J. California Cooper, Christian Author of Stories About African American Life, Dies at 82

Author J. California Cooper, whose novels and short stories drew on the African American experience. (RANDY ELI GROTHE/Dallas Morning News)
Author J. California Cooper, whose novels and short stories drew on the African American experience. (RANDY ELI GROTHE/Dallas Morning News)

J. California Cooper, a writer who enjoyed a widespread acclaim for her fable-like tales built largely around the imagined lives of African American women, died Sept. 20 in Seattle. She was 82.

A spokeswoman, Vivian Phillips, confirmed the death. Ms. Cooper had several heart attacks in recent years.

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Ms. Cooper began her writing life as a playwright and held a series of jobs, from secretary to truck driver, before publishing her first book of fiction in her 50s. She went on to write five novels and seven collections of short stories that won her a substantial following throughout the country.

Often secretive about her personal life and her writing methods, Ms. Cooper let her books speak for her instead. She often addressed the struggles of African American women in her fiction, writing stories in vernacular dialect as if she were speaking over the back fence about the weaknesses, sorrows and triumphs of ordinary people.

“In their own gossipy, circuitous, roundabout way, the stories enchant you because they are not stories; they are the truth reconstructed,” novelist Terry McMillan wrote in the New York Times Book Review in 1987. “They give you the feeling that you’re sitting on the front porch with the narrator, somewhere in the South; it’s hot and humid, she’s snapping beans, you’re holding the bowl and she’s giving you the inside scoop on everybody.”

Ms. Cooper was sometimes described as a literary folk artist, whose stories were notable for their homespun wisdom and clear-eyed sense of right and wrong. She wrote about women hoping to find love, but she also examined such topics as rape, prostitution, incest, homosexuality and drug abuse. The presence of death and the long reach of slavery often loomed behind her stories.

Her first novel, “Family” (1991) explored the fate of a female slave, Clora, and her many-hued descendants in succeeding generations.

“Her place was goin to be nice,” Ms. Cooper wrote in “Family,” in a passage typical of her plain-spoken, colloquial style. “She furnished it with the best of things, tho she never lowed no one in them special rooms. She didn’t much go in em herself cept to go sit and look round at what was hers. Hers.”

In an introduction to Ms. Cooper’s first collection of stories, “A Piece of Mine” (1984) Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” said her work was in the tradition of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

“Like theirs,” Walker wrote, “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.”

Ms. Cooper often spoke of how her sense of morality derived from her strong Christian faith, and her stories are replete with harsh judgments on the arrogant, greedy and profligate. In the story “$100 and Nothing!” from “A Piece of Mine,” she depicts the bitter relationship between a successful businesswoman and a husband who belittled her achievement. He said he could do as well with “$100 and nothing.”

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SOURCE: The Washington Post – Matt Schudel

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