In Memoriam: J. California Cooper

[by Meredith Wiggins]

African American author and playwright J. California Cooper passed away on Saturday, September 20, 2014, in her home of Seattle, Washington.  She was 82 years old.

I was telling stories before I could write,” Cooper once said.  “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.”  

Cooper had already experienced quite a bit of success as a dramatist, even winning the 1978 Black Playwright Award, when Alice Walker attended a performance of one of Cooper’s plays and suggested she switch to fiction, instead.

“‘[Walker’s] advice to my mother was you should write short stories or novels because it was easier to get paid,'” said Paris Williams, Cooper’s daughter, in an interview published September 23.

From that point on, Cooper devoted herself primarily to writing novels and short story collections.  Her first collection, A Piece of Mine, was published in 1984.  Her first novel, Family, appeared in 1990.  She continued writing, on and off, until her death.

The African American Literature Book Club entry on Cooper cites Walker’s praise of the writer’s style as “deceptively simple and direct.”  “The vale of tears in which her characters reside,” Walker added, “is never so deep that a rich chuckle at a foolish person’s foolishness cannot be heard.”

Cooper leaves behind a rich literary legacy for readers and critics to explore for years to come.