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Epicurean of the Heart: In Memory of Shay Youngblood

On Tuesday, June 11th novelist, playwright, artist, and friend Shay Youngblood died among loved ones after an extended illness. 

Soul Kiss, Shay Youngblood’s 1997 novel, begins with the sentences: “The first evening Mama doesn’t come back, I make a sandwich with leaves from her goodbye letter. I want to eat her words.” In the days since Shay has gone from this Earth, our Charis community has been longing for her to come back, and has sought sustenance in her words and in the words of all those whose lives she touched

Shay was an epicurean of the heart, a writer’s writer, a generous gifter, a marvelous cook, a cheerleader for everyone’s wildest dreams. We are fortunate that we got to witness and celebrate the entire trajectory of her writing career; from her first pre-publication poetry reading at Charis in 1980 to her 2023 picture book release, A Family Prayer. Charis co-founder Linda Bryant shared a memory of a then 20-year-old Shay hanging around Charis. Once they got to know each other a bit Linda asked Shay what she wanted to do in her life and she said she was writing poems. Before long, Linda convinced her to do a reading of her poems called “Ticket to Paris.” Shay was terrified, but excited. When the day of the reading came she called the store and told Linda she was not feeling well and tried to back out. Linda said, “Well that’s too bad because the store is filling up with people excited to hear your words so if you think you can make it, you need to come on down here.” And so she did and her career as a public writer was born. 

Throughout the 80s she worked off and on at Charis and always knew she could travel and have a job to come home to and a place to crash if needed (at Linda’s house.) That freedom allowed her to explore herself as a young writer and she often lamented how hard it is for young people today to live the kind of free life she lived when she was young. 

Just a few years later, Nancy Bereano at Firebrand Books would publish Shay’s first book, Big Mama Stories (1989) and distribute it nationally to mostly feminist and gay bookstores. Charis hosted the launch party, and Big Mama Stories would go on to become a play and an invocation for Shay. Everywhere she went, people naturally told her their own big mama stories, smiling as they talked about the women who stepped in when their mothers were gone too soon or simply needed another set of hands. Shay listened, often reaching out to hold their hands or to laugh as deeply as the teller at a family anecdote. Shay gave her entire attention to whomever was in front of her. Just as she loved to travel and sample foods and experiences, to view beautiful art and touch interesting fabrics, she loved to drink in the humble and incredible stories of people she encountered in the world and at her readings. 

That hunger for food, for love, for joy, for art, for travel, and experience is woven throughout every one of her works. When she published her next two novels, Soul Kiss (1997) and Black Girl and Paris (2000) with major publisher, Riverhead Books, reviewers compared her work to Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, and talked about the sensuousness of the prose. During these years, she visited the Charis young women’s writing group often, mentoring teen writers including Alexis Pauline Gumbs and E.R. Anderson and offering lifelong feedback on writing projects and advice on life in general. 

Her plays, Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery, Talking Bones, Amazing Grace, and most recently, Square Blues, were each developed and initially performed at Little 5 Points’ Horizon Theatre Company under the leadership of Lisa Adler. Along with Charis, Horizon was one of Shay’s other Atlanta artistic homes. She served on the board of Yaddo artist’s colony for many years and credited Yaddo and its people for offering her artistic sanctuary throughout various periods of her life. There, she befriended artists and writers too numerous to name. 

  As her travels took her to Japan and other destinations she became interested in book making as an art form and in visual art and painting as a way to speak to the unspoken. Even when she was very ill she would take Lyfts to the High Museum to simply be amidst the art as much as possible, and in her last days she was still painting with watercolors and exploring her senses. 

Soul Kiss ends with a narrator who is not all the way grown, but who has done a lot of living in a short period of time. Shay did more living than most people do in twice the years. The last line of the novel is a kind of grace, for the narrator, for us, for Shay:

“My thirst is endless, the well has no bottom, but there is love all around me, I am sure of it now.”

Details of a celebration of life for Shay Youngblood (1959-2024) will be forthcoming. 

Listen to "Shay" by Daniel Alexander Jones.