stuff. I’m really getting into this idea now . . . forget All the President’s Men! It was Nancy Drew that did it!

8- Having traveled the world for work and made a home for yourself in the United States, is there any one thing you miss about Liberia? Something you haven’t been able to find or feel anywhere else on the globe?

YES! Except there’s not one thing. There are so many things. I miss the smell of Liberia, coal fires. I miss the food. Palm butter and potato greens and fufu and soup with dried fish and cassava leaf and bitterleaf, and just writing this is making me hungry all over again. I miss the loud racket of Liberian English and the ridiculous Liberian sense of humor that shows up at the most inappropriate times. I miss the Liberian sensibility and the way Liberian women dress up. I miss the climate, hot and muggy as it is. The music: hi-life with steel drums that make you just want to dance, no matter where you are.

I could go on forever on this one.

9- You write that because of the choices of your ancestors, “[You] would not grow up 150 years later, as an American black girl, weighed down by racial stereotypes about welfare queens.” Are you still able to say that given your sudden move to the United States? Were you subjected to any racial stereotyping you might have avoided by staying in Liberia?

Yes. Because I grew up in Liberia, I never experienced racism directed against myself for being black until I arrived in the States at age fourteen. So by the time it happened, I was secure enough to dismiss it as “their problem,” not mine. During my freshman year in college, my roommate for the first month was a white girl from Seagrove, North Carolina, who didn’t want to room with a black girl. She transferred out of our room after the first month. I called my father and told him, and we both laughed about it on the phone. I felt no outrage or insecurity. It was completely incomprehensible to me that she could be that much of an idiot.

10- The women in your story, including your mother, Mama Grand, and Eunice all exhibit unparalleled bravery and fierce independence. Which of the women you write about do you most admire? How did growing up around these strong female role models shape your personality today?

I admire all of them, but my mother most of all. If I could exhibit one tenth the bravery that my mother has in her life, I would be happy with the woman I turned out to be.

11- Tell us about your relationship with Eunice now. Are you in touch? Has she managed to track down Ishmael? Can you give us any updates about the other people we learned about in your memoir?

Eunice and I talk every week by telephone, and she had a baby girl—Nyepu Helene—in April 2005. Nyepu is gorgeous and fat and laughs all the time, except when she’s getting her photo taken, in which case she always starts howling in agony, as if the camera were the devil incarnate. Eunice still works at Firestone, and she and her husband, John Walker, just completed building a house in Paynesville. We visit her in Liberia from time to time. I’ve been back twice, and my mother has been back twice. We’ve been trying to get a visa for Eunice to visit us in the United States for a while now, but still no luck with the U.S. Embassy in Liberia.

Marlene is married to her Serb, Aleks. He’s awesome and likes to fish. So now my bratty little sister spends her weekends carp fishing in the tidal basin around Washington. Go figure.

My mother became addicted to WWE wrestling when we moved here. It’s still her favorite thing to watch on TV.

Vicky lives in Ohio, and her daughter, Calista, named after my mom, is my goddaughter. She’s a rock star! Really smart, now managing the ENOUGH campaign, a project to end genocide and crimes against humanity.

Janice remains the brains of our family. She got her Ph.D. from Harvard a few years ago and now works in New York.

John Bull is keeping up the Cooper family tradition of business. He’s an executive living in Atlanta with his wife, Pieta, and their children.

Oh! And one more plug! My cousin, Lisa Cooper, won a MacArthur genius grant in 2007! I have to brag a little there.