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R.I.P. American Book Award-Winning Writer J. California Cooper

J. California Cooper in 1987. (Credit: Ellen Banner)

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.”

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