I was very saddened to hear about the passing of J. California Cooper yesterday. To say that she was a writer feels like an understatement and disrespect. J. California Cooper was a master storyteller with the keen ability to truly touch people with her words.
I discovered J. California Cooper my junior year of high school, when I found copies of A Piece of Mine and Family in a box of books. I read A Piece of Mine in a day and then Family in the next. After that it was on. I was immediately captivated by her incredible ability to fill so much power into a short story and use a narrative to really transport you to whatever world she created. She immediately became my favorite writer and whenever I needed to be motivated and moved I reached for her books and was recharged immediately.
J. California Cooper’s first book of short stories, A Piece of Mine, was published in 1984. Since then she has written 12 books of both short fiction and novels, as well as 17 plays. She started out as a playwright and was named Black Playwright of the Year in 1978. The movie, Funny Valentine starring Loretta Devine and Alfre Woodard is based on a short story by Cooper. She was discovered by Alice Walker, legendary writer of The Color Purple. Walker encouraged her to write fiction. She went on to win the American Book Award for Homemade Love.
Beyond all of the facts and figures, Cooper was a phenomenal writer. She said that she wrote tragedies, but to me, she wrote tales of brutal honesty and encouragement. Her characters, mostly black women, were strong, flawed, and just trying to figure out how to find some joy as we all are. Her characters seemed simple, but they were well-rounded and complex. There was something about her language that made you feel like you were being guided with love by someone close to you.
I always felt like she wrote her stories just for me. Because I needed them. When it got bleak and I became discouraged I could always look to her to make me want to put one foot in front the other. She has shaped me so much as both a woman and a writer. I can truly say I wouldn’t be me without her.
So I just have to say…
Thank you for writing, J. I can’t even begin to describe what your stories have done for me. I loved you sincerely as a figure in my life who has provided the love and encouragement necessary to keep me going in some of the toughest times of my life. You were an absolute genius and one of the greatest storytellers I have come across. I regret that I was never able to express just how much of an inspiration you were too me. You were absolutely one of the greats and you will continue to be prominent in my writing and in my life.
If you have never read a book by J. California Cooper, you absolutely need to. If nothing else, pick up A Piece of Mine, Some Love Some Pain Some Time, Homemade Love and Family. Goodbye to another hero of mine. Rest in Love.