Albert James Young was born on 31 May 1939 in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to Ernest Albert James, a professional musician and autoworker, and Mary Campbell Young. Raised in Mississippi and in Detroit, Al Young attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor from 1957 to 1960 and served as coeditor of Generation, the campus literary magazine. During this period he began work as a freelance musician. In 1961 he moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where he held a variety of jobs, including folksinger, lab aide, disc jockey, and medical photographer. In 1969 Young graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in Spanish. From 1969 to 1976 he held the post of Edward B. Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing at Stanford University. Young has subsequently taught at numerous colleges and universities as visiting poet, writer in residence, visiting lecturer, and creative writing professor.
Young’s many books include novels, collections of poetry, essays, memoirs, and anthologies. He has received Stanford’s Wallace Stegner Fellowship as well as Guggenheim, Fulbright, and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships; the PEN–Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction; the PEN-USA Award for Nonfiction; two American Book Awards; the Pushcart Prize; and two New York Times Notable Book of the Year citations. From 2005 until 2008 Young served as poet laureate of California, and in 2012 he contributed monthly poems about the state to KQED-Radio’s The California Report.
Young has authored five novels, ten collections of poetry, five memoir-related works of nonfiction, and various screenplays. His first poetry collection, Dancing: Poems, appeared in 1969. His first novel, Snakes, came a year later and tells the story of a young musician who finds success in Detroit. Through the novel Young explores the meaning of black identity as well as humanity, as his characters comment on racial conditions as well as universal human experience. These themes also emerge as central in Young’s next two novels, Who Is Angelina? (1975) and Sitting Pretty (1976), as well as in his extensive poetic writings.
Young’s passions for music and poetry also inform his novels, many of which deal with music as a context for characterization and as metaphor. Young has received critical praise for the rich approach to African American language and poetic ear apparent in the dialogue between characters, particularly in the portrayal of main character Mamie Franklin in Seduction by Light (1975). Young’s autobiographical writings similarly navigate music and language in the context of his experiences. He has been credited with helping to destroy stereotypes of black Americans and with offering refreshing approaches to the African American experience. Young’s other works of poetry include Heaven: Collected Poems, 1956–1990 (1992), The Sound of Dreams Remembered: Poems, 1990–2000 (2001), and Coastal Nights and Inland Afternoons: Poems, 2001–2006 (2006). His nonfiction works include Kinds of Blue: Musical Memoirs (1984) and Drowning in the Sea of Love: Musical Memoirs (1995). In 2009 he released an album with musician Dan Robbins, The Sea, the Sky, and You, and I. In addition, Young cofounded the literary journals Yardbird Reader and Quilt with poet-novelist Ishmael Reed.
Young travels extensively, reading, lecturing, and often performing with musicians, and he remains a prolific and powerful contributor to the world of creative writing.
- Dorothy Abbott, ed., Mississippi Writers: Reflections of Childhood and Youth (1985)
- Rosalie Murphy, ed., Contemporary Poets (1970)
- Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors series; Al Young website, www.alyoung.org