African American J. California Cooper came to prominence first during the 1970’s in Oakland, California, as a playwright, then in Marshall, Texas, as an author of short stories and novels. She has continually kept much of her biography secret, rarely even divulging her first name (Joan), preferring “California,” a name she gave herself.
In her Author’s Note to The Matter Is Life, Cooper states that her primary concern in life and writing is the courage to face the “everyday matters of mind, body, and heart”; all these matters, she says, are important. Cooper’s short stories are typically character studies of poor, simple, African American women who speak in first-person dialect about their relationships with friends, family members, and men. Cooper’s moralistic, affirmative, and humorous narratives are frequently told as modern parables in a conversational style, and she often points to interracial bloodlines in American society as evidence all people are interconnected as one family, as in the story “Happiness Does Not Come in Colors.” In her shorter works, Cooper’s characters are clearly meant to be seen as universal representatives of humanity, and she rarely places blame for her character’s problems outside their own actions. Although most of her stories neither mention nor emphasize race, she does explore this subject in her novels.
Fellow writer Alice Walker describes Cooper’s women narrators as “sister-witnesses” who hear stories intermingling with their own lives, one notable example being the story “A Jewel for a Friend.” These women often help foolish friends in need, as in the story “Climbing to the Top of the Rain.” Other stories revolve around selfish, foolish characters’ complaints and ultimately reveal that these women’s jealousy, isolation, and turmoil are self-inflicted wounds resulting from materialism, vanity, and shortsightedness. This is the case particularly for those refusing the love of parents, siblings, and especially children, as in the story “The Watcher.”
Cooper’s men are normally seen through the eyes of women and are, like her female characters, either compassionate, hardworking, but imperfect husbands worthy of love or self-centered and unreliable men unable to make meaningful commitments. The few stories told through male eyes, such as “No Lie,” are invariably about men interested only in sex without accepting the responsibility and love for children. Normally, selfish characters lose their mates to loving friends who deserve them, and the rewards of life are always in terms of relationships rather than material gain. In each story, family values are juxtaposed...
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