It took me a while to finish this book (Click here for the original post and Amazon review). Not because it wasn’t good (it was grrreaat a la Tony, our favorite Tiger), but because I have reading A.D.D. I start dozens of books – all within a week. And I have had a couple of trips in the midst of it too, but I’m notorious for leaving a library book on a plane, in a hotel, at a restaurant so I didn’t take it with me. Although it would have been excellent plane reading for that 9-hr flight to Amsterdam. Anyway, here goes. My take on Black Girl in Paris:
First of all, I know this book is considered a fiction novel, but the details and the pure “rawness” of Youngblood’s descriptions have you wondering just how thin that line is between fact and fiction. Her writing is beautiful, often poetic, but at the same time so very real. Just by reading some of the notes about the author we know that quite a bit of it is based on the author’s life: Youngblood traveled to Paris, was an au pair (fancy word for nanny), artists’ model, and poet’s helper – just like the protagonist Eden. And even if we didn’t have that particular footnote, some of the details Youngblood uses just couldn’t be made up.
This book literally had my jaw dropping at some of the adventurous escapades Eden takes us on. Other parts had my head nodding in total agreement because I can relate to some of her experiences as a black girl in Europe, more so as a black girl just wanting to travel. Eden goes to Paris to follow in the footsteps of many other great African-American writers – Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and the elusive James Baldwin whom Eden tirelessly attempts to track down for just the slightest slimmer of inspiration. She so fittingly describes a story as a “map.” Of her journey to Paris she says “I’ll make maps so other people can get there too, adventurers like me.” And that’s really what it’s all about. Shay Youngblood, Black Women in Europe, ME! – we’re all attempting to write our own maps to share with you. It reminds me of this Aldous Huxley quote related to creating your own guidebook that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Get out there and take what you want out of life (as Eden’s aunt instructed her when she found out about her desires to go to Paris), make your own maps, don’t follow someone else’s plan.
The thing I love about travel literature in general, and Black Girl In Paris, in particular is its double entendre quality. You could say that the purpose of this novel was to tell a great story, which it did. But at the same time you could say that it is an attempt to inspire others to follow in Eden’s footsteps. Only after re-reading parts of the story did I remember that reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin “lit a fire” in her – the simple act of reading a book pushed her across the threshold from desiring a life in Paris to making reservations for a one-way flight. Just like Giovanni’s Room inspired her, Black Girl in Paris can be someone else’s catalyst.
The other admirable aspect of Black Girl in Paris (and again, with most travel literature) is it’s ability to serve as a tour guide and to introduce ideas, monuments, landmarks, activities, historical events and so much more that are particular to a specific place and time. Never had I been so vividly introduced to Turkish baths. I never would have imagined getting a job as an artists’ model or as a poet’s helper. I was also briefed on the terrorism and racial tension of the time and what it’s like to be a Black American – a minority of a minority – in Paris while comparing it to my experience in Milan. You also learn little secrets that can help you if you ever decide to live or travel abroad. But I won’t divulge those, you’ll just have to check out the book and read it yourself! Trust me, it’s worth it.