Prolific writer J. California Cooper, has died at age 82.
Cooper focused mainly on writing plays, until she met Alice Walker who advised her to consider short stories and novels instead, because they were an easier path to a paycheck.
She had been living in Seattle, Washington.
According to her daughter Paris Williams, Cooper died early Saturday; she had experienced a number of heart attacks over the past few years.
Cooper was born in Berkeley, and frequented a local theater there called Black Repertory Group, where a close-knit family of black actors (EURThisNthat editor, DeBorah B. Pryor included) worked under the guidance of founder, Nora B. Vaughn, who produced many of Cooper’s plays. The playwright was referred to as Joan ‘California’ Cooper at the time, wrote more than a dozen plays and went on to have about a dozen books published after switching to prose fiction.
Walker met Cooper after she came to see one of her plays.
“Her advice to my mother was you should write short stories or novels because it was easier to get paid. She went home and wrote 12 stories,” Williams said.
When Cooper asked Walker to write an introduction to her first story collection, the writer who had just been honored for “” asked to publish the book at her own publishing house. Walker also helped Cooper get one of her stories published in Essence magazine and the book took off from there, Williams said.
Williams called her mother a hard worker. She worked a variety of jobs from a teamster on the Alaska pipeline to an escrow officer and a manicurist to pay the bills.
She went to the pipeline to work as a secretary and switched to bus and truck driving after she realized she could make a lot more money, her daughter recalls. She drove welders up to their work site and then panned for gold while waiting for the return trip, Williams said.
“My mother tried a lot of things when I was growing up,” she said. “Writing was something she always did. She just stuck them in a drawer.”
Reviewing her novel “Family” inin 1990, Roy Hoffman called it “the sort of book that ought to be read out loud.”
“Never mind that the narrator, Clora, is a ghost,” Hoffman wrote. “In its strong rhythms and colloquial expressions, this book is a living woman’s monologue. At times, Clora even seems to lean toward us, grabbing at our lapels.”
Williams said her mother never took her fame seriously.
“She used to say people have forgotten all about me,” Williams said. “But all her books are still in print. It’s pretty amazing.”
Her mother did not want a funeral and requested instead that she be remembered with personal acts of kindness or charity.
Rest in sweet peace, Ms. Cooper. And give Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn (and Mr. Lamar) a tight squeeze for me.
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