Black Girl in Paris

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9781573221511: Black Girl in Paris

From a writer whose work The Washington Post has acclaimed as "intelligent and erotic . . . immensely engrossing and satisfying," the story of an African-American writer's artistic awakening.

Shay Youngblood's debut novel, Soul Kiss, received accolades from reviewers and writers alike. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution hailed it as "exquisite" while Tina McElroy Ansa called it "extraordinary . . . lyrical, intimate, funny, unsettling, enthralling." Now, in her second novel, Youngblood explores the endeavor of a creative coming-of-age, and infuses her story with the same mesmerizing, lush language and impressionistic style of her first remarkable work.

Black Girl in Paris wends its way around the mythology of Paris as a legendary hothouse for African-American artists. Like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, and Billie Holiday, Youngblood's heroine leaves the American South nurturing a dream of finding artistic emancipation in the City of Light. She experiments freely, inhabiting different incarnations--artist's model, poet's helper, au pair, teacher, thief, and lover--to keep body and soul together, to heal the wounds of her broken family and broken heart, to discover her sexual self, and to wrestle her dreams of becoming a writer into reality.

Youngblood's natural lyricism, as effortless as an inspired improvisation, and her respect for the tradition she depicts create a natural tension between old and new, reverence and innovation, and mark this novel as a worthy successor to her much-praised debut.

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Review:

Any writer who makes a writer the protagonist of a novel is just asking for trouble. If the protagonist in question is a young African American woman in Paris, following in the footsteps of such well-known black expatriates as Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, and James Baldwin, it's double jeopardy. And yet in Black Girl in Paris, Shay Youngblood manages to avoid clichés even as she steers a course straight through them. In the fall of 1986, Eden, 25 years old and anxious "to be the kind of woman who was bold, took chances and had adventures," buys a ticket to Paris and arrives with $200, determined to re-create for herself the life of a bygone era. She finds the requisite cheap and dingy room--in the Latin Quarter, of course--and low-paying job that all American expatriate artistic wannabes from Hughes to Hemingway must have in order to live the dream. She meets a circle of like-minded compatriots, has an affair with a white jazz musician, and all the while keeps her eye on the prize: a meeting with Baldwin himself. What saves this novel from being a retread of all the portraits of artists as young men and women in Paris that have gone before is Youngblood's conscious invocations of Eden's predecessors, of the bohemian lifestyle, of Paris itself. These are not, she suggests, the things themselves, but rather the romantic imaginings of a young woman who has pinned her hopes and ambitions on stories she's read and heard thirdhand.

The reality of Eden's Paris soon sets in, however. Terrorists have besieged France; bombs are going off all over the city and the French don't seem quite as welcoming to people of color as they were back in the '30s and '40s. In fact, this Paris is a violent, frightening place:

Policemen beat to death a twenty-year-old student Malik Oussekine at the end of peaceful student demonstrations. I pray for the safety of my artist friend Malik and the soul of the student who had been murdered. To make the students seem dangerous and deserving of excessive force, the police had stood by looking on encouraging thugs to loot stores and burn cars.
But Eden stays on, and everywhere she finds traces of James Baldwin in the recollections of people who have met him. The hope that if she meets him she'll "learn from him some kind of secret about love and life and writing" keeps her going. Memories of the past mix with hopes for the future, until in the novel's denouement, when Eden makes a surprising discovery about herself. Black Girl in Paris is both a loving homage to Shay Youngblood's literary forebears, and a subtle reminder to her contemporaries that while we may learn from the past, we make our own future. --Sheila Bright

About the Author:

Shay Youngblood is a playwright and the author of The Big Mama Stories and Soul Kiss. The winner of a Pushcart Prize and a nominee for QPB's New Voices award, she lives in New York City.

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