Cooper, J. California
Cooper, J. California
(Joan California Cooper)
PERSONAL: Born in Berkeley, CA; daughter of Joseph C. and Maxine Rosemary Cooper; children: Paris A. Williams. Ethnicity: Black Education: Attended technical high school and various colleges. Religion: Christian. Hobbies and other interests: Reading, nature, travel, painting, music, tap dancing.
AWARDS, HONORS: Black Playwright of the Year, 1978, for Strangers; Literary Lion Award and James Baldwin Award, both from the American Library Association, 1988; American Book Award, 1989, for Homemade Love; named Woman of the Year by the University of Massachusetts; named Best Female Writer in Texas.
Family: A Novel, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
In Search of Satisfaction, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1994.
The Wake of the Wind, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1998.
Some People, Some Other Place, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2004.
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
A Piece of Mine (includes "$100 and Nothing!," "Loved to Death," "Sins Leave Scars," "The Free and the Caged," and "Color Me Real"), foreword by Alice Walker, Wild Trees Press (Navarro, CA), 1984.
Homemade Love (includes "The Magic Strength of Need," "Without Love," "Happiness Does Not Come in Colors," "Spooks," "Living," and "The Watcher"), St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1986.
Some Soul to Keep (includes "Sisters of the Rain," "Feeling for Life," "About Love and Money," "The Life You Live (May Not Be Your Own)," and "Red-Winged Blackbirds"), St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1987.
The Matter Is Life, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1995.
The Future has a Past, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2000.
Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns: Stories, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2006.
Author of seventeen plays, including Strangers, first produced in 1978, and Loners; also author of short story "Such Good Friends," 1990; contributor to Center Stage: An Anthology of Twenty-One Contemporary Black-American Plays, edited by Eileen Joyce Ostrow, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1991.
SIDELIGHTS: J. California Cooper writes in a vernacular style that makes extensive use of African-American dialect. Usually set in small rural communities, her works focus on the lives of poor to middle-class black women who are searching for affection and respect from indifferent lovers or husbands. Her protagonists suffer many disappointments but manage to sustain optimism, courage, and a sense of humor as they discover ways to improve their lives, which often include finding a loving man, sometimes after leaving an abusive one. Her stories are generally told by a first-person narrator who is acquainted with the protagonist and relates the story's details in an intimate, almost gossipy style. Rooted in Christian ethics and morality, Cooper's works teach lessons and deliver an undeniable moral message. While some critics have faulted Cooper's subject matter as limited and have argued that her occasional didacticism curtails her writing's dramatic urgency, others have praised her attention to detail and creation of believable and compelling characters. In her foreword to Cooper's A Piece of Mine, Alice Walker remarked that "in its strong folk flavor, Cooper's work reminds us of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Like theirs, her style is deceptively simple and direct, and the vale of tears in which some of her characters reside is never so deep that a rich chuckle at a foolish person's foolishness can not be heard."
The twelve stories collected in A Piece of Mine deal largely with male-female relationships; in most of them, the women grow in strength and pride, while they gain revenge on men who have mistreated them. In "$100 or Nothing!," a businesswoman, whose husband resents and trivializes her accomplishments, decides to leave him only 100 dollars when she learns she is dying. In "Color Me Real," a mixed-race woman is able to leave behind the prejudices of both blacks and whites after she finds a supportive man who loves her, while the protagonist in "Sins Leave Scars" learns to accept herself despite the abuse she suffered as a girl.
A Piece of Mine earned Cooper critical praise for its relaxed, personal style and exploration of ordinary people's lives. "J. California Cooper possesses the ability to win the reader's trust and establish a rare intimacy as soon as she begins a story," wrote Diana Hinds in Books and Bookmen. "She writes often as the best friend, sometimes the sister, of the woman whose story she tells; and we believe her." Jeanette Winterson commented in the Times Literary Supplement that "Cooper … restores dignity and importance to the everyday." Winterson also praised the fact that "while the characters are all different, the narrative voice running through the book is the same; a continuity that improves each story and gives the whole the depth of the novel." Not all reviewers liked this quality, however; a Kirkus Reviews contributor criticized the collection's lack of variety.
Homemade Love, which received an American Book Award, consists of thirteen stories, again focusing on the lives and loves of everyday people. In many of these stories, characters searching for happiness find that what they wanted was within their grasp all along. The protagonist of "The Magic Strength of Need," for instance, becomes a successful entrepreneur, rejects a loving but less-prosperous suitor, but then goes back to him after a disastrous encounter with a wealthy man. "Living" concerns a man who leaves his wife and small-town life for what he thinks will be a more glamorous existence in a large city; he returns after only three days. In "Happiness Does Not Come in Colors," three women put aside their prejudices to find happiness with men they had not taken seriously as potential marriage partners.
As with her previous collection, reviewers of Homemade Love lauded Cooper's engaging characters. "The thirteen stories read as if they had been spoken for the benefit of a tape recorder hidden on the front porch of any home in any small Southern town," Michael Schumacher commented in Writer's Digest. "These are contemporary folk tales, laced with down-home flavor and Southern dialect." The stories, he continued, "pack a tremendous power that belies the simplicity in which they are told." Others, however, faulted the stories as monotonous and argued that Cooper had a tendency to moralize. Janet Boyarin Blundell, writing in School Library Journal, noted that "the stories are saved from preachiness by [Cooper's] wry and somewhat ingenuous tone."
The five stories collected in Some Soul to Keep are longer than those from Cooper's previous collections but cover familiar ground. "Sisters of the Rain" tells the tale of a long-suffering, hard-working woman who ends up happier than her wild-living friend. In "The Life You Live (May Not Be Your Own)" two women, kept apart by a lie spread by one's husband, eventually determine the truth and become friends. "Red-Winged Blackbirds" concerns the struggle for survival of a woman who narrowly escapes rape by a white supremacist, witnesses the murder of her parents by a racist mob, and keeps her virginity even while living with women who work as prostitutes.
Terry McMillan, writing in the New York Times Book Review, praised the intimacy of Cooper's style, remarking that "the stories enchant you because they are not stories; they are the truth reconstructed." However, McMillan found the stories "somewhat didactic" and noted that "the voice doesn't alter from one story to the next." A critic for Publishers Weekly expressed similar reservations: "Ultimately, no matter how admirable and lively these stories are individually, the sameness of their tone and structure … defuses the impact of the volume as a whole."
The characters and themes in Family, Cooper's first novel, recall those of her shorter fiction. The novel centers on a black family and traces its development over several generations, focusing primarily on slavery and its consequences before, during, and immediately after the Civil War. The narrator, Clora, is driven to suicide by plantation life, but her spirit keeps an eye on her descendants. While it details the tragedy of slavery, the novel is ultimately a tale of triumph over adversity, for it expresses optimism that racial distinctions will become irrelevant and that all people will consider themselves part of the same family. Tribune Books reviewer Melissa Walker argued that what "most distinguishes Family from … other narratives of slavery by black women writers is its persistent affirmation of the power of the human spirit to do battle with evil-and to win, even if only for a while."
Several reviewers praised the originality of the novel's narrative voice, which Sharon Dirlam, writing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review described as "both first-person and omniscient." A few, however, thought that Clora occasionally sounded anachronistic or implausibly scholarly. The novel also won compliments for its emotional power and ultimately hopeful outlook. Dirlam called the novel "original, stirring, vividly personal and painfully intense." Walker found Family less aesthetically rich than the works of Margaret Walker and Toni Morrison but praised its "compelling voice that speaks of the past in the present with a concern for those human traits that might make possible some kind of future." Roy Hoffman, writing in the New York Times Book Review, observed that "the lone woman talking to us … is as resilient at the end of her story as she was when it began." Hoffman added, "[But] she draws some homespun, though hard-won, conclusions, seeing us all enmeshed in a net of family ties that grows larger every day."
The Matter Is Life contains a novella, "The Doras," and seven short stories. "The Doras" centers on a woman named Dora and her four daughters, of whom the most unselfish, Splendora, is portrayed as the one most likely to find happiness. The short stories likewise contrast the emptiness of wealth and selfish pleasures with the rewards of a good life. As reviewer Carol Anshaw commented in Tribune Books, "If good and wise, [Cooper's characters] triumph in the end. If wicked and vain, they will surely receive their just desserts." Booklist contributor Donna Seaman, who, while calling Cooper's tales "moralistic," also termed them "gritty and authentic."
Cooper's second novel, In Search of Satisfaction, is a family chronicle of the post-slavery era, covering the 1880s through the first few decades of the twentieth century. Its primary characters are two half-sisters—both daughters of a former slave named Josephus—and the scandal-ridden members of the preeminent white family in their small town. Certain characters are obviously good, others overwhelmingly evil, while a half-black, half-white woman named Yinyang embodies both. These symbolic characters move through an allegorical story designed to transcend its historical period and comment on the desire for happiness common to all people.
Erin J. Aubry, reviewing the novel for the Los Angeles Times, called it "a mostly absorbing work, off-putting only when the author's trademark folksiness gets a bit cloying." The book's virtue, Aubry argued, is "Cooper's facile storytelling, as straight-ahead as a freight train but marvelously textured and layered with voices." Moments of whimsy and humor, Aubry said, balance Cooper's tendency to moralize. Similarly, Carolyn Alessio observed in Chicago Tribune Books: "The moral commentary is insistent throughout In Search of Satisfaction, but Cooper expertly avoids pure invective by endowing her speakers with quirky voices." Valerie Smith, however, wrote in the Washington Post Book World that Cooper's narration often "slips into an uninspired flatness" and that her informal tone sometimes trivializes the tragic events of the book.
Cooper returned to short fiction with Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime, a collection of ten stories. As in her previous collections, Cooper's stories focus on black women seeking to improve their lot in life. Again, several critics objected to the stories' monotonous tone, while commending their realistic and down-to-earth manner and vernacular speech. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly stated that "Cooper's spirited use of the first person makes every tale [in Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime] engaging." The reviewer went on to note, "With thematic concerns tending to take precedence over technique, the author unabashedly indulges our romantic sensibilities."
After the release of Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime, Cooper took a three-year break from writing short stories in order to work on her novel, which was published as The Wake of the Wind. Afterwards, Cooper returned to her more prolific medium, and the result, The Future has a Past, is a collection of stories that was hailed as "deceptively simple" and simultaneously "rich," by Booklist critic Vanessa Bush. The stories are predominantly about women and their search for love and they are also about women's relationships with one another as mother, sister, and daughter. Many critics praised the collection and concluded that it had been worth the long wait. Indeed, Alicia Singleton, writing in Black Issues Book Review, noted that Cooper "delves into an emotional menagerie of human triumph and suffering." According to Singleton, "Once entangled in Cooper's gilded universe, you'll be able to think of no place else you'd rather be."
Cooper's novel Some People, Some Other Place is narrated by the unborn child of the protagonist and recounts the history of five generations of an African-American family. The novel is populated by somewhat allegorical settings, such as Dream Street and a town named Place. The protagonist, Eula Too, is named after her grandmother Eula, the family matriarch. Eula Too is raped, beaten, and left to die when she is on her way to Chicago during the Depression. Afterwards, she is befriended by the madam of a brothel. Although Eula Too lives with the madam, she does not become a prostitute. While a Publishers Weekly contributor stated that the novel "aims to unveil the vastness of human experience," a Kirkus Reviews critic called the story "a very odd family saga." The Publishers Weekly contributor noted this 'oddness' by observing that the book is "a novel scattered in narrative." The contributor went on to note, however, that it is nonetheless "united in its humanity."
In Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns: Stories, Cooper focuses on love, success, and failure in nine stories about black women. One story is about Lily Bea, an unattractive woman who is married to a much older, and disagreeable, man. Lily escapes from her life by reading. Another story is about Willa Ways, who earns a Ph.D and finds success although she does not find satisfaction. Many of the stories feature dissatisfied characters who, ultimately, are the cause of their own unhappiness. Calling the book "warm-hearted, earthy and sly," a Kirkus Reviews contributor also noted: "What unifies and deepens these stories is the impish, ever-forgiving but gently judgmental narrator." A contributor to TheBlackLibrary.com Web site concluded that the collection is "a marvelous and satisfying suite of stories."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Cooper, J. California, A Piece of Mine, foreword by Alice Walker, Wild Trees Press (Navarro, CA), 1984.
Black Issues Book Review, January, 2001, Alicia Singleton, review of The Future has a Past, p. 17.
Books and Bookmen, February, 1986, Diana Hinds, review of A Piece of Mine, p. 18.
Booklist, October 15, 1998, Lillian Lewis, review of The Wake of the Wind, p. 399; October 15, 2000, Vanessa Bush, review of The Future has a Past, p. 417.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1984, review of A Piece of Mine, p. 1056; January 1, 2006, review of Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns: Stories, p. 5; September 1, 2004, review of Some People, Some Other Place, p. 822.
Library Journal, October 15, 1998, Janis Williams, review of The Wake of the Wind, p. 96.
Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1991, Sharon Dirlam, review of Family, p. E2; October 14, 1994, Erin J. Aubry, review of In Search of Satisfaction, p. E5.
New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1987, Terry McMillan, review of Some Soul to Keep, p. 23; December 30, 1990, Roy Hoffman, review of Familiy, p. 12; January 26, 1992, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, September 11, 1987, Sybil Steinberg, review of Some Soul to Keep, p. 79; July 31, 1995, review of Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime, pp. 66-7; September 2, 1996, review of Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime, p. 122; September 13, 2004, review of Some People, Some Other Place, p. 57.
School Library Journal, August, 1986, Janet Boyarin Blundell, review of Homemade Love, p. 168.
Times Literary Supplement, August 22, 1986, Jeanette Winterson, review of A Piece of Mine, p. 921.
Tribune Books (Chicago), February 24, 1991, Melissa Walker, review of Family, pp. 6-7; July 28, 1991, Carol Anshaw, review of The Matter Is Life, pp. 6-7; January 26, 1992, p. 8; November 6, 1994, Carolyn Alessio, review of In Search of Satisfaction, p. 5.
Washington Post Book World, October 11, 1994, Valerie Smith, review of In Search of Satisfaction, p. E3.
Writer's Digest, February, 1987, Michael Schumacher, review of Homemade Love, p. 21.
TheBlackLibrary.com, http://www.theblacklibrary.com/ (March 2, 2006), review of Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns.