J. California Cooper

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(b. 19?), short fiction writer, playwright, and novelist.

Joan California Cooper's birthdate is conspicuously absent from available written material about her life and work. She was born in Berkeley, California, to Maxine Rosemary and Joseph C. Cooper, and she has a daughter, Paris Williams.

Cooper's success as a writer must be attributed solely to natural gifts. She began composing plays and performing them before family and friends when she was a very young child. Indeed, the first glimpse by the public-at-large of Cooper's work was through her plays; she had written at least seventeen by the mid-1990s, including: Everytime It Rains; System, Suckers, and Success; How Now; The Unintended; The Mother; Ahhh; Strangers; and Loners. Strangers earned the 1978 Black Playwright of the Year award and was performed at the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts. Loners, anthologized in Eileen Ostrow's Center Stage (1981), is the story of Cool, a somewhat egotistical man of thirty-seven who realizes too late that his inability to commit to the shy but strong Emma results in his own loneliness. Emma tires of Cool's callous neglect and decides to marry someone who is not so self-centered that he fails to notice her quiet strength. Cooper's plays have been performed before live audiences, as well as on radio and public television. She is a prolific writer, who, like Emily Dickinson, took up writing to satisfy a private, personal need; much of her early work was long hidden from public view until her plays began to receive attention.

Cooper is better known for her short stories, whose narrators witness and relate tale after tale with a folksy, homespun wisdom in conversation with the reading audience that brings to mind the relationship between Alice Childress's urban domestic workers, Mildred Johnson and Marge, in Like One of the Family (1956). Cooper has published five short story collections: A Piece of Mine (1984); Homemade Love (1986), which won the 1989 American Book Award; Some Soul to Keep (1987); The Matter Is Life (1991); and Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime (1995).

Like Alice Walker, whose company published Cooper's first collection of short stories, Cooper acts in spiritual communion with certain characters who relate their experiences; as medium, Cooper retells the stories in writing. Her primary characters are usually women who have been victimized in some way by the men in their lives. Cooper's profound messages come packaged in what appear to be simple and straightforward stories; this method is reminiscent of one often employed by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Her writing shares Harper's didacticism, but Cooper's reliance on the Ten Commandments for many of her themes is not as conducive to invoking Christian piety. One story from the collection A Piece of Mine, entitled “One Hundred Dollars and Nothing!”, retells the rise and fall of a boastful but unenterprising man who marries a well-to-do, enterprising woman named Mary. The husband, Charles, feels he has done the nappy-headed, bow-legged Mary a favor by marrying her, and he is fond of telling Mary that, with one hundred dollars and nothing, he could outperform her anyday. Mary endures years of abuse by Charles, and she eventually dies; but, prior to her death, she is able to set into motion events that will leave Charles with one hundred dollars and nothing more. She punishes Charles from the grave. The female protagonists in A Piece of Mine survive, through spiritual (and often physical) transcendence, all manner of abuse and neglect. They emerge with a greater realization of their inner strength, self-actualized.


Subjects: Literature.

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