By Shay Youngblood
(Riverhead Books, 1997)
When Mariah’s mother leaves her with her aunts, Faith and Marleen in Kansas, Mariah is plagued with missing. She eats her mother’s words for comfort, literally swallowing the contents of her last letters, and dreams of finding love, which lands her in the arms of friendly and frightening strangers. She relocates her father, Matisse, in California and leaves the comfort of her aunts to live with him, only to be violated by an older man on the bus trip there. Mariah is scarred before her arrival but tells no one. Matisse adores his maturing daughter, whose body and spirit reminds him of her still missing mother. When Matisse’s father dies, the lines between father and daughter are blurred and he begins longing for Mariah as much as they both long for her mother.
This was a intrinsically, lyrical and heart wrenching debut novel that I could not put down until I finished. I was a huge fan of Youngblood’s second book, “Black Girl In Paris” (Riverhead Trade, 2011) and had a chance to meet her at a book signing in DC in high school. I had just returned from my first trip to Paris and felt very much aligned with protagonist Eden, who travels to Paris to write and ends up falling in love with a woman instead. “Soul Kiss” is the beginning of Youngblood’s exploration of sexuality in her writing and captures the raw, poetic, talent of an author who paints her story with dreams and longing. This first book was just as strong, if not lyrically stronger, than Youngblood’s second and it warmed my heart down to the last word.
“Soul Kiss” inspired me to write my mother with love and compassion. I’ve longed to understand my mother, who lives with mental illness and lashes out as she struggles day to day. I’ve learned to love my mother beyond understanding her yet still struggle to share myself and maintain boundaries with a woman who is often unpredictable. Mariah’s own struggle to find her voice mimics my own and the tenderness of Youngblood’s insights inspires me to continue to write about the hard places of love.