Al(bert) (James) Young Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Ocean Springs, Mississippi, 1939. Education: The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (co-editor, Generation magazine), 1957-61; Stanford University, California (Stegner Creative Writing fellow), 1966-67; University of California, Berkeley, A.B. in Spanish 1969. Career: Freelance musician, 1958-64; disc jockey, KJAZ-FM, Alameda, California, 1961-65; instructor and linguistic consultant, San Francisco Neighborhood Youth Corps Writing Workshop, 1968-69; writing instructor, San Francisco Museum of Art Teenage Workshop, 1968-69; Jones Lecturer in creative writing, Stanford University, 1969-74; screenwriter, Laser Films, New York, 1972, Stigwood Corporation, London and New York, 1972, Verdon Productions, Hollywood, 1976, First Artists Ltd., Burbank, California, 1976-77, and Universal, Hollywood, 1979; writer-in-residence, University of Washington, Seattle, 1981-82. Since 1979 director, Associated Writing Programs. Founding editor, Loveletter, San Francisco, 1966-68. Since 1972 co-editor, Yardbird Reader, Berkeley, California; contributing editor, since 1972, Changes, New York, and since 1973, Umoja, New Mexico; since 1981 editor and publisher, with Ishmael Reed, Quilt magazine, Berkeley; vice-president, Yardbird Publishing Cooperative. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1968, 1969, 1974; San Francisco Foundation Joseph Henry Jackson award, 1969; Guggenheim fellowship, 1974; Pushcart prize, 1980; Before Columbus Foundation award, 1982. Agent: International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019.
Snakes. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1970; London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1971.
Who Is Angelina? New York, Holt Rinehart, 1975; London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1978.
Sitting Pretty. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1976.
Ask Me Now. New York, McGraw Hill, and London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1980.
Seduction by Light. New York, Delta, 1988; London, Mandarin, 1989.
Straight No Chaser. Berkeley, California, Creative Arts Book, 1994.
Uncollected Short Stories
"My Old Buddy Shakes, Alas, and Grandmama Claude," in Nexus (San Francisco), May-June 1965.
"The Question Man and Why I Dropped Out," in Nexus (San Francisco), November-December 1965.
"Chicken Hawk's Dream," in Stanford Short Stories 1968, edited by Wallace Stegner and Richard Scowcroft. Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1968.
"Moon Watching by Lake Chapala," in Aldebaran Review 3 (Berkeley, California), 1968.
Nigger, 1972; Sparkle, 1972.
Dancing. New York, Corinth, 1969.
The Song Turning Back into Itself. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1971.
Some Recent Fiction. San Francisco, San Francisco Book Company, 1974.
Geography of the Near Past. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1976.
The Blues Don't Change: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Heaven: Collected Poems 1958-1988. Berkeley, California, Creative Arts, 1989.
Heaven: Collected Poems 1956-1990. Berkeley, California, Creative Arts, 1992.
Recording: By Heart and by Ear, Watershed, 1986.
Bodies and Soul: Musical Memoirs. Berkeley, California, Creative Arts, 1981.
Kinds of Blue: Musical Memoirs. Berkeley, California, Creative Arts, 1984.
Things Ain't What They Used to Be: Musical Memoirs. Berkeley, California, Creative Arts, 1987.
Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs, with Janet Coleman. Berkeley, California, Creative Arts, 1989.
Drowning in the Sea of Love: Musical Memoirs. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1995.
Editor, with Ishmael Reed, Yardbird Lives! New York, Grove Press, 1978.
Editor, with Ishmael Reed, Quilt 2-3. Berkeley, California, Reed and Young's Quilt, 2 vols., 1981-82.
Editor, African American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. New York, HarperCollins College Publishers, 1996.
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In his story "Chicken Hawk's Dream" Al Young tells of a young man who believes that as magically as in a dream he might become a jazz artist. Failing to bring even a sound out of a borrowed horn, Chicken Hawk retreats into dope and alcohol, but his delusion persists so that when the narrator meets him later on a Detroit street corner Chicken Hawk says that he is off to New York to cut a record—just as soon as he gets his instrument out of the pawnshop. The dream of Chicken Hawk with its refusal of discipline and lack of nerve represents a version of what Young terms "art as hustle." It is not titillation, he says in a "Statement on Aesthetics, Poetics, Kinetics" (in New Black Voices, 1972), but the touching of human beings so that both toucher and touched are changed that matters most in art as in life. Touch may be magical but before all else it is the sign of willingness to engage actual life.
Through the metaphor of touch and repudiation of attitudinizing Young explains most of his literary practice. His novels gain much of their force from his ability to limn the texture of experience. Precise detailing of speech demonstrates how individuals play roles uniquely significant to those with whom they have personal relationships, including readers; and ways of seeing, talking, becoming, in short, ways of expressing the feel of life's touch, engender the books' movement.
In his first novel, Snakes, Young infuses the traditional narrative of adolescent growth with a principle of fluidity affecting every aspect of structure, style, and theme. MC, whose journey to maturity is the story's subject, gets turned on to modern jazz, an art of process which illustrates that personality itself may derive from music. Stylistically the book is largely constructed out of raps, oral performances by MC's friends, and reminiscences of his grandmother. The first concur with the performance of improvisational music to convey the importance of expressive response; the latter carry process into biographical temporality where memory of past events maintains influence in the present. Style and structure together support Young's theme of the struggle to be free, outlined in MC's thoughts on a bus to New York where he, unlike Chicken Hawk, will cut a record: "For the first time in my life I don't feel trapped; I don't feel free either but I don't feel trapped and I'm going to try and make this feeling last for as long as I can."
Who Is Angelina? picks up Young's theme in the story of a young woman who must regain the sense of not being trapped. In one answer to the question posed by the title, Angelina finds herself, in the words of a Pepsi-drinking fortune teller, poised between freedom to choose what she wishes and weaknesses which hold her back. A return to roots among family and neighborhood renews a sense of love for origins in Angelina but also demonstrates that she has no choice but to accept her distinct individuality; and to make the best of it, she must learn to move with awareness through her own becoming. Young allows Angelina to try transcendental meditation as a means of renewal, but her crucial realization of self occurs as it must, in the context of mundane experience. In a tussle with a purse snatcher she impulsively ventilates feelings of outrage that offend the liberal sentiments of friends and bystanders. Thereby she wipes out, for herself, the illusions one gains by living second-hand.
A year in the life of Sidney J. Prettymon, known as Sitting Pretty or sometimes plain Sit, provides the story line for Young's third novel. Sit's literary cousin is Langston Hughes's Jesse B. Semple, a.k.a. Simple. By the world's reckoning both Sit and Simple are ordinary men, but each has a philosophy and style that raises him above the average. In Sit's case the philosophy involves getting by without harming others and without succumbing to the values that will compromise integrity or happiness; thus, living is an improvisational performance. Rendered in the voice of Sit the novel Sitting Pretty works as the prose equivalent of an Afro-American musical composition alternatively echoing the situations of blues and celebratory riffs that are unique to the character's expressive style. Sit, jogging through the streets of Palo Alto, putting his two cents worth in on a radio talk show, caring deeply for his former wife in her time of trouble and his children when they don't even know they have problems, is a triumphant creation who deserves a place in the popular imagination right alongside Simple and probably, as Wallace Stegner suggested, Huckleberry Finn too.
Like Ishmael Reed, his colleague in Yardbird enterprises, Young is impatient with expectations that black writers should show their ethnicity in some predictable or stereotypical way. O.O. Gabugah the militant poet was Young's satirical treatment of such message writing, and O.O. makes an appearance in Sitting Pretty also. Usually, though, Young makes his point, as in Ask Me Now, by unselfconscious narrative of the human trials of his characters. What makes the books black is that the people, such as Woody Knight, the retired basketball player of his most recent novel, are granted a broad range of experience in which they talk and touch others in the style of black culture. That style permits comedy right along with tribulation, the sort of love that yields happy endings and the losses that create frustration and anger. Reviewers loaded with prescriptions for the ethnic author and critics who want the message straight can be displeased, but Young's art will persist as a loving treatment of the versions of human process that are its source and subject.
—John M. Reilly
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