Youngblood, Shay 1959–
Shay Youngblood 1959–
Shay Youngblood has won numerous awards for her plays, novels, and poems. Many of her works focus on the challenges African Americans face, while others have more universal themes. Initially known for her plays, in the 1990s, Youngblood wrote two successful coming-of-age novels: Soul Kiss and Black Girl in Paris. In these books she explored themes of emotional, sexual, and artistic self-discovery.
Youngblood grew up in Columbus, Georgia. After her mother died when she was about two and a half years old, Youngblood’s grandparents, aunts, and uncles raised her. As a child, Youngblood loved words. When she was ten or eleven years old, Youngblood noticed a story on television about millionaire Howard Hughes and his extravagant lifestyle. The injustice she perceived in the wealthy lavishly spending money while others went without necessities inspired Youngblood to write her first poem. However, it was not a writer that she dreamed of becoming, but an actress. She was the narrator in many school plays until sixth grade, when she was not allowed to stay after school at the mostly-white schools she attended. Eventually she gave up her dreams of acting. Even so, she was always interested in stories and would eavesdrop on her relatives to make sure to hear the juiciest ones. Then her poems led to vignettes, which led to short stories, which she wrote during her high-school years. Yet she did not take writing seriously until she entered college.
Youngblood was one of the first people in her family to attend college. While earning her bachelor’s degree in mass communication at Clark-Atlanta University, she broadened her horizons by doing a service project in Haiti. As the Howard Hughes incident had piqued her during her childhood, the work in Haiti heightened her awareness of the injustice suffered by poor people in many places around the world. Immediately after graduating she joined the Peace Corps, and in 1981 she served as an agricultural information officer in Dominica, in the Eastern Caribbean.
As she had in childhood, Youngblood yearned to be involved in the theater. Although she had never studied play writing, she fell into the job after her return to the United States. Simultaneously she wrote the drama Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery and a collection of short stories called The Big Mama Stories, which are both based on the same material. Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery debuted at the Horizon Theatre, in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1988, and the following year the short story collection rolled of the presses. “Because I thought they had done an incredible job raising me, this whole community of people raising me, both men and women, I wanted to tell their stories. When I sat down to write The Big Mama Stories, it came out of a sense of wanting to give something back to them,” Youngblood told Jake-ann Jones in a 1996 interview found at the Brown University website. Tell their stories she did. In stories that range in time from the 1920s to the 1990s, African-American women share their lives, the good and the bad aspects alike.
The play was a success, being read and produced in venues throughout the country. Youngblood saw many
At a Glance…
Born in 1959, in Columbus, GA. Education: Clark-Atlanta University, B.A., mass communications, 1981; Brown University, M.F.A., creative writing, 1993.
Career: Novelist, playwright, and author of short stories. WETV, Atlanta, public information assistant; Peace Corps, Dominican Republic, agriculture information officer; instructor in creative writing/play writing at various locations.
Member: Dramatists’ Guild; Authors’ Guild; National Writers’ Union; Writers Guild of America.
Awards: Susan Smith Blackburn Playwrighting Prize finalist, for Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery, 1989; Best Playwright Award, Hollywood National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Theatre, for Shakin’ the Mess outta Misery, 1991; Lorraine Hansberry Playwrighting Award, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, for Talking Bones, 1993; Edward Albee Honoree, Twenty-First-Century Playwrights Festival, for Square Blues, 1993; National Theatre Award, Paul Green Foundation, for Square Blues, 1995; Pushcart Prize, for short story “Born with Religion.”
Addresses: Agent—c/o Riverhead Books, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016.
performances and did publicity work. She wrote more plays: Communism Killed My Dog, a comedy about political exiles, immigrants, and illegal aliens; Talking Bones, about an African American-owned bookstore that is a repository of not just knowledge, but wisdom; and Square Blues, about lesbian art activists, an interracial couple, and a revolutionary. Her Black Power Barbie in Hotel de Dream treats the subject of the trauma of African-American children whose parents have been murdered for their revolutionary activities. In a new departure, Amazing Grace, an adaptation of the children’s book of the same name by Mary Hoffman, a girl acts out stories she has learned from her grandmother. These plays were performed in different ways in different parts of the country, some as readings, staged readings, workshops, and full-fledged productions.
Yet while she was passionate about theater and play writing, Youngblood could not make a living from her efforts. She worked at various menial jobs. For a time, she was an au pair in France, an artist’s model, and a delivery person. Then she decided to go back to school. Wanting to know more about the craft of play writing, Youngblood applied for and was accepted into the master of fine arts program at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island. There she studied under Paula Vogel. “I found it [play writing] fascinating and wonderful and I kind of fell into it and was doing it in on the job in the theater,” she told Jones. “I wanted to write other plays and I didn’t know how and I wanted to find my voice. And working with Paula … changed my life completely.” Under Vogel, Youngblood learned not only to write plays, but to direct, act, and produce them. She also learned about different forms and styles of plays.
Eventually Youngblood decided to attempt other forms of writing. She reminisced to Jones: “The climate, was not very good for playwrights, for artists, in this country. And I felt very discouraged around theater. And so, I thought I need to keep writing. I have several plays that I want to work on, but I’m not finding the muse to work on them. I challenged myself to write a novel.” Writing novels required Youngblood to learn some new skills. Language and structure became more important elements, as did the sensory details and settings that usually are the job of stage designers to consider.
Over a three-year period, Youngblood wrote the novel Soul Kiss, which revolves around the efforts of a teenage girl, Maria Kin Santos, to find her identity. Never knowing her father and abandoned by her drug-addicted mother, at age seven Maria finds herself being raised by several maiden aunts—who are actually lovers—in rural Georgia. She yearns for her mother’s affection and when she finds out who and where her father is, she lives with him for a time. She returns to her aunts’ home when her relationship with her father becomes too sexually charged. Eventually Maria resolves her feelings about her absentee mother.
Soul Kiss caught the attention of reviewers. Several praised Youngblood’s lyrical prose and characterizations. “Saturating her writing with haunting eroticism, lyrical description and complex characterization, Youngblood gets inside the soul of an acutely isolated girl,” wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Booklist reviewer Lillian Lewis called the novel “poetic and compelling,” and Janet Ingraham of Library Journal described the work as “occasionally intense, but too sensitive and honest to be outrageous,” predicting that it would appeal to many readers.
Reviewers also commented on the difficult subject matter—a girl’s erotic attraction to her parents—and similarities in Soul Kiss and Youngblood’s life. Indeed, Youngblood had to learn to separate herself from her fictional characters. “A hundred percent of the emotions are true, everything in that book really happened; it just didn’t all happen to me, and it just didn’t all happen in the same way. I used my imagination to invent characters who I wanted to see the world through their eyes,” Youngblood explained in the Lambda Book Report. “I wanted to write about that kind of tension between desire and appropriate behavior and put up the boundaries of familial love and what you can do to act on it in a healthy, loving way.” And while she tried to write a book that would appeal to a broad audience, she was nervous about what reception her book would receive. Yet the book proved its worth, receiving good reviews.
Youngblood’s time spent in France and her wide reading of such African-American authors as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright gave her inspiration for her next novel, Black Girl in Paris. “I think that traveling, talking to people from other cultures, and reading other forms probably forced me to push my own boundaries, to stretch my writing muscles,” she told the Lambda Book Report. “Those human emotions, love, fear, anger, grief are universal; travel lets you see that in a different way, in a different context.”
Black Girl in Paris, revolves around the attempts of 25-year-old Eden to live her dream of becoming a writer in Paris of the late 1980s. Eden, who has nursed her romantic dreams with the writings of expatriate writers, finds a low-paying job, finds a cheap rental in the Latin Quarter, and meets others like herself. Each chapter, told in memoir style, is titled for a different role she plays while overseas: Love, Thief, English Teacher, Poet’s Helper. However, as Eden discovers, Paris in the 1980s is not as accepting of blacks as it was during the 1930s and 1940s. Now policemen violently break up student demonstrations and haul off illegal immigrants, largely based on their dark complexions. And the menial jobs are so energy-consuming that she has no energy left to write. Even so, Eden makes connections with a nurturing West Indian woman and a white jazz musician, with whom she has an affair, and discovers important insights about herself.
As with Soul Kiss, reviewers singled out the characters, lyrical language, and sexuality for special mention, although several thought her treatment of the subject matter was somewhat contrived or heavy-handed at times. According to a Publishers Weekly critic, Youngblood “tackles well-worn themes with refreshing directness and infuses the novel with unabashed, sometimes unsettling sexuality,” and a Booklist reviewer called Black Girl in Paris “an adventurous novel of vulnerability and self-discovery,”
In 2000 Youngblood was hard at work on a radio play, among other projects. Typically working on a handful of works in progress, Youngblood needed the collaborative work of the theater to counter the loneliness of writing fiction. In an age of technology, Youngblood preferred the pen on paper method of composition. “All my drafts are written in longhand on lined legal pads and edited as I type up the drafts,” Youngblood told Amazon.com. “I think about what I’m going to write for a long time; then I take walks and look at the scenes in my mind. I don’t have a regular schedule for writing. I write on busses, ferries, planes, and as I’m walking down the street.” She often closed herself off from the rest of the world for a period of time and immersed herself in her writing. She has participated in contests, applied for grants, and tried to attend a writer’s colony once a year. Youngblood has made a point of sending unsolicited submissions to publishers in batches about every three months, believing for about every ten rejections she receives, she will get an acceptance. She has reminded herself of her commitment to a certain long-term project by buying herself a ring that she wears until the project is complete. As she explained to Waugh, “I get commitment rings every couple of years just to remind me that I have to work at writing like I have to work at a relationship that I really want to last.”
Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery (play), 1988.
The Big Mama Stories (stories), Firebrand, 1989.
Communism Killed My Dog (play), 1991.
Talking Bones (play), 1992.
Square Blues (play), 1992.
Black Power Barbie in Hotel de Dream (play), 1992.
(Adaptor) Amazing Grace (juvenile play), 1995.
Soul Kiss (novel), Riverhead, 1997.
Black Girl in Paris (novel), Riverhead, 2000.
Contemporary Authors, Volume 168, Gale, 1999.
Jane T. Peterson and Suzanne Bennett, Women Playwrights of Diversity: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1979, pp. 366–369.
Belles Lettres, winter, 1991, p. 56.
Booklist, April 15, 1997, p. 1387; January 1, 2000, p. 882.
Lambda Book Report, September, 1997, pp. 1–4; February 2000, p. 15.
Library Journal, May 15, 1997, p. 105; November 1, 1999, p. 103; January 2000, p. 164.
Melus, summer, 1999, p. 189.
Publishers Weekly, April 14, 1997, p. 54; January 10, 2000, p. 46.
Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/show-interv…bloodhay/ (October 4, 2001).
Brown University, http://www.brown.edu/Departments/English/Writing/youngblood.html/ (October 4, 2001).
New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/y/youngblood-paris.html/ (October 4, 2001).
RPCV Writers & Readers, http://www.peacecorpswriters.org/ (October 4, 2001).
Salon, http://www.salon.com/books/review/2000/02/16/youngblood/ (October 4, 2001).
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