J. California Cooper’s Daughter Speaks On Her Mother’s Genius And Writing To Show Black Women’s Humanity
Paris Williams fondly recalls the hundreds of letters and postcards she received from fans of her ailing mother, novelist and playwright J. California Cooper. The letters, which were collected by Oakland-based Marcus Bookstore, would come once a week, in packages of 20 “Get Well” cards and other notes at a time. Williams said that she would sit for hours and read them for her mother.
“The notes were so heartfelt and personal, it made me cry,” she says. “And it really made my mother happy. She could feel and hear how much her work really impacted people’s lives. And what more can a writer ask?”
For faithful readers of Cooper’s novels and short stories, there is no denying a familiarity in her work. From her first collection of short stories ( personally beloved by me) on avenging black women entitled A Piece of Mine, to the American Book Award winning Homemade Love, readers will note that it is not necessarily the sequence of events that make up the stories, but the unbridled rawness of who these characters are. In particular, how they talk and move as well as how they think and reason rings with a sense of truthfulness that can’t be faked. You know or met these people. Hell, one or two (or several) of these people might have even been you.
But Williams says Cooper only wrote one biographical story (In Search of Satisfaction). The rest of her novels, plays and short story collections were purely fiction. In fact, the closest many of her characters ever came to being real was through her mother’s personal reflection time, which usually happened while listening to French composer Erik Satie. Williams said that the character’s voices would come through to her mother, tell their story to her and she would just write it down.
“That’s what she told me, so you can take from it what you will,” she says.
Be it vivid imagination or challenged spirits summoned through the magic of an early 20th century Parisian pianist, Cooper’s character’s possessed a sort of rare humanness we rarely get to see from black folks, let alone black women. They were troubled and twisted, yet earnest and endearing. And more importantly, they shared with us their lives without shame or guilt.
Williams said that some of her mother’s literary empathy was just the natural result of being the descendant of a long line of “independent” women, who did what they had to do to improve themselves in a culture, which sought to malign and obstruct through both racism and sexism. But more than lineage, Williams said her mother’s ability to talk and speak in the voice of these common and everyday women came from being an everyday woman herself.
Despite being known to most of the world as an award-winning writer and playwright, Williams said that that many of her mother’s most memorable works were written while Cooper was still hustling 9 to 5 jobs.
“She was a manicurist and then she became a secretary,” she says. “And then she became an Escrow account officer all while she was writing. Eventually my mother left California and went up to Alaska to work on the pipeline. Basically my mom did it all – bus driver to driving a big rig – and in those respects, that kind of made her an everyday woman.”
Williams says that her mother wasn’t looking to push a political agenda or make any grand statements about black women. Instead, she wanted to show the world the fullness of our humanity, which she thought was often misrepresented in popular and mainstream culture. And outside of the stereotyping of black folks done by non-blacks, there is idealization and romanticizing even within African-American literature, which creates a sort of narrowly drawn and unachievable version of black people, according to Williams.
What her mother sought to do was to hold up a mirror to black women specifically and show a reflection, which was neither a stereotype nor an idea. And more importantly, she wanted to show us this reflection without judgment.
“In the most simplistic terms, race doesn’t exist. It is a creation,” Williams says. “It’s an idea that has no reality other than the reality we give it. So yeah, if you write a story that humanizes African Americans, it will be universal because we are all just human. And that reflects her broad appeal.”
Cooper passed away on September 20 of heart failure at the age of 82. Although she was gravely ill, Williams says that her mother had been writing and drafting new reflections of black womens’ humanity all the way up to the time of her death. In fact, she said that there are still lots of unpublished works waiting to be read. It’s too soon to know for sure what will become of the unfinished projects and other unpublished works (mainly because she hasn’t had the chance to go through them all), however, Williams says she hasn’t ruled out publishing or even donating the work.