J. California Cooper Reader's Companion
J. California Cooper Reader's Companion: ISBN: 0-385-48062-8, Copyright ©
1995 by Anchor Books, Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing
Group, Inc., 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036
1. About the Author
2. Suggested Reading Group Questions
3. Works by J. California Cooper Available from Anchor Books
4. Supplemental Reading List
About the Author
"I was telling stories before I could write. I like to tell stories, and I
like to talk to things. If you've read fairy tales, you know that everything
can talk, from trees to chairs to tables to brooms. So I grew up thinking
that, and I turned it into stories."
--J. California Cooper
J. California Cooper first found acclaim as a playwright. The author of
seventeen plays, she was named Black Playwright of the Year in 1978. It was
through her work in the theater that she caught the attention of acclaimed poet
and novelist Alice Walker. Encouraged by Walker to turn her popular
storytelling skills to fiction, Cooper wrote her first collection of short
stories, A Piece of Mine, in 1984. Called "rich in wisdom and insight"
and "a book that's worth reading," A Piece of Mine introduced Cooper's
trademark style: her intimate and energetic narration, sympathetic yet
sometimes troubled characters, and the profound moral messages that underlie
seemingly simple stories. Two more story collections followed on the heels of
A Piece of Mine. In 1986 came Homemade Love, winner of an
American Book Award, and, in 1987, Some Soul to Keep.
In 1991 J. California Cooper wrote her first novel, Family.
Family offers a unique portrait of slavery as seen through the eyes of
the ghost-like narrator Clora. While illustrating the horrors of slavery with
wide eyes and a firm sense of its tragic magnitude, Family also
recognizes the power and resilience of human nature. As the San Francisco
Chronicle noted in one of Family's many positive reviews from across
the country, Cooper's words "envelop and transcend time, offering hope and
renewal at the same time they chronicle desolation and death."
Since the publication of Family, J. California Cooper has presented
readers with a diverse and -- as always -- moving and heartfelt body of work.
In The Matter Is Life Cooper returned to her traditional short-story
format, with exuberant language, distinctly personal narration and a memorable
group of characters struggling to make the right choices in a difficult world.
In 1994, Cooper again turned her prodigious talents to novel-writing with In
Search of Satisfaction. Weaving together an elaborate epic about the lives of
three families in a small town called Yoville, Cooper created a "hypnotic tale"
that is a "deep and lucid exploration of good and evil, free will, truth, duty,
and the nature of honor" (Atlanta Constitution). In Search of
Satisfaction combines Cooper's trademark narrative style with a deeply
moral sensibility, a focus on religion and the Ten Commandments, and an
unabashedly sharp sense of humor.
Most recently J. California Cooper has returned to her beloved short story with
Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime. Yet again Cooper offers her readers an
unforgettable group of characters joined together by struggles for love,
happiness, and wisdom. In just over ten years, through her novels and her
stories, J. California Cooper has become recognized as one of America's premier
Suggested Reading Group Questions
1. J. California Cooper dedicates A Piece of Mine to her "female
ancestors," women who have "struggled to survive, which is the only reason I am
here." In what ways do the women in her writing struggle to survive, and what
gives them the strength needed for that struggle? What do you know about your
own female ancestors, and the struggles they may have gone through? Have those
struggles impacted your life in any way?
2. Cooper has been praised throughout her career for her unique style. How
would you define that narrative style? Do the narrators in each story adopt a
common tone and/or speak from a common situation, or are there significant
differences between her narrators? What are the strengths of this style, and
what might be its shortcomings? Which characters do you feel tell their
stories most effectively? Can you think of other writers who use the same kind
of narrative device?
3. The Bible and religion figure prominently in Cooper's writing. What roles
do the Bible and religion play in her stories and in her novels? What effect
does the Bible have on the lives of Cooper's characters? Do you think that
certain stories and/or novels have a particularly strong religious undertone?
Which ones? Is there a difference in the way men and women in Cooper's writing
relate to the Bible and to religion?
4. Cooper has said that the short stories she wrote prior to Family were all
part of the journey toward the novel. How are her short stories similar in
style and approach to Family? To In Search of Satisfaction? Are
there similarities in narrative style? In the themes, character development,
and/or language? Do you also notice significant differences in the author's
approach? What are they?
5. Family recognizes the tragedies and extreme hardships of the horror
that was slavery, but also includes elements of joy, humor, and happiness. Do
you think such an approach does justice to the experience of blacks under
slavery's oppressive regime? Does the book, by refusing to dwell solely on the
evil elements of slavery, somehow let white slaveowners and white America "off
the hook"? Or does Cooper's work present what you think is a fair and honest
portrayal of what was probably the true slave experience?
6. J. California Cooper has said that Family "wasn't really just about
the last slavery. I'm trying to say that every time you make a slave out of
somebody, anybody, you do a wrong." How does she present this theme in the
novel? Are the black characters the only slaves in the book, or are there some
whites who are, in a sense, enslaved by the cruelty of the very system they
have created? How does this theme reappear in Cooper's other writing? Using
this definition are there common, everyday ways in which people enslave each
other today? What are they?
7. "Do not depend on anyone else for your happiness," Cooper writes at the
beginning of In Search of Satisfaction. "Make your own happiness inside
yourself, and when you have enough to share, find someone to share it with."
As you read the novel, consider the relationship between the themes of
happiness, independence, loneliness, and sharing. Which characters experience
the greatest success in their search for satisfaction, and why? Does this
theme appear in any of Cooper's other work?
8. In In Search of Satisfaction, Cooper refers to Yoville as "a small,
legal township founded by the very rich for their own personal use." This,
along with an insistent focus on wealth and luxury, makes greed a central theme
in the novel. Consider the figures of Carlene, Yinyang, and Ruth and Joel.
How does each character's desire for money and/or comfort end up affecting
their lives, and the lives of those around them? Is it pure greed that
motivates these characters, or something else? Finally, is there any
correlation at all between wealth and true happiness, or is the actual
connection one between greed and loneliness?
9. In the final pages of In Search of Satisfaction, as Yin and Hosanna
discuss the lessons and meaning of their lives, Hosanna says, "Girl, life ain't
something you grab, life is something you accept and make grow." Is this the
secret of satisfaction in life -- accepting who one is, and trying to achieve
happiness from that point on? Have you been able to reach this state of
comfort and satisfaction with your own life? What do you think it would take
to find the final perspective and peace of mind that Hosanna represents?
10. In the author's note in Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime, Cooper
writes about the relationship between love and suffering, and suggests that
while "Love is beautiful and feels good," certain people can turn love into a
painful experience. Consider this theme in light of the individual stories in
this collection and in her earlier writing. In its purest form, is love
generally presented as beautiful and good? What kind of people in the stories
spoil the natural beauty of love, causing it to become painful? Have love and
pain ever seemed closely tied together in your own life, and who can cause more
pain -- those who are strangers to you, or those whom you love?
11. While J. California Cooper has never advocated on behalf of specific
women's issues, much of her writing looks at the role of women and society.
Consider the following stories from Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime --
"Femme Fatale," "Do-It-Yourself Rainbows," and "Living Without a Life." Are
Darlin' and LaMarie role-models because they actively work toward want they
want? What is there about the passive Audrey that nonetheless makes her a
role-model as well? And if Darlin' and LaMarie deserve respect for their
willingness to go after their dreams, how did you feel about the fact that
their quests for happiness always involved finding a man? What other
characters in Cooper's earlier work are similar? Are different?
12. In describing the writing of J. California Cooper, the San Francisco
Chronicle said that she "knows how to `talk' her stories to us, as though
each of them is told by a kindly and concerned friend." How do you think
Cooper achieves this narrative effect? Finally, have each member of your
reading group choose a favorite passage from one of the stories in this
collection, and read it aloud. Do you agree with the Chronicle that the
sound of the story is "lovely, memorable, [and] haunting"? What adjectives
would you add to this description?
13. In Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime, the character of MLee in "Yellow
House Road" is an independent, determined and "wide-awake, go-getter woman."
What impact do these characteristics have on the life of MLee? On the lives of
her husband Alec, and on MLee's children? What other characters in Cooper's
writing are like this? Do you think that J. California Cooper is conveying
some kind of message to her readers through these characters? Have you found
that sheer determination and will-power allow you to achieve successes and
accomplish your goals? Why or why not?
14. Throughout her stories, the theme of loneliness and a search for love is
often present. What is it that makes certain characters lonely -- is it bad
luck, the death of a loved one, an inherent need for companionship? Is it
combination of these factors? How do these characters banish their loneliness?
Can you think of other ways to dispense with feelings of loneliness?
Works by J. California Cooper Available from Anchor Books:
In Search of Satisfaction (1994)
The Matter Is Life (1991)
A Piece of Mine (1984)
Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime (1995)
Supplemental Reading List
Angelou, Maya, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Bantam, 1970).
Ansa, Tina McElroy, Ugly Ways (Harcourt Brace, 1994).
Bolton, Ruthie, Gal: A True Life (NAL, 1995).
Briscoe, Connie, Sisters and Lovers (Ivy, 1994).
Dove, Rita, Through the Ivory Gate (Vintage, 1993).
Gaines, Ernest J., The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman(Bantam,
Kincaid, Jamaica, Lucy (HarperCollins, 1991).
McMillan, Terry, Disappearing Acts (Pocket, 1990)
Shange, Ntozake, Liliane (Picador, 1995).
Sinclair, April, Coffee Will Make You Black (Avon, 1994).
Straight, Susan, I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots