Multigenre writer, Shay Youngblood is the author of numerous short stories and books, including the novel Black Girl in Paris. Her published plays have been widely produced and her short stories have been performed at Symphony Space and recorded for NPR’s Selected Shorts.
Photo by Carolyn Miller
Shay Youngblood is a writer, visual artist, and educator. She is the author of several novels including Black Girl in Paris, collections of short stories and numerous essays. Her first two children’s books Mama’s Home (Make Me A World) and A Family Prayer (Convergent) will both be published by Random House. Her published plays have been widely produced and her short stories have been performed at Symphony Space and recorded for NPR’s Selected Shorts. In 2021 she was appointed Commissioner to the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and serves as a board member of the Yaddo artists’ community. Her current projects include a novel in progress, a superhero graphic novel collaboration, and The Architecture of Soul Sound a multi-media performance work about architecture, memory, and the environment inspired by research in Japan, China, and the U.S. She teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at City College New York. Visit her website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Read an excerpt from Youngblood's play "Square Blues."
Produced by Horizon Theater in Atlanta, Georgia, Summer 2022.
Photos by Greg Mooney
Conducted with Amanda Johnston over email in January 2023.
Your writing lives in novels, children’s books, plays, and throughout your artistic works. When working on a new piece, do you know what it is going to become in advance or do you let the work evolve as you go?
I enjoy the challenge of working in a wide range of genres and forms. When I have an idea or a story in mind I spend time thinking about the proper vessel for it. Is it a short story, a novel, or a film? The work most definitely evolves as I do. My fictional work draws on my life. I’m working on a memoir now and I need to be vulnerable in a different way than I am in my novels. In fiction, I can massage the truth of a story that’s mine or one I observed, but for a memoir, I have to ask myself, how much do I tell? Where do I begin? Where do I end? I don’t want to tell my story from birth to the present moment, so I’m having to choose the journey I want to share with readers.
Your novel, Black Girl in Paris, has long been a tome for Black women becoming and evolving in mind, body, and soul. Did you think it would have such a lasting impact?
When I was writing Black Girl in Paris, I wanted to create a map, a model that could be encouragement for other young Black women to follow their own paths. It never occurred to me that it would still be read over 30 years later by another generation of young women in the 21st century who are inspired to make their own bold solo journeys. It’s been optioned for a feature-length film by a Black woman writer which delights me. I think audiences are ready for it now. It’s time.
Travel and exploration are recurring themes in your work and life. What advice would you give to Black women considering traveling abroad?
The first thing I do is read about the history of a place, thirty days before my departure I study the language every day for at least 30 minutes (Pimsleur is fantastic) listening to the language on audio, watching movies, and listening to the radio (Radio Garden app). I can get an understanding of the culture by learning the language. My goal is survival, to learn the basic niceties first of the language of the country I’m visiting. Please, thank you, delicious are polite and go a long way. Hello, goodbye, excuse me, do you speak English? Numbers, how to ask for directions, and how much something costs. Travel inspires me, informs my work, and deepens my understanding of the ways we are all connected as humans. Also, read fiction and writing by Black women about places you’d like to travel. Faith Adiele’s work is essential reading. Look for an updated version of the anthology, Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Book of Adventure and Travel by Elaine Lee. There are so many resources available these days. I hope readers will share them with me because I’m passport ready!
Congratulations on your recent children’s book, Mama’s Home! The book shares the story of a girl with seven “Big Mamas” across seven homes who support and care for her while her mother is traveling for work. What do you hope readers take away from this snapshot of a multigenerational extended and chosen family?
My birth mother died about a week before my third birthday. I was raised by more than 8 mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, great aunts, and women in the community who took on the task of my education in ways of being a Black woman, how to keep myself safe, how to value myself and my community, how to create a chosen family and maintain it, how to love and be loved, to believe in yourself and uplift others. That it takes a village to raise a child.
In your play, “Square Blues,” we enter a moment of multiple protests - refusal to pay taxes and demands for reparations, and the arrest of an activist family member. Why did you choose to begin the play with this specific type of tension?
"Square Blues" is about revolutionary love and activism through the lens of three generations in a southern family. The main tension exists between the family members which is how it often plays out in intergenerational conflicts. It blows my mind that it took 30 years for this play to get a full production.
In the spring of 1992, I was riding on a train from New York City to Providence, Rhode Island where I was studying playwriting with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Paula Vogel at Brown University. I picked up an abandoned New York Times newspaper on the seat beside me. On the front page in the lower right-hand corner was a small image of a Black baseball player with a price tag hanging around his body. I looked around the train car to see if anyone else felt the same rage I felt, reading at least three racially biased articles in the newspaper that day. In response to my anger, I began to write "Square Blues" from the point of view of a character who had a visceral response to being assaulted every day by images and actions that constantly denied his humanity, his cultural heritage, and his manhood, and so takes action. I also wanted to look at the very different strategies of three generations in a family confronting daily acts of racism, oppression, and injustice, and how they each stood up for their beliefs. Dream sharing, theatrical provocative protests, a wall mural created during the course of the play, original songs, and interracial, intergenerational, racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and redefining what makes a family were all ingredients that makes this my most experimental play.
Does living in the south inform your work?
As a southern-born Black woman, I carry the south with me. I wrote my first collection of short stories The Big Mama Stories while I was living in the south of France a few miles from James Baldwin’s home and welcome table. I closed my eyes in that tiny one-room house on the side of a mountain in Vence and instantly I was back in south Georgia. The sounds, smells, tastes, visual landscape, art, music and lyrical language of the southern tongue are part of my core.
You currently live in Atlanta. What are three things first-time visitors must do when they come to the city?
Visit the Black Art in America Art Gallery founded by Najee & Seteria Dorsey, the Beltline and the rooftop at Ponce City Market are fun. It is a must to explore all the great places to eat! You’ll really get to know the city through its food.
Name another Black woman writer people should read.
It’s not fair to ask me to name one. There are so many Black women writers who are writing important and beautifully written narratives. I was invited to the first Freedom Writers Residency in January for a week-long writing residency for Black Women Writers at the Great Oak Inn on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. It has been nourishing to spend time in community with other Black women writers. We shared work in progress with each other. I’m excited to see what’s coming next from each of them including, Natalie Baszile, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Emily Raboteau, Tiphanie Yanique, Faith Adiele, Jacinda Townsend, Lauren Francis Sharma. I recommend we buy a book by a new Black woman writer each month to support all the wonderful new voices being published.
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