Zora Neale Hurston called what she did wandering—showing up at a place and waiting for something impressive to just happen. The protagonist in Shay Youngblood’s novel Black Girl in Paris is on a similar mission. Eden, a 26-year-old Black girl from Georgia (whose family moved there from Birmingham after four little Black girls were bombed to death), shows up in Paris because of Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, and jazz. She chooses Paris hoping to lay eyes on her “literary godfather,” James Baldwin. She chooses Paris because her wistful aunt always wished she would. She chooses Paris because she wants to be a writer and she needs something impressive to just happen.
Eden’s arrival in 1986 coincides with the heavy bombing Paris endured when Lebanese and other postcolonial revolutionaries were seeking their retribution on France by planting plastic explosives on Parisian buses. The bombs, like Eden’s search for James Baldwin, are meant to be symbolic—of the hostile terrain she must negotiate as a Black woman in the world and of the potential land mines she must sidestep to find her inner voice.
Eden pays her rent day to day in a cheap hotel by working as a nude model for amateur painters, a nanny for an American couple, and as a companion to an eccentric English poet on her deathbed. She asks everyone she meets for an anecdote about Baldwin and hears plenty of tales about “Jimmy,” who stood wherever she is standing only a week or an hour ago. When she ventures to Vence, a small coastal town in the South of France where Baldwin keeps a home, a friend of Baldwin’s, a “feminine young man,” tells her he’s returned to Paris to work on his play The Amen Corner. She meets a semi-interesting cast of bohemians (after Moveable Feast, one’s Parisian bohemian cohorts are bound to pale). She has three casual love affairs—with a professional wanderer old enough to be her deceased father, from whom she learns Paris’s backstreets; and a white horn player from New Orleans from whom she learns jazz. But it is her platonic love affair with a West Indian girl named Luce—a kind of Black-girl Oliver Twist who teaches her to skip out on meals and jimmy her way into apartments—that is most sexy. When they realize their luck has run out they share a last decadence, an afternoon in a Turkish bath. As they lie naked with other women, Eden asks her if she’s ever been with one. “Of course,” Luce replies, ” . . . Maybe I can love you if you want? . . . You make me want to keep a part of you with me always.”
Luce, who is remembered by Eden in one of several episodic, dreamlike adventures, makes the reader wish Youngblood had imagined this complex woman and her ultimately tragic story more fully. For Black Girl, though exceedingly ambitious—the book opens with a passage from Beloved and uses Baldwin as a plot device—never quite breaks out of its travel diary form. Youngblood mixes poetry with recipes, childhood dreams with a step-by-step plan for becoming a good prostitute, but her writing never feels like much more than tourism. As with Hurston it is natural to conclude that these experiences belong to the author, and Youngblood does seem to remember Paris down to its every windowpane. She’s no Walter Benjamin but she works with images of Parisian light, mostly as a symbol of the illuminative effect her experiences have had on her uncertain journey toward becoming a writer. Observations like “in Paris all the houses have eyes that cry each time it rains” make it painfully clear that no transatlantic trip will make her heir to Baldwin’s legacy. She doesn’t listen enough to be a Hurston, and she’s too self-absorbed to tell a story other than her own.
The dialogue in Black Girl is often promising, like Eden’s conversation in the steam room with Luce, but the narrator always cuts it short to retreat into her own thoughts. Eden isn’t willful enough, like Luce, to be truly fascinating. But she can see. As Paris reveals itself, she learns it is no paradise, at least not for a Black girl, no matter how convincing Josephine may have been. Like her mother or aunt 30 years before her, she could have found work as a nanny to white children back in Georgia. She needn’t travel any further than Greenwich Village to pose nude for aspiring painters. In the end it is only her spotty subplot about finding James Baldwin that proves satisfying, because although Paris is a long way to go to lay eyes on the great novelist—who sends her back to her perpetual homelessness with a little light on her path—her trip was absolutely necessary.