This Is Who We Are: Chloé Cooper Jones

Carlos Barragán
November 15, 2023

This Is Who We Are is a series featuring Columbia School of the Arts’ professors, covering careers, pedagogy, and art-making. Here, we talk with Associate Professor Chloé Cooper Jones about writing as a safe space, the tension within the self, and how writers can build their unique lens through which to view the world.

In her office at the School of the Arts, Associate Professor Chloé Cooper Jones asked out loud a question that's weighed on her for years: "How can I be true to myself, but also recognize and avoid the harm that comes from seeing things only from one perspective?" She shared a possible answer, which comes from novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch’s experience of beauty: she’s sitting at a window, lost in her own ego, and suddenly she sees a bird. A mesmerizing kestrel. For that moment, the only thing that exists in her world is not the self, but that bird. “That gives her a moment of reprieve,” Cooper Jones said. “Even if it is a second,” she told me, “it is a relief.”

Cooper Jones is a philosophy professor and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. In her work and pedagogy, we find an invitation—to integrate, to explore, and to truly see the world in all its vastness. Cooper Jones was born with sacral agenesis, a disability that affects her mobility, her height and the way she walks. She wrote about it in her book Easy Beauty (Simon & Schuster, 2022), a Pulitzer Prize finalist—or, as Cooper Jones jests, “a Pulitzer Prize loser.” The Pulitzer Prize committee called the book “a spellbinding and brutally honest memoir drawing on art, travel, cultural observation and philosophical scholarship to convey the full experience of life as a disabled person whose view of humanity becomes increasingly compassionate.”

Cooper Jones grew up on a farm in Tonganoxie, a small town in Kansas. Reflecting on her childhood, she recalled endless hours of reading. “I spent time imagining being elsewhere, wishing I could travel and have different experiences,” she said. “I wanted to climb all the mountains and cross all the jungles. I longed to be any place other than Tonganoxie, Kansas.”

From a very young age, she experienced a feeling of otherness in her interactions with other people. Cooper Jones has always been acutely aware of the disparity between external perceptions and internal realities. “I spent a lot of my life waiting for people to 'unsee' or minimize my disability,” she said. In an attempt to overshadow her physical self, she magnified her intellectual achievements, hoping they would eclipse her physical presence. However, as she astutely explained, this was a form of self-erasure and a Sisyphean exercise. “You can’t erase your body; you can only figure out how to live in it,” she said.

In Easy Beauty and other works, Cooper Jones delves deep into what she believes is the human condition's core conflict: the incongruence between our internal selves and how the world perceives us. “There’s so much incredible work that comes from that conflict,” she said. “Every single personal life feels a disconnect between the way they're seen by others and the way that they feel in their interior. It is Sisyphean in the sense that we will never reconcile those things, we will always be engaged in that conflict. But it reminds us what it is to be human. Sometimes I look at my dog and I think: do you know you are you?”

This semester, Cooper Jones teaches a seminar called “Integrations,” where she encourages her students to embrace the diversity of their experiences and weave them into their writing while engaging with various forms of visual art, literature, poetry, theory, and philosophy. “The way everybody processes the world is through a fractured lens of their personal experiences,” she said. “Those experiences include what you read and what you study, the people you met and the frameworks you inherited. What does it mean to have a deeply synthetic mind? When we're moving around the world, we're always synthesizing all of this data and cultural information and language and ability and physical sensations.”

In her class, she’s keen to encourage her students, even push them, to draw connections and craft narratives that are distinctly their own. According to Jones, the true objective is to produce a piece of literature so unique that no one else in the world could replicate it. "The thing I'm after," she said, "is to write a piece of literature that literally no one in the world could write. I give my students permission to try to make the most exciting connections that they can possibly make and write a piece of literature that literally no one in the world could write but them.”

Cooper Jones is candid about her struggles but is resolute in her refusal to let them define her entire narrative. She usually challenges age-old tropes and clichés that shroud stories of disability in layers of self-pity and tragedy. I asked her about that, and how she teaches her students to write with honesty.

“I don’t want to write a book about my life. I want to write a work of art,” Cooper Jones said. “The ultimate aim for art is to truly connect and communicate with other people, looking for universals through particulars. As a writer, sometimes you start writing the first draft seeking revenge, pity or admiration. But a final draft has to aim at a much larger, much more universalizing, and ultimately much more generous story. It’s very common in disability narratives to present the disabled body as an object of pity. Disabled writers have internalized those narratives themselves. I looked for any traces of that in my own writing. How do I get rid of that desire to call out for pity? It’s a human desire. I understand it. It humanizes the disabled life, but that's not the whole story of my life. That doesn’t mean that I have not gone through difficult times. But if the aim is to get the reader to say 'What a brave little girl,' that’s not worthy of my work. As a writer, you need to push yourself to be honest and ask yourself: what am I really after?”

For Cooper Jones, writing serves as a "massive slowing down of thought," allowing her to thoroughly process her experiences. She notes how this introspection and growth were deeply embedded in the conception, research, and experiences that went into her book. So I was curious—how did she find an endpoint for a book about her introspective journey? Isn't there always more to process, more to learn?

“It's an ongoing, never-ending process," she said, with a smile on her face. "The book begins with me sensing a problem, and it ends with me just gaining a little self-awareness of that problem. This might be a little dissatisfying for the reader because there’s no happy ending where everything is different. I don't end the book being a radically different person. To me, it's worth a lot to tell the reader: this is the story of a struggle, and some growth came out of that struggle.”

Chloé Cooper Jones is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. In 2020, Chloé was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in Feature Writing for “Fearing for His Life,” a profile of Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed the killing of Eric Garner. She was the recipient of the 2020 Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant and the 2021 Howard Foundation Grant from Brown University.