A Piece of Mine, 1984
Homemade Love, 1986
Some Soul to Keep, 1987
The Matter Is Life, 1991
Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime, 1995
The Future Has a Past: Stories, 2000
In Search of Satisfaction, 1994
The Wake of the Wind, 1998
Strangers, pr. 1978
African American J. California Cooper came to prominence first during the 1970’s in Oakland, California, as a playwright, then in Marshall, Texas, as an author of short stories and novels. She has continually kept much of her biography secret, rarely even divulging her first name (Joan), preferring “California,” a name she gave herself.
In her Author’s Note to The Matter Is Life, Cooper states that her primary concern in life and writing is the courage to face the “everyday matters of mind, body, and heart”; all these matters, she says, are important. Cooper’s short stories are typically character studies of poor, simple, African American women who speak in first-person dialect about their relationships with friends, family members, and men. Cooper’s moralistic, affirmative, and humorous narratives are frequently told as modern parables in a conversational style, and she often points to interracial bloodlines in American society as evidence all people are interconnected as one family, as in the story “Happiness Does Not Come in Colors.” In her shorter works, Cooper’s characters are clearly meant to be seen as universal representatives of humanity, and she rarely places blame for her character’s problems outside their own actions. Although most of her stories neither mention nor emphasize race, she does explore this subject in her novels.
Fellow writer Alice Walker describes Cooper’s women narrators as “sister-witnesses” who hear stories intermingling with their own lives, one notable example being the story “A Jewel for a Friend.” These women often help foolish friends in need, as in the story “Climbing to the Top of the Rain.” Other stories revolve around selfish, foolish characters’ complaints and ultimately reveal that these women’s jealousy, isolation, and turmoil are self-inflicted wounds resulting from materialism, vanity, and shortsightedness. This is the case particularly for those refusing the love of parents, siblings, and especially children, as in the story “The Watcher.”
Cooper’s men are normally seen through the eyes of women and are, like her female characters, either compassionate, hardworking, but imperfect husbands worthy of love or self-centered and unreliable men unable to make meaningful commitments. The few stories told through male eyes, such as “No Lie,” are invariably about men interested only in sex without accepting the responsibility and love for children. Normally, selfish characters lose their mates to loving friends who deserve them, and the rewards of life are always in terms of relationships rather than material gain. In each story, family values are juxtaposed against selfishness, with opposites of each type commenting on the other.
Beginning with her first novel, Family, Cooper’s style developed to include more details about time and place, creating more fully developed characters. Family is set before and after the Civil War and follows four generations of a family whose emotional and spiritual center is Always, a slave who is resourceful and willful. Told from Always’s mother’s perspective before and after the grave, Family describes the degradation of slave life in the shacks behind the big house; normal, stable family life is impossible. As the family grows, Always’s mother witnesses the trials of racism, the triumph of her daughter, and the establishment of a dynasty. Cooper’s tone is typically alternately angry, humorous, and hopeful.
Set in a small township just outside New York City, Cooper’s second novel, In Search of Satisfaction, is another intergenerational saga beginning after the Civil War. The story traces the intersecting lines of two families that engage in biracial relationships and follows their dealings with evil, prosperity, and temptation. In her Author’s Note to the book, Cooper emphasizes the truths of the Ten Commandments as being universal and as forming the ethical basis of her book’s teachings. The Wake of the Wind continues the intergenerational theme, beginning with the 1760 abduction of two Africans to become slaves and ending with the marriage of two of their descendants–the first to be free in America–during the Civil War era.
Before writing her first two novels, Cooper’s settings had primarily been rural and involved little description, although some characters moved to the city–where they found disappointment and loneliness, as in “How, Why to Get Rich.” With the publication of Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime, Cooper’s short stories show her stylistic shift away from moralistic parables to longer, more detailed stories. The Future Has a Past continued this trend.
Cooper is often grouped with fellow African American women writers Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison for their shared historical, gender, and racial perspectives as well as their similar subject matter, their emphasis on characters, and their affectionate treatment of black family life. She can also be seen in the tradition of Southern writers such as Eudora Welty who employ vernacular, folksy wisdom expressed through the eyes of simple, hard-working characters. Cooper is frequently compared with her mentor Alice Walker, who watched a Cooper play and encouraged the playwright to write short stories. Walker published Cooper’s first collection of stories, A Piece of Mine, as the first volume of Walker’s own Wild Trees Press. In her foreword to that volume, Walker praised Cooper for her wisdom, “deceptive simplicity,” and passion, and compared Cooper to African American writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
Cooper was named Black Playwright of the Year in 1978 for Strangers, one of her seventeen one-act plays, many of which were written for juvenile audiences and readers. Her dramas have been performed on public television, radio, and college campuses, and in California theaters. She has received the James Baldwin Writing Award (1988) and the Literary Lion Award from the American Library Association (1988); Homemade Love won an American Book Award. Despite her public shyness, Cooper supports herself by giving public readings in her trademark “wide yellow dress with green flowers.”