by Andrew Jones
An only child, Shay Youngblood was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1959. She became an orphan early on; when she was two-and-a-half years old, her birth mother passed away. A group of family members and women in the community raised her; they taught her how to be independent and free-thinking, and also taught her the art of storytelling. They became her “Big Mamas,” and were the main influence for her short story collection, The Big Mama Stories. At an early age, she saw a story on television about Howard Hughes and his extravagant lifestyle. Her first poem was inspired by “the injustice she perceived in the wealthy lavishly spending money while others went without necessities,” becoming one of her main criticisms about society (“Shay Youngblood”).
Shay Youngblood originally aspired to be an actress, but racial tensions that persisted during her childhood forced her to change her interests. She served as the narrator for many of her school’s plays, but was not allowed to stay after school at the schools she attended. Therefore, Youngblood sought a new medium with which to express her passions. She had always been interested in stories, and would “eavesdrop on her relatives to make sure to hear the juiciest ones” (“Shay Youngblood”). Her fascination with the art of storytelling would foreshadow her future career as a writer.
Youngblood was one of the first in her family to attend college. She attended Clark College (now Clark-Atlanta College) where she graduated with a B.A. in Mass Communications. During her time as a student she participated in a college service project to Haiti, which raised her political awareness and gave her a first-hand look at the effects of oppression and political turmoil. Shortly after graduating, she joined the Peace Corps in Dominica as an Agricultural Information officer. Her first published short story, “In a House of Wooden Monkeys,” was written during her time as a Peace Corps Volunteer (Coyne).
When she returned to the United States, she began to get involved with theatre. She wrote a drama titled Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery that debuted at the Horizon Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1988. That same year, she released her short story collection titled The Big Mama Stories. Youngblood says that the collection came from a longing “to give something back to them,” and that she wrote it in a way that others would be able to relate to the characters (Youngblood). Despite her initial success as a playwright, she struggled to make a profit from her work. Financial woes, coupled with heartbreak due to personal losses, drove Youngblood to Paris. Tickets were cheap, so she left her job and sold most of her possessions to buy a round-trip ticket; she brought $200 cash. She wanted to “start a new life…there were many young blacks moving to Paris hoping to be transformed” (Youngblood).
The Paris she encountered was not the same one she romanticized about. The equality that so many African Americans sought was hampered by racial prejudice, and she still struggled financially. Youngblood became an “au pair”; her hosts were both Americans, the husband a writer and the mother a lawyer. Overall her experience with the family was very good, and she was “extremely well-off compared to the other living arrangements that her fellow au pairs had to deal with” (Youngblood). For Youngblood, Paris helped her regain her sense of identity. It gave her confidence because after overcoming the heartbreaks in her life there, she felt that she “could survive anything and everything” (Youngblood).
Feeling rejuvenated, Youngblood returned to the United States wanting to learn more about the art of play writing. She applied and was admitted into the Master of Fine Arts Program at Brown University, where she studied under Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel. She describes her experience as “life changing…I learned not only to write plays, but to direct, act, and produce them” (“Shay Youngblood”). However, Youngblood eventually realized that the climate was not the best time for playwrights and artists; she felt discouraged around theatre, and she had projects but struggled to find “the muse” to work on them (“Shay Youngblood”).
Youngblood began to write novels. It took her over three years to write Soul Kiss, a story about a teenage girl trying to find her identity. The novel received positive reviews, some of which drew parallels between the main character’s story and the author’s personal life. Youngblood acknowledges the similarities shown in her work. When her birth mother passed away she was forced to “invent” a life; her first book was a story in which she explored “what it would have been like to have had a birth mother throughout her childhood” (Youngblood). She next wrote Black Girl in Paris, a story about an aspiring African American writer trying to live her dreams in Paris in the 1980’s. The reviews were positive, and once again reviewers attempted to figure out which characters and scenes mirrored events in the author’s life. Youngblood stresses that the stories in Black Girl in Paris “are a combination of the stories of others, mixed with her own” (Youngblood).
Like many writers, Youngblood has several unique practices. She writes her draftslonghand (she erased the hard drive on her first computer by accident), she sends unsolicited submissions to her publishers in batches every three months, and she buys a ring at the beginning of every project to remind herself of long-term commitments. Recently she has been working on several projects. She has written an operatic novel, a collection of short stories, and a graphic novel, but none have reached a publisher yet. She is working on a new novel set in Hawaii and Japan and will be living in Tokyo. Youngblood hopes to return to Paris by the end of 2012, “one of the places [she] calls home” (Youngblood). She currently resides in Denton, Texas.
Coyne, John. “Talking With Shay Youngblood.” Peace Corps Writers, 2008. 14 November 2010. <http://www.peacecorpswriters.org/pages/2000/0007/007talkyngbld.html>.
“Shay Youngblood.” Answers.com. The Gale Group, 2006. 14 November 2010. <http://www.answers.com/topic/shay-youngblood>.
Youngblood, Shay. Telephone interview. 9 November 2010.