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J. California Cooper dies at 82; a voice for struggles of black women

 J. California Cooper dies at 82; a voice for struggles of black women
J. California Cooper, shown in an undated photo, was the author of seven short story collections and five novels, including “Homemade Love,” which won an American Book Award in 1989. Cooper died Sept. 20 at 82. (Ellen Banner)

J. California Cooper, who illuminated the struggles of black women in novels and short stories prized for their folksy wisdom and original voices, including those of an unborn child and a dead slave, died Sept. 20 in Seattle. She was 82.

The cause was heart failure, said her daughter, Paris Williams.

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Cooper was the author of seven short story collections and five novels, including "Homemade Love," which won an American Book Award in 1989, and "Life Is Short but Wide," a 2009 bestseller about the intertwined lives of two African American families.

Concerned with hardships like poverty, bad marriages and rape and universal yearnings for truth, love and happiness, Cooper drew a loyal following that included former First Lady Laura Bush and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker.

"I just loved her writing," Walker, who discovered Cooper in the mid-1980s and became her first publisher, told the Los Angeles Times on Friday.

"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," Walker said, "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."

Although not as widely known as Walker or Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison — two other writers to whom she was often compared — Cooper offered "a significant and powerful contemporary black voice," writing authentically about the black woman's "search for an enduring place in American society," said Nathan Grant, editor of the African American Review, a literary journal based at St. Louis University in Missouri.

"Cooper is probably the latest — I'd hate to say the last — of a long line of black women writers with just this kind of expressivity, beginning with Hurston herself," Grant said.

Joan Cooper was born in Berkeley on Nov. 10, 1931. Her father, Joseph Cooper, was employed in the scrap metal business, while her mother, Maxine Rosemary Lincoln Cooper, worked as a welder during World War II and later ran a beauty salon.

As a child Cooper loved to make up stories, using her imagination to bring her much-cherished paper dolls to life. She played with them until she was 18, when her mother told her it was time to grow up.

"She should have left me alone with those paper dolls," Cooper told the Dallas Morning News in 1994, "but she took them away … so I began to write stuff out."

A self-described "perpetual dropout," she never earned a college degree and held many jobs, including working on the Alaska pipeline.

She eventually channeled her storytelling talent into writing for the stage and in 1978 was named San Francisco's Black Playwright of the Year.

She met Walker after her daughter invited the Pulitzer-winning author of "The Color Purple" to a performance of one of her works. Walker had just formed Wild Trees Press and was looking for writers to publish.

"I said, 'I don't publish plays. Do you have any stories?'" Walker recalled. "She said, 'Well, I'll go find some.'"

Cooper quickly turned out a dozen stories, which Walker published in 1984 under the title "A Piece of Mine."

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It earned critical kudos, beginning with Walker's admiring introduction that compared Cooper's work to that of Hurston and another preeminent writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes.

"Like theirs, her style is deceptively simple and direct," Walker wrote, "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."

Throughout her career Cooper, a devout Christian, was often faulted for a preachy tone. "The stories may end happily or not, but there is always justice in the end," the Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers noted. But most critics agreed that despite such flaws she had a narrative gift, based in the African American oral tradition.

Her stories "give you the feeling that you're sitting on the front porch with the narrator, somewhere in the South; it's hot and humid, she's snapping beans, you're holding the bowl and she's giving you the inside scoop on everybody," novelist Terry McMillan wrote in a 1987 New York Times review of "Some Soul to Keep," a collection of five stories. "In their own gossipy, circuitous, roundabout way, the stories enchant you because they are not stories; they are the truth reconstructed."

One of her stories, "Funny Valentines," was made into a 1989 TV movie starring Alfre Woodard and Loretta Devine as two cousins who overcome past hurts and heal a rift in their relationship.

In 1991 Cooper published her first novel, "Family," a multigenerational story about slavery and its consequences that is narrated by a suicidal slave who watches over her descendants from her grave. Henry Louis Gates Jr. gave it a mixed review in Newsday, calling Cooper "a writer of immense talent" whose mystical turns resulted in a novel that "reads like Zora Neale Hurston rewritten by Shirley MacLaine."

A later novel, "Some People, Some Other Place" (2004), is set during the Depression and narrated by the unborn child of a woman who is raped, beaten and left for dead on the side of a road. Carolyn See, writing in the Washington Post, found the story "kooky" but added, "I was helpless. I couldn't stop reading."

Although Cooper described herself as a "semi-recluse," she gave popular readings around the country.

"Her readings were actually one-woman shows, having little to do with the books she was publicizing and more to do with the life experiences and wisdom that she shared with her audiences," said Oakland bookseller Blanche Richardson, whose family-owned Marcus Books was where Cooper conducted much of her research. "She has always been the author that most people want to share with others as gifts."

She came up with her distinctive pen name when she became a fiction writer.

"There was a Tennessee Williams," her daughter said, "so she thought, 'Why shouldn't there be a California Cooper?'"

Cooper, who lived in the Bay Area and Texas before moving into her daughter's Seattle home about a year ago, is also survived by a sister, Shy Christian.

Twitter: @ewoo:LATimes

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