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 against selfishness, with opposites of each type commenting on the other.
Beginning with her first novel, Family, Cooper’s style developed to include more details about time and place, creating more fully developed characters. Family is set before and after the Civil War and follows four generations of a family whose emotional and spiritual center is Always, a slave who is resourceful and willful. Told from Always’s mother’s perspective before and after the grave, Family describes the degradation of slave life in the shacks behind the big house; normal, stable family life is impossible. As the family grows, Always’s mother witnesses the trials of racism, the triumph of her daughter, and the establishment of a dynasty. Cooper’s tone is typically alternately angry, humorous, and hopeful.
Set in a small township just outside New York City, Cooper’s second novel, In Search of Satisfaction, is another intergenerational saga beginning after the Civil War. The story traces the intersecting lines of two families that engage in biracial relationships and follows their dealings with evil, prosperity, and temptation. In her Author’s Note to the book, Cooper emphasizes the truths of the Ten Commandments as being universal and as forming the ethical basis of her book’s teachings. The...
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