J. California Cooper, an award-winning writer whose black female characters confront a world of indifference and betrayal, but find kinship there in unexpected places, died on September 20th in Seattle. She was 82. A spokesman for Random House, her publisher, confirmed her death. She had had several heart attacks in recent years.
Ms. Cooper won an American Book Award in 1989 for the second of her six story collections, “Homemade Love.” Her short story “Funny Valentines,” about a woman in a troubled marriage who repairs an old rift with a cousin when she moves back home, was turned into a 1999 television movie starring Alfre Woodard and Loretta Devine.
Writing in a vernacular first-person style, Ms. Cooper set her stories in an indeterminate rural past permeated with violence and the ghost of slavery. The African-American women she depicts endure abandonment, betrayal, rape and social invisibility, but they survive.
“Some Soul to Keep” (1987), her third collection, includes over-the-back-fence tales. One story tells of two women who become close friends after one woman’s husband dies and the other’s leaves. They learn that long-lived rumors of their dislike for each other had been fabricated by their husbands. Another story is about a blind girl who is raped by her minister, gives birth to his son and raises him alone because, she explains, he makes her forget she is blind.
Ms. Cooper’s 1991 novel, “Family,” one of five she wrote, is narrated by the ghost of a slave woman who committed suicide before the Civil War and who follows the lives of her descendants as they mingle and procreate in a new interracial world, marveling at how “from one woman all these different colors and nationalities could come into being.”
Ms. Cooper was clear about the religious values that informed her stories. “I’m a Christian,” she told The Washington Post in 2000. “That’s all I am. If it came down to Christianity and writing, I’d let the writing go. God is bigger than a book.”
In an interview on NPR in 2006, she said, “What I’m basically trying to do is help somebody make some right choices.”
Alice Walker, in the foreword to Ms. Cooper’s 1984 collection of stories, “A Piece of Mine,” wrote: “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 cannot be heard.”
Joan Cooper (the middle name California was her own invention) was born in Berkeley, Calif., to Maxine Rosemary and Joseph C. Cooper. She lived most of her life in Oakland. Through the years she declined to give her exact date of birth to interviewers. Her daughter, Paris Williams, told The Associated Press that her mother was 82 when she died.
Ms. Cooper attended technical high school and several universities, including the University of California, Berkeley. While raising her daughter, she variously worked as a secretary, manicurist and teamster while writing in her spare time.
Ms. Cooper was a recipient of the James Baldwin Writing Award and the Literary Lion Award from the American Library Association. No information on survivors besides her daughter was available.
Ms. Cooper’s first goal was to become a playwright. She had written more than a dozen by the early 1980s (she wound up writing 17) when Ms. Walker, who came to see one of her plays, suggested she try her hand at writing short stories — “because it was easier to get paid,” Ms. Williams told The A.P., quoting Ms. Walker’s advice to her mother.
Ms. Cooper had never shared that story in the few interviews she gave. In 1994, she told The Los Angeles Sentinel that she considered the details of her own life her own. She had never courted fame, she added, and would evade it if it ever “started catching up with me.”
“I love God,” she added, “and I know he said love people. And I do. Just at a distance.”
article by Paul Vitello via nytimes.com