J. California Cooper
Cooper, J. California 19(?)(?)–
J. California Cooper 19(?)(?)–
In 1984, J. California Cooper’s short story collection, A Piece of Mine, was the first book to be published by Wild Trees Press-a publishing company set up by African American novelist Alice Walker and her partner, Robert Allen. “Others will now have the opportunity to enjoy Cooper’s talent, humor, and insight into character,” Walker wrote in the introduction to the book. Praising Cooper’s style as “deceptively simple and direct, “Walker wrote that”in its strong folk flavor, Cooper’s work reminds us of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.”
A Piece of Mine received many positive reviews. Diana Hinds, for example, writing in Books and Bookmen, described it as “an example of how colloquial storytelling can also be beautifully crafted.” Since that first break, Cooper has written three more collections of short stories, Homemade Love, Some Soul to Keep, and The Matter Is Life; two novels, Family, and In Search of Satisfaction; and at least seventeen plays. Homemade Love, which appeared in 1986, won the American Book Award. Cooper’s most recent short story collection, Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime, was published in 1995.
Cooper was born in Berkeley, California. As a child, she invented stories about her paper dolls. Once she turned 18, however, her mother decided she was too old to continue playing with dolls. Cooper had no alternative but to begin writing her stories down.
The “J” in her name stands for “Joan,” “California” is for the state where she was born, and “Cooper” is her father’s name. While she has at times moved away from her home state-living for a while in Alaska, and in Texas for seven years-Cooper later resettled in Oakland. Cooper told Emerge that she chose to call herself “California” in imitation of her favorite playwright, Tennessee Williams; some reviewers have mentioned a similarity in their work as well as their names. “You have to have a name, and I wanted something I could give to people. They can have California,” she told Emerge.
This protective attitude toward her first name is typical of her skeptical view of publicity. While biographical details on Cooper are scarce, one of the few things that is well known is her unwillingness to allow her privacy to
At a Glance…
Bom Joan Cooper, in Berkeley, California; daughter of Joseph C. and Maxine Rosemary Cooper; children: Paris A. Williams (daughter). Education: Attended various colleges.
Full-time writer, c. early 1980s--. Titles include A Piece of Mine, 1984, Homemade Love, 1986, Some Soul to Keep, 1987, Family, 1990, Center Stage (anthology of plays), The Matter Is Life, 1991, In Search of Satisfaction, 1994, and Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime, 1995.
Awards: American Book Award, 1986, for Homemade Love.
be invaded. “About seven years ago it looked like fame was catching up with me,” she explained to the Los Angeles Sentinel in 1994. “Too many people wanted me to do things and wanted pieces of me. That sounds egotistical, but I don’t like a whole bunch of people in my life.” She claims that only two types of people suit her: the very old, who no longer care about the game of life, and the very young, who have not yet learned to play it. “I love God, and I know he said love people and I do. Just at a distance,” she told the Los Angeles Sentinel.
Cooper worked as a secretary for most of her career, and has one daughter, Paris Williams, who lives in Northern California. She will not admit her age or the number of marriages she has had-though she has confirmed that she has been married more than once. She also insists that there are no autobiographical clues in her work, and none of her writing is based on her own experiences. “Everything is fiction because I don’t like to write fact,” she told Emerge.
A common theme in Cooper’s work is women’s search for love. Another is Christian morality; in an interview with Emerge, Cooper described herself as “a Bible student.”The Christian theme is particularly obvious in the book In Search of Satisfaction, in which Satan appears in every chapter. Pearl Cleage, writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, described the book as “an old-fashioned morality tale.”
Typical of morality tales, the characters in the book have names that offer clues about their roles-just as Cooper’s own name offers a clue about hers. According to Victoria Valentine, writing in Emerge, “Cooper manipulates the naming process (a traditionally symbolic endeavor in the black community) with the implications of some names influencing her characterizations.” For example, the mixed-race character Yinyang is a union of opposites, well-meaning but greedy; Ruth demonstrates the faithfulness and obedience of the Biblical character; the Befoes arrived in the town before everyone else, while the Krupts are corrupt. Perhaps most interestingly, one of the characters is called Josephus Josephus, a name he invented for himself; Cooper writes in that novel that “He chose to take the name he hoped his mother had given him, twice, rather than take the name of the cruel owner he had lived under.”
Cooper’s fiction is often set in another historical period. In Search of Satisfaction, for example, stretches from the late 1800s through to the middle 1900s. “History is fascinating... because history is people and that’s what I am talking about. People,” Cooper told the Los Angeles Sentinel Otherworks, however, have settings that are deliberately vague: Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime offers no clues about time or geography. “I named this book what I think about life,” Cooper told Emerge. “I know life is composed of many more things,... but in the meantime, love is what seems to make a person’s world go * round and it has some love sometime, and some pain sometime.” Like her earlier fiction, Some Love also centers on issues of morality.
According to Terry McMillan, writing in the New York Times Book Review, the first rule of creative writing is to show, rather than tell. Cooper, however, “rejects this notion entirely.” Instead, her tales are often narrated as monologues, in which one woman tells about a crisis in the life of another woman she knows. Many reviewers have praised her talent in capturing African American speech, while pointing out that the narrators of different stories often sound the same. A typical review of Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime, which appeared in Publishers Weekly, claimed that “Cooper’s spirited use of the first person makes every tale engaging, even if the uniformity of voice makes the narrators largely indistinguishable. “According to Cooper, who writes her stories in longhand, the characters in her fiction simply appear in her mind and begin telling her stories. “This happens during the rainy season, which I why I never write during the summer,” Cooper told Emerge. “With the rain comes these people.”
Malaika Brown, writing in the Los Angeles Sentinel, described Cooper as a “lightning bolt of energy and enthusiasm, paced with little excess in about five feet of vertical space. “During her promotional readings, Cooper always wears a Polynesian-style yellow and green muumuu. “All my characters fit in there with me,” she told Emerge. “I’ve worn it for every single reading for every book for the last 10 years. “In the future, Cooper told Emerge, she plans to write two collections of short stories-one with a religious theme, and one for women who don’t know what to do with men. She also plans to write a novel set during the Reconstruction.
A Piece of Mine, Wild Trees Press, 1984.
Homemade Love, St. Martin’s, 1986.
Some Soul to Keep, St. Martin’s, 1987.
The Matter Is Life, 1991.
Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime, 1995.
In Search of Satisfaction, 1994.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 56, Gale, 1989.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 20, 1994, p.D3.
Booklist, August 1994, p. 1987.
Emerge, October 1994, p. 64; November 1995, p. 88.
Los Angeles Sentinel, November 23, 1994, p. C4.
Publishers Weekly, September 12,1994, p. 83; July 31, 1995, p. 66.
St Joan of Arc (c.1412–31), French national heroine, known as the Maid of Orleans. She led the French armies against the English in the Hundred Years War, relieving besieged Orleans (1429) and ensuring that Charles VII could be crowned in previously occupied Reims. Captured by the Burgundians in 1430, she was handed over to the English, convicted of heresy, and burnt at the stake. She was canonized in 1920, and her feast day is 30 May.
Pope Joan according to a legend widely believed in the Middle Ages, a woman in male disguise who (c.1100) became a distinguished scholar and then pope, reigned for more than two years, and died after giving birth to a child during a procession.
Keith J. Stringer