"People don't value life," says writer J. California Cooper, fairly popping out of the chair with enthusiasm as she makes her point. "Sometimes I kiss my hands and my knees because they work. Look, I can hold a glass of water. I can walk across the room. Life is a miracle!"
People often misuse this gift of life, a failing which has provided Ms. Cooper with abundant material for three collections of short stories: "A Piece of Mine," "Homemade Love," and "Some Soul To Keep."
Her work has garnered several awards, including the James Baldwin Book Award and the Literary Lion Award, both in 1988, and the Middle-Atlantic Writers Association's (MAWA) distinguished writer award, which she will receive today at the group's conference in Baltimore.
She has completed a fourth book of short stories, "The Matter Is Life," and a first novel, "Family," both due to be brought out next year by Doubleday.
Ms. Cooper arrived in Baltimore yesterday from her home in Marshall, Texas, to attend the 11th annual MAWA conference at the Baltimore Hilton Inn, which runs through Oct. 20.
The three-day meeting is focusing on black women writers of the '80s and '90s -- authors expected to make an impact on the American literary scene. These include Pinkie Gordon Lane, who will receive the MAWA's poetry award, and Ms. Cooper, who will be a featured speaker at today's banquet.
In her introduction to "A Piece of Mine," Ms. Cooper's first collection, Pulitzer-prize winning author Alice Walker compares the writer's work to that of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.
"Like theirs, her style is deceptively simple and direct, and the vale of tears in which some of her characters reside is never so deep that a rich chuckle at a foolish person's foolishness cannot be heard."
Calling her a "very dynamic writer," Dr. Margaret A. Reid, Englisprofessor at Morgan State University and MAWA president, says, "She's folksy and yet has a hard-line message about relationships between husbands and wives, sisters and brothers and families and communities.
"She creates plain, homespun characters who are interesting and well developed. There's good action plotting. And there's conflict, but at the end of it you see character development from which you can learn."
Reviewers have criticized Ms. Cooper -- who has a college-age child -- for being didactic, but that suits her fine. She wants readers to reflect on their lives.
Noting she's influenced by the Bible in her writing, she adds, "Everything good and everything bad that can happen in life is there. I never make it easy for my characters in their struggles and in their tragedies. It's the ones with integrity and dignity and honesty who survive to go on to any kind of happiness."
Born in Berkeley, Calif., Ms. Cooper was drawn to storytelling at a young age. Her first literary effort was in playwriting. At the performance of one of her plays, she met Alice Walker, whose Wild Trees Press published her first collection.
Ms. Cooper says she identifies closely with her characters. Thproblem is they don't seem to come out that much during sunny days, she says, and so she has to wait for stormy, rainy days for inspiration.
"I love my people," she says of her characters. "They could all be better but I love them just the same."