Shay Youngblood is a renowned multi-disciplinary artist and educator whose works include plays, novels, essays, and multimedia performances. She has received widespread critical acclaim for her poetic and lyrical use of language, emotionally intense writing, and powerful storytelling.

Youngblood was born in Georgia and became fascinated at an early age with writing, international cultures, and the concept of home. She was one of the first members of her extended family to attend college, and received a BA in Mass Communications from Clark-Atlanta University in 1981. During her post-college years, she served in the Peace Corps in the Caribbean, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Brown University in 1993.

Youngblood published her first book, the popular semi-autobiographical collection Big Mama Stories, in 1989. Her acclaimed 1997 book Soul Kiss was described by Washington Post Book World as “immensely engrossing and satisfying,” and the New York Times praised her 2000 novel Black Girl in Paris as Youngblood’s “love letter and her homage to the expatriates who paved the way for those who followed.”

Throughout her career, Youngblood has received a wide range of awards and fellowships including the Pushcart Prize for fiction, a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, and a U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Fellowship, sponsored by the Japan-United States Friendship Commission (JUSFC); the fellowship took Youngblood to Japan for the first time in 2011—just days before the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster of 3/11. 

Youngblood has created a range of multi-disciplinary works inspired by her ongoing connection with Japan, including Architecture of Soul Sound, a multi-media performance incorporating video and architecture, and Add Architecture, Stir Memory, a book that explores the themes of home and memory through the lens of global exploration. Youngblood recently became a commissioner for the JUSFC, where she helps foster connections and creative exchanges between Japan and the United States.

Nichi Bei Connect recently spoke with Youngblood about art, mentorship, and the many rewards of a life linked to Japan. 

When did you first become aware of Japan as a country and culture?

I grew up in south Georgia in the ’60s and ’70s. My birth mother died when I was very young, so I was raised by older relatives. It was a small community, and my world was rather constricted. But the library allowed me to travel around the world. 

How so?

I found a series of books that created vivid portraits of countries like Japan, India, China, Spain and Egypt among others. I was able to explore the world through reading them. They stirred my imagination, even though my physical world at the time was mostly limited to about eight blocks. I became very curious about travel and other countries. 

I started college when I was sixteen, but I wasn’t quite prepared for it. So after a year of not doing very well at school, I was invited to live with my aunt in Hawaii. I was first really introduced to Japanese culture in Hawaii because the friends and coworkers I met there were of Japanese descent. Many had spent their whole lives in Hawaii and never been to Japan, which I found very interesting. It got me thinking about questions of home in terms of those friends, their lives in Hawaii, and their Japanese ancestry. 

“Home” seems to be a pervasive theme of your art.

Questions of home have been with me for a long time because I lived in so many different homes growing up. As I mentioned, my birth mother died when I was quite young, and I spent summertimes with my great aunt and great grandmother. During the school year, I lived in the houses of a great uncle, great aunt, and great grandmother. I was like a community baby—every home was open to me. [Laughs.] As a result, I grew up with a sense of home being wherever you happen to be—or wherever people love and care about you. That background led me to be very curious about what home means in different parts of the world, and to people in different cultures. 

How did you first learn about the JUSFC’s U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Fellowship Program, and why did you decide to apply for one?

For a long time, I’ve been connected to an artist retreat in upstate New York called Yaddo, which has been around for over a hundred years. Once when I was in residence, I was seated at dinner with a dancer and the writer Kenny Fries. I told them the story of how I had been introduced to Japanese culture in Hawaii many years ago, and it turned out that both were former Creative Artists Fellows who had spent time living and working in Japan. 

They told me all about the grant program, the great support they received for their projects, how their work was related to Japan, and how much of an impact the experience had on them. They were over the moon about the fellowship program and their time in Japan. They convinced me that I should stop what I was doing and apply for this amazing opportunity.

Is that what you did?

At that point, I had been at Yaddo for about a week working on a story about my time in the Peace Corps, but that conversation made me shift gears. I went up to my room and began to think about Japan in the context of a possible fellowship project. I also thought about what fascinated me most about the country.

Again, I came back to the idea of home. I remembered some of my past experiences working in a nursing facility where there were a number of patients who were Japanese, but had not seen their Japanese homes in many years. Some of them didn’t speak English, or refused to speak English anymore. What is that like, when home is no more? How do you carry home with you? And how do you explore those questions through art? 

I’d also been interested in architecture for a long time—so the ideas of architecture and memory, how we make home wherever we are and how we bring our culture with us—these themes really stuck with me. I decided that, in my application, I wanted to look specifically at Japanese architecture, which I find to be amazingly beautiful and so reflective of the culture. Even in the most contemporary 21st-century skyscraper, there’s still a sense of spirituality and bringing the outside in. I found myself asking, “how does that happen?”

After you applied and were selected for the Fellowship, how did those themes manifest?

I talked to Japanese architects about what home meant for them. My first interview was with a Japanese architect named Kengo Kuma. That conversation was an amazing beginning to my investigation. I asked him about his early memories of home, and he said that they were highly related to the natural world—you can see that attachment to nature reflected in many of his buildings. He also drew a small picture for me and suggested that I speak to another architect in his circle. That set me off on the path. Each person I spoke with introduced me to another person and another after that. Each person gave me a brief interview and a drawing. I collected the interviews and drawings and created a multi-disciplinary project around them. 

Was this fellowship trip your first time visiting Japan?

It was. I was living in Texas at the time, teaching and experimenting with new art forms. I left for Japan in the Spring of 2011 and about ten days after I arrived, the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear event of 311 happened. It was surreal. But even in those short ten days, I had begun to meet people, conduct interviews I’d set up for my project ahead of time, learn about the culture, and eat traditional Japanese food. I fell madly in love with Japan.

What did you do once 311 happened?

I was torn between staying and going home. On the one hand, I was very interested in remaining in Japan to speak with people and record how life had changed. At the same time I knew that the people and country of Japan had a lot of immediate needs to take care of following the disaster. In the end, I decided it would be best for me to travel home. I came back the following spring, though, and spent three months in the country working on my multimedia project, which shifted significantly and is still ongoing. The more I worked on it, the more it changed.

How so?

My vision for the project evolved in many different ways. All the interviews I conducted were originally supposed to be resource material for a novel—but after 311, I decided to reframe them. 

When I first came back to the U.S. after 3/11, I was interested in hearing voices of people who were deeply affected by themes of home, change, and resilience. I interviewed more people in Texas, New York, and other places about what the idea of home meant to them, and how that meaning connected to architecture. And when I went back to Japan, I had different questions to ask in my interviews. I found myself leaning less towards writing a novel and more towards exploring a non-fiction approach.

My interviewees’ recorded voices were incredible. I combined them with sounds and images I had recorded during my time in Japan to create a multi-disciplinary presentation that I could share.

How will the public experience the next iteration of your project, particularly given the pandemic?

The pandemic has influenced my thinking about the many ways one can present work. I hope that people will be able to see it in person, but I also plan to create a unique way of viewing and experiencing it online, which will include soundscapes, interviews, and actors. I also want to take my project into schools—not just so young people can experience it, but so I can give them a model for creating their own kinds of interdisciplinary works that look at Japan and other cultures in unique and interesting ways.

What’s next for your project?

I will hopefully return to Japan soon, and I want to reconnect with some of the people I originally interviewed, especially now that it’s been a full ten years since 311. I hope to expand my scope to look at more regions in Japan, as well as regions in the U.S. I was in China for a nature trip a few years ago and conducted interviews there as well. So I’m expanding, evolving, and growing this project through its multiple iterations, and I’m grateful for all of the ongoing support my work has received. 

How important was the Japanese language to your experience in Japan?

Before I went to Japan, I prepared by studying the Japanese language—and when you study the language you’re also studying the culture. I arrived with a handful of survival phrases which helped me connect, and I learned more once I arrived. Even those few small phrases allowed me to make introductions and break the ice with strangers.

That was ten years ago, and the language has stayed with me because I continue to learn about Japanese culture—and because of the wonderful friendships I made in Japan, which are still very important for me. I made one good friend by sheer accident—we met standing in line together to get food—and we’ve kept in touch ever since. She and her husband came to visit me in Texas and I’m excited to hopefully visit again in Japan within the next year. My closeness with friends like her have helped me maintain and improve my Japanese language skills.

What advice could you offer to readers who want to follow in your footsteps and apply for a U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Fellowship as well?

Do your research and think about what you want to learn in Japan. What interests you most deeply about the country, and how does your work connect with people and projects in Japan? When artists apply for grants like this one, it can be easy for them to stretch descriptions of their work to fit the context of the opportunity, and that’s not a good idea. It pays to really take the time to understand the culture, what connects you, and what you want other people to know about Japan through your work. Once I got to Japan and started my research, I was driven by the excitement of learning so much, and figuring out how to bring that learning back home. I couldn’t wait to share my experience of this wonderful, amazing culture in the United States. 

Have there been any mentors who have made a particular difference in your career?

There have been so many, and in many different professional fields. I’ve been a creative person all my life, but there were times when I didn’t think that my art could sustain me. That belief led me to take many different jobs, and all of those jobs have informed and contributed to who I am today. 

One of my earliest mentors was a woman who worked in a public relations firm. I was a college student and it was my first job. I made a lot of mistakes and she guided me through them. She gave me more responsibilities than I thought I could take on. Sometimes I failed, but other times I found success. She taught me a great deal about resilience, about having an idea and running with it. I’m fortunate to have had many other mentors who have also taught me how to be resilient, how not to give up on an idea, and to ask for help when I need it.

What advice could you offer to readers who want to find the right mentor?

Start by focusing on where your curiosity and interests lie. For my Creative Artists project, I knew that my fascination was with architecture and the concept of home, so I called interesting people who did related work to ask for brief informational interviews.

As I mentioned earlier, I sent a very concise letter about my project to Kengo Kuma, and I was shocked when he agreed to speak with me. At the end of our conversation, it occurred to me that I could ask him for recommendations of other people to speak with. Luckily, he enjoyed our conversation and was happy to help connect me further.

That interaction taught me a valuable lesson about how to connect with mentors, and I would certainly encourage others to follow the same strategy. Look for people who are doing what you’d like to be doing, or going where you’d like to go, and reach out. If your interactions with them go well, ask if they can recommend someone who you should speak with next. 

What advice could you give to people who may be accomplished in the U.S.-Japan space and want to give back as mentors?

I would give the same advice—reach out! I come from a family where volunteerism is important, and I often speak at colleges and schools. I’ve just finished writing two children’s books, so I assume I’ll be traveling to libraries across America to read out loud to children sometime soon. With every speaking opportunity—especially when I’m in front of an audience of young people—I talk about my experiences in Japan and the programs offered through the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission.

Experienced professionals who want to give back should do everything they can to let young people know about programs and opportunities that might interest them. Share as much information as you can about what you do, and don’t wait for young people to approach you. I often bring up Japan in conversation, because it was such a wonderful, positive experience for me. Also, I always ask questions, and if people I’m speaking with have interest in Japan, I try to give them opportunities to investigate more. I’m always happy to share advice and try to help open doors.

Do you have any final thoughts to share?

Before I traveled to Japan for the first time, I wish I could have spoken with more Japanese creatives. I had one connection in the country when I arrived, and I created more connections once I was there—but having more mentors ahead of time really could have helped me. Nichi Bei Connect is such a useful resource for making that sort of connection, and it has so many interesting and enriching programs. I am grateful for this site, and the opportunities it helps share.