When I first heard that playwright, novelist and all around literary giant Joan California Cooper passed away on September 20, I immediately felt like I had lost family. Through her simple, majestic, beautiful storytelling, Cooper seemed a lot like that auntie whose advice fed you like good country cooking—leaving you full and stronger than before you sat down to eat.
I fell in love with Cooper’s words within the first few pages of her short story “$100 and Nothing!,” which appeared in her first published collection of shorts, A Piece of Mine: Stories. In it, as the unnamed but fiery narrator gave a background account of the protagonist Mary’s life, she also described a man that Mary had fallen for (against the narrator’s better judgment).
Cooper wrote (describing Charles) that he “…had a mouth full of ‘gimme’ and a hand full of ‘reach’.” I giggled. I knew that kind of man and had never read anyone sum him up so perfectly. As a southern blues woman, I was happy I’d found her, and her fiction that wasn’t at all like fiction.
Cooper’s brand of the griot tradition, her straightforwardly rich ability to paint pictures with words, reminded me, and many of us, of the conversations we overheard our mothers and aunts having when we didn’t leave the room completely after having been shooed away. Her stories carried a rhythm, a kind of uproarious laughter, a sort of ache few were able to capture before her and even fewer will be able to replicate after her.
If I were to compare her to any literary figure, it would be another great shero, Zora Neale Hurston, for many reasons. Like Hurston, J. California Cooper sought to weave complicated lessons into uncomplicated anecdotes. She herself described her stories as “sort of like parables,” and would go on to assert that her purpose in writing in such simple honesty was to “help somebody make some right choices.”
J. California Cooper was born in Berkley, California in 1932 and began her literary career as a playwright. She published 17 plays and was named Black Playwright of the Year in 1978. The story goes that Cooper was discovered by Alice Walker, who wrote regarding Cooper’s magnetic storytelling that “her style is deceptively simple and direct and the vale of tears in which her characters reside is never so deep that a rich chuckle at a foolish person’s foolishness cannot be heard.”
But Cooper was already shining brightly in her own right before Walker discovered her brilliant ability to tell stories. It may be more accurate to say that Walker encouraged Cooper to take her role as griot from the stage to the page. As promised by Walker, once Cooper finished her first collection of short stories (the aforementioned A Piece of Mine: Stories), Walker saw that the collection was the first book published to her Wild Trees Press—to high acclaim in 1984. Next came Homemade Love, published in 1986 (which won the American Book Award in 1989), and 1987’s Some Soul to Keep.
Cooper would go on to write several more novels and short story collections, with her last being 2009’s Life Is Short but Wide. In 1999, her short story “Funny Valentine” was turned into a movie starring Alfre Woodard and Loretta Devine. For her outstanding writing, Cooper received the James Baldwin Writing Award, and the Literary Lion Award from the American Library Association, and was nominated for a NAACP Image Award.
But I don’t know that Cooper would be satisfied with listing her enormous catalog or awards as a form of praise. She has always presented her characters as stand-alone folk who, more than anything, simply translated their stories to her as though they were sitting with her on an open porch. Moreover, Cooper wrote simply because it was in her to write.
She reminds us: “I didn’t write for applause. I’m glad it came, no doubt about it. But I wrote because I’ve been—I was telling stories before I could write. I played with paper dolls ’til I was 18 and nobody even knew my stories except my mother. You know, you do what you do…”
J. California Cooper lived a full life of doing what she did. She made the everyday royal through her stories, but more than anything, she encouraged us all to (as she wrote in the prologue of 1994’s In Search of Satisfaction) “be the things you value.” As far as style, again alluding to how she did what she did, Cooper announced: “I know teachers teach that you should have a diagram of your stories. I don’t ever know the ending of a story. And as I see the characters working it out, that’s my pleasure. I love to see them beat down and rise up, conquer and survive. It’s about survival.”
In 2013, J. California Cooper moved to Seattle, Washington to live with her beloved daughter Paris Williams and continue listening as characters revealed themselves and their stories to her. She passed gently on with Paris by her side, hopefully knowing not only how much she was loved, but more importantly, how much she was respected for keeping us honest. She was 82 and still on fire.