J. California Cooper, a Unique Voice in Three Genres


J. California Cooper (November 10, 1931 – September 20, 2014) author of plays, novels, and short stories, was admired for her unique voice in all three genres.

Warmth, pathos, and humor blended with pain are her trademarks. Her seven collections of short stories feature the use of dialogue and vernacular, and an unwavering commitment to portraying a diverse array of Black female characters.


Early Life: Paper Dolls and Telling Stories

Joan Cooper was born in Berkeley, California to Joseph and Maxine Rosemary Cooper. Her father was employed in the scrap metal business, and her mother worked as a welder during World War II and then ran a beauty salon.

She had one brother and a sister named Shy Christian. Cooper often portrayed sisters throughout her fiction, usually with either very loving or extremely toxic bonds.

She recalled that when she got her first library card, she checked out so many books from her library and kept them for so long that she had to invent “aliases” to check out more. Cooper said in an interview:

“I was telling stories before I could write. I like to tell stories, and I like to talk to things. If you’ve read fairy tales, you know that everything can talk, from trees to chairs to tables to brooms. So, I grew up thinking that, and I turned it into stories.”

Her many stories are usually written in the first person and have the quality of a folk tale or a moral fable. She was drawn to fairy tales from an early age, both for their imagination, romance, and justice. “Who would think of a pea under a mattress?”

She began writing plays when she was eighteen because her mother took away her beloved paper doll collection. Cooper had always used her paper dolls to bring the stories in her head to life, but her mother said it was time for her to grow up. “Even before I was old enough to write,” she said later, “I was telling stories through paper dolls. I could see life, and I paid attention to it.”

“My mother took them away,” Cooper said in a 1994 interview for The Dallas Morning News. “But the next year I was married and was getting ready to have a baby. She should have left me alone with those paper dolls! But she took them away – and so I began to write stuff out.”

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Marriage, Name Changes, and Self-Image

Despite exuding joyful radiance in nearly every photograph of her, Cooper grew up insecure. In an interview, she recalled how as a young woman she came across a 1920s dating manual called The Technique of the Love Affair and used its racy instructions to “collect 24 engagement rings because I grew up thinking I was ugly and was never gonna get married.” 

It was perhaps this insecurity that led to her dedication to creating “ugly duckling” heroines in her fiction—she wrote multiple stories about women who are not conventionally beautiful, but instead warm, intelligent, and sensitive, and they either eventually find a caring lover or discover fulfillment in supportive friendships and by pursuing their gifts.

Intensely private about her personal life, Cooper only rarely stated that she “was married a couple of times, but they’re dead.” She was a devoted single mother but scandalized those around her by carrying baby Paris in her bicycle basket. She continued writing, always, because she was always observing the people around her.

About her unusual second name, her daughter later said, “There was a Tennessee Williams… so [my mother] thought, ‘Why shouldn’t there be a California Cooper?’”


Early Success in Theatre

Little is known about Cooper’s educational background. She described herself as a “perpetual dropout” and worked a colorful array of jobs to support herself and her daughter, Paris Williams. She worked as a manicurist, waitress, secretary, a loan officer, and even joined the Teamsters and drove buses and trucks in Alaska.

Cooper wrote that what most inspired her to write was “the Bible and life,” and that her characters often came to her after listening to musicians such as Dinah Washington and Erroll Garner. She also loved classical music: “I can never play Rachmaninoff without getting a character, somebody who’s talking.”

Perhaps because of the many years of her “talking” paper dolls and her keen observance of human behavior, playwriting came naturally to Cooper. Her plays were not produced until years later when the grown Paris took them to the Black Repertory Theater in Berkeley. In 1978 Cooper won the Black Playwright of the Year Award for her play Strangers and wrote seventeen plays in all.

Alice Walker, who had recently become the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Color Purple, was invited by Paris to see an early production of one of Cooper’s plays and later shared it with friends at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I said, ‘I don’t publish plays. Do you have any stories?’ asked Walker, and Cooper replied, ‘Well, I’ll go find some.’” Cooper stated later that if not for Walker’s encouragement “this stuff could still be sitting in the drawer.” Walker also suggested fiction “because it was easier to get paid,” recalled Paris. Cooper’s first collection of short stories, A Piece of Mine, was published in 1984 through Walker’s company, Wild Trees Press.

Walker wrote of Cooper’s literary voice, “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.”

Fellow playwright and poet Ntozake Shange wrote that “Her stories, parables, and monologues take flight with truths about being alive, rhythm of folks at ease by the creek and the pool table, songs of love and remorse, syncopated, galloping, and beguiling genuine.”

Homemade Love, Cooper’s second collection of short stories, won her an American Book Award in 1989 and one of the stories, “Funny Valentines,” was later adapted into a film starring Alfre Woodard.

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“I don’t know how to write … I just do it”: Craft and Themes

Cooper insisted she could only write her first drafts in long hand and not on a typewriter or computer: “The minute I step in front of something mechanical,” she wrote in The Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing, “my characters disappear because they don’t like it.”

Her love of music and skill as a playwright undoubtedly led to Cooper’s attention to speech. Her sentences are usually short and staccato, and she often changes the spelling of a word so it suits a character’s speech or the rhythm of a phrase. An unconventional use of punctuation is a prominent feature in her fiction “My people don’t live in periods; they live in exclamation points.”

Staccato sentences and straightforward storytelling wrought stories that are gripping, ebullient, and emotional, and have connected with many readers. In her 1994 interview with Cooper, Joyce Saenz Harris wrote “Her occasional public readings are vivid events marked by a natural flair for drama, and she can hold a cafeteria full of restless high schoolers spellbound.”

The element of her fiction that is most frequently noted is her unique storytelling voice and her use of first-person narration. Some readers and critics have disliked her use of dialect, criticizing it as too “folksy,” old-fashioned, or repetitive. Her stories have also drawn criticism for being too didactic and moralizing.


Writing with a Social Conscience

Cooper was a deeply religious woman, and many of her stories take the form of a moral fable, and there are usually clearly defined villains and heroines.

She frequently depicted grim topics such as domestic violence and sexual assault, and usually made sure that (like in a fable or fairytale) the wrongdoers were punished for their crimes. A wife-beater comes to a suitable end in the memorably titled short story “He Was a Man! (But He Did Himself Wrong!)”

Despite her devout religious faith, Cooper strove for realism in her writing and did not shy away from her characters using profanity, or from depicting their tumultuous sex lives: “If the word fits, that’s what they say. And also sex … that’s life, and that’s the problem they’re having, so I can’t leave sex out because they don’t.”

Cooper began writing fiction in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and third-wave feminism, and she was fully aware that, despite a certain amount of progress, Black women remained extremely vulnerable in America. 

Her friend and mentor Walker introduced the term Womanist as a more specific way to address the issues and systemic injustices that all—but particularly working class and Black—women face.

The definition of love that Cooper wove throughout her stories was a combination of dignity, emotional enrichment, mutual respect, and commitment. She was both earthy and tender when describing the passionate natures of her heroines, and many of them come to the realization that they are stronger than the injustice that surrounds them and that they are more courageous than the man in their lives.

The majority of Cooper’s work was published during the booming consumerism of the 1980s and ‘90s, and throughout her fiction she shone a spotlight on the poor and oppressed, particularly on the descendants of slaves as they strove to create a safe community, such as in her novels In Search of Satisfaction and Wake of the Wind.

A recurrent theme throughout her work is the importance of sharing your good fortune with others and the corrupting influence of money.

She illuminated systemic poverty with an unflinching lens and a great understanding of Black social history; Cooper didn’t just want equality, dignity, and happiness for Black people but for all downtrodden people. She offered a compassionate, community-oriented, and Gospel-based approach to racial reconciliation, drawn from the Black oral tradition.

Cooper appeared to disapprove of the casual nature of modern dating and emphasized the importance of a Black woman being able to respect herself, either by remaining single or by being monogamously married. She wrote, “Love is born in respect,” and of her character Futila in “As Time Goes By,” that “She should’a never let him know that she loved him more than she loved herself!”

This emphasis on a woman’s autonomy, dignity, and self-worth independent of a man was a far less judgmental stance than that taken by supporters of the white-centric purity culture movement, which gained popularity during the HIV/AIDS Epidemic.

While Cooper may have been “old-fashioned” as some critics derided, she also displayed nuance and showed particular sympathy to disastrously matched couples seeking solace from toxic and abusive marriages, such as in her novella The Eye of the Beholder included in Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns.


Later Life

Although she was never as lauded as her near contemporary, Toni Morrison, Cooper developed a devoted following of readers and was the recipient of many distinguished writing awards, including the James Baldwin Writing Award and the Literary Lion Award from the American Library Association.

Reviewer Melissa Walker wrote in the Chicago Tribune that “Cooper’s stories dramatize the wages of sin and the rewards of patience, as well as the occasional sweet taste of revenge in a moral universe in which justice operated independently of social and economic forces.”

In her 1994 interview, Harris aptly described the enduring appeal of Cooper’s body of work: “In Ms. Cooper’s universe, evil is punished, ‘integrity always triumphs,’ and the eternal verities – God, love, family, justice –stand in stark contrast to human foolishness and conceit.”

Though describing herself as a semi-recluse in her later years, the insatiable storyteller was zestful, delightfully opinionated, and entirely herself to the end. She moved from Texas to Seattle to be with her daughter but occasionally showed up at book readings, spunky and always able to make her audiences both laugh and think.

“I tell young people a book is a mind, it’s somebody’s brain you’re meeting. The author of the book is preparing you for life. A book is a world, a book is a friend, that’s why people love books. A book is a marvelous thing. It’s a person between covers.”


Death and Legacy

J. California Cooper passed away on September 20, 2014, at the age of eighty-two. In her L.A. Times obituary, Alice Walker said:

“She wanted to show the richness of the lives of people who often don’t have much exposure. You may not know that or care or see it … but in fact that person on the corner has a real deep life somewhere. Her work was to expose that so you can feel connected.”

With her rich understanding of human nature and the Black experience, her keen sense of justice, and infinite empathy, Cooper’s writing is ripe for rediscovery and could offer much to today’s readers, perhaps especially to supporters of #MeToo and the #SayHerName campaign, which honors the memory of Black women and girls lost to police violence.

Cooper’s voice fell silent, but her characters are still talking between the covers of their books, and they had plenty to say.

“I tell people: You’d better watch what’s going on around you,” Cooper wrote, “Because this is life.”

Contributed by Katharine Armbrester, who graduated from the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women in 2022. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood, and loves periodicals, history, and writing.

More about J California Cooper


  • Family (1991)
  • In Search of Satisfaction (1994)
  • The Wake of The Wind (1998)
  • Some People, Some Other Place (2004)

Short Story Collections

  • A Piece of Mine (1984)
  • Homemade Love (1986)
  • Some Soul to Keep (1987)
  • The Matter is Life (1991)
  • Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime (1995)
  • The Future Has a Past (2000)
  • Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns (2006)

More information and sources

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