How to Love Words

By Sarah Saffian '91 / January / February 2005
May 3rd, 2007

Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood ’94 M.F.A.(Riverhead Books, 256 pages, $23.95).

A self-described "word junkie," Shay Youngblood molds her words like a sculptor. She sensitively observes internal and external landscapes and depicts both in language as innovative as it is mesmerizing. Whether she is writing plays (Amazing Grace, Talking Bones, Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery), short stories (The Big Mama Stories), or novels (Soul Kiss), Youngblood’s language sings. In her novel Black Girl in Paris, the prose is alluring from the first page: "Her eyes are closed against the soft pink dawn. Delicate maps of light line her face, tattoo the palms of her hands, the insides of her thighs, the soles of her feet like lace."

Black Girl in Paris is the story of Eden, a twenty-six-year-old who has traveled to Paris to find herself, both as a black woman and as a writer. Everywhere she looks, the deeply romantic Eden sees luminary traces left by the likes of Josephine Baker and James Baldwin, who, their protégé thinks to herself, "had lived in Paris as if it had been part of their training for greatness."

With limited French and even more limited funds, Eden finds her Parisian life starting off at odds with her dreams of what it should be. But her tale is one of survival and desire – physical, intellectual, and spiritual. Georgia-bred and college-educated, Eden finds adventure in her varied employment. She works as an artist’s model, an au pair, and a companion to an invalid poet. While she is not above stealing a few coins from a fountain off rue St. Denis, Eden’s pride keeps her from sponging off the men with whom she becomes romantically involved.

Young people struggling to sort out their identities often alternate between their need for freedom and their need for security. Eden is no exception. She has ventured to Paris to shake off the familiar trappings of home, but she constantly grounds herself with instructions and snatches of wisdom picked up from the people she meets. She keeps such lists as "how to be an au pair," "how to be a whore (if all else fails)," "seven rules for living," and "the way to love a woman 1. With your head 2. With your heart 3. From a distance 4. With your eyes shut tight 5. With your eyes wide open." The lists show Eden at her most self-serious and are vivid illustrations of her soul-searching and yearning to find her place in the world.

As a young, dark-skinned woman with a strangely accented voice, Eden is a spectacle to the people around her. She is ambivalent about being objectified, as when she lushly describes modeling nude for an artists’ salon: "They look at me as if I am a banquet and they are hungry mouths. My face a bowl of strawberries, my mouth a slice of melon, my breasts tender rounds of roast pork, my waist a curve of mango, my thighs crusty loaves of bread, my arms slender glasses of amber liqueur. They do not touch me, but I feel their eyes tear at my flesh. I like the way it feels."

Youngblood’s echoing of James Baldwin, who often wrote about Europeans’ fascination with les nègres, is not accidental. Eden is obsessed with Baldwin, and it is only at the end of the book, when she releases herself from her quest for him, that she is at last able to find what she came to Paris to look for: her own writer’s voice. "Words began to bloom on the page, one after the other... I remembered all the places I’d been, all the things I’d seen, and I caught them in my imagination... I had discovered something that no one could take away from me. I had found a path on my interior map and learned to follow it." This is what the novel has been building toward; one only wishes that the story could continue.

Sarah Saffian is the author of Ithaka: A Daughter’s Memoir of Being Found and a senior writer for US Weekly.

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January / February 2005