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Making a Fan 'Wise in Your Choices'

* Author J. California Cooper has created a sensation with simple parables about human fallibility.

November 24, 2000|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Some scribes never knew a time when they didn't scribble. Then there are those for whom clarity comes in an "aha!" moment, when they realize the reason for which they have been put on the planet: to write. For J. California Cooper, outrageously prolific author, tall-tale teller and general know-it-all, that moment arrived the day her mom took away her paper dolls.

She was 18.

Never mind that for regular folks, paper dolls start to lose their magic much, much earlier.

"I wasn't retarded," said Cooper, 69, who was promoting her latest collection of short stories, "The Future Has a Past." "I just liked stories. My paper dolls were my friends."

So when she found herself suddenly bereft of her cardboard companions, Cooper started penning plays. And she just never stopped, until, that is, she'd written 17 or so. Then Alice Walker said, "Hey, if you write short stories, I'll publish them," and who knew they'd be so much easier than writing plays?

So now she's got five or six books of short stories and a novel or two and a major following of readers who love her, and critics who sometimes love her but more often than not don't because of her excessive exclamation points. But who cares? The people she writes about don't live their lives between periods.

They live!

And isn't that the point of all this--life?

When you grow up poor during the Depression, and you don't like going outside much, solace is found in letting your imagination run free. Which means she can teach a frog to talk, or she can thank her car for getting her where she needed to get to. Or she can kiss her pillow because it is her friend; it cradles her head each night. So, of course, paper dolls would be more than welcome in her world. They were her tools, her confessors, the means to release the stories that ran, unbidden, through her head.

Eventually, those stories made it onto the printed page: tales of incest and adultery, of longing and loss. But while the lives of her characters are there for all to see, Cooper's life is a book at once open and closed.

Which is how she likes it. Check out "The Wake of the Wind" or "Some Soul to Keep." She'll go on and on about her thieving niece. She'll allow that yes, she was married. A couple of times. Yes, she's got a daughter. ("Sometimes I want to hit her with a 2-by-4.") And if you want to know, she'll tell you in great detail how she got that frog to talk.

Just don't ask her what the "J" in J. California Cooper stands for.

"If I tell you, someone will start calling me by it," said the Berkeley native. "My mother gave it to me, so it's mine.

"I have to keep something for myself. I write books. My books are yours. And the rest is mine."

Her characters exist without the stamp of time or place. They could be anywhere, living at any time. They are simple: the woman whose mother raised her to think she's ugly, the local hussy, the no-good hustler out to sweet-talk a woman out of her hard-earned money, the minister who's not above swiping a parishioner's savings.

Often, her characters are black. But her books are about human beings, fallible beings who, if they're lucky, or just a little wise, stumble onto the right choices. "My stories fit a lot of people. There are no differences. If I talk about a liar, you're not talking about a white liar or a black liar. You're a liar. And I'm going to catch you."

The Bible is her reference point ("That's where my wisdom comes from"); she's a true-blue Christian (pay no attention to the occasional outbursts of profanity) who finds joy in life's choices and meaning in everything.

Her folksiness has earned her comparisons to Zora Neale Hurston. But where Hurston was always the anthropologist, Cooper is the nosy neighbor who knows all your business because she can't help it if the walls are thin.

So the reader gets to eavesdrop on the woes of Heleva Lorene Carey, who never met a boy she didn't like.

Her readers--mostly female, African American, middle-class and middle-aged--gather in bookstores, gazing at her, clearly enchanted.

"It's such a pleasure to enjoy one of the most colorful writers, white or black," said mortgage banker Charisse Barsella, 38. "Written word or spoken word, it all flows. I'm enjoying being in her presence."

Added Barsella's mother, retired teacher Barbara Freeman: "I like her realness. Each story has a message. And that message is positive. Just like she speaks here, that's how she writes."

It's a cliche to reduce the African American experience to the take-it-to-church phenomenon, the whole call-and-response interaction between author and audience. Except that in this case the bookstore starts to feel like a sanctuary.

There are the mmmmm-hmmmmms. The amens. The hel-los! The readers reading along in their books, like church ladies thumbing through well-worn Bibles on Sunday.

"The reason I write what I write is so that you become wise in your choices," Cooper said. "You're a miracle and you have a future. If you love yourself, you can do anything."

She told them the sad tale of Lorene, the hussy who met an untimely end because she didn't know enough to keep her skirt down.

"They brought her home in a coffin," Cooper said, heartbreak cracking her voice.

The fans murmured.

"These are the kind of stories coming to me," Cooper said, interrupting her own story. "Isn't it awful?"

She continued.

"I leaned down and said," here her voice dropped to a stage whisper, " 'Did you find what you were looking for?' "

"Hmmmmmmmmmph."

"Was it worth it?"

"Hmmmmmmmph."

"When you are nothing but a [body] and you don't wrap something around it like some brains and some goals and some dreams, then it is nothing--know what I'm saying?"

She paused, letting them soak up her words.

And they applauded.

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