Journal of Writing & Environment

An Interview with Shura Young

Shura Young in Eastern Oregon

Shura Young’s nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in Flyway, Natural Bridge, Clackamas Literary Review, VoiceCatcher, and Marylhurst’s online M Review.  Awards include first place in Willamette Writers Kay Snow contest, finalist twice in Arts & Letters, and second place Oregon Writers Colony.  She is working on two memoirs: about surviving cult-like domestic violence; and about her unconventional 1971-’72 Europe travels.  Google Shura Young to read other writing pieces and see some of her art.

What pushed you to write “Tar Pits?”

In a 2006 creative nonfiction class at the Portland, Oregon nonprofit, Write Around Portland, our volunteer professor, Scott Starbuck, showed us a portion of the Barry Lopez Lannan Video as a writing prompt.  Barry Lopez described in graphic imagery the brutality inflicted on native peoples by Europeans beginning with Christopher Columbus.  Our prompt was to write about our own meaningful physical or emotional place.  My mind took in the sickening gore and instantly focused on my child to adult experience of the Los Angeles Tar Pits.

Using the prompt, I scribbled a single page in my spiral college-ruled notebook with stream-of-consciousness images.  Over two years of countless revisions, I expanded the prompt into this essay with its several levels of trauma: in my family; in the history of Tongva and Chumash Native Americans; the destruction to the natural environment; and even the tar’s creature killings.

Sculptures of a mammoth family (one parent caught in the tar), fenced in with Wilshire Blvd. in background (2004).

What image from “Tar Pits” sticks with you the most and why?

The last line of my essay reads: “Even the tar looks artificial, and I wonder if anyone remembers how to grieve the open-beaked silence of a dying bird.”

My essay’s last line symbolizes how I think of Los Angeles after spending my first forty-five years of life there.  It is symbolic of how some people’s greed and manipulative power destroys and controls other people and the environment without even noticing or seeming to care about the human cost and the loss of sustainable resources.  It’s about my Los Angeles: from mountain trees killed by smog, to Santa Monica Bay fish sickened by pollution, to my drawings and paintings of the burgeoning population of homeless and mentally ill, to the Earth’s retaliation by sliding expensive homes down hillsides.  My L.A., that’s about the fear of looking into the eyes of strangers; class pretentiousness born from materialism; the flat-stomach, dyed-hair, face-lifting self-obsession that obviates caring about others; and where stress-related hostility overrides just being friendly.

I long to see children raised with love, generosity, gentleness, and wonder – not hate, stinginess, violence, and narrow-mindedness; to join in communal sharing – not self-serving competition.  And I want grownups to care so much about life within themselves and life within everything and everyone around them that the only way they can be is kind.

Young (1950s) with dog Toby

How did you feel when you realized you’d been picked as a Notable for The Best American Essays 2010?

I’m a low-tech person, don’t have internet at home; googling my name in the local library is how I, and others, can see my art and writing online.  On November 8, 2010, I was in the library checking on any new art and writing successes online when, on the second page under my name, I saw the Notable entry.  I quietly flipped out, and immediately went to look for a copy of Best American Essays on the library shelves.  As I pulled a copy of a past Best American Essays off the shelf to read how the editors chose the best essays, a familiar librarian came up to me asking if I needed help.  I told him my good news.  Having “Tar Pits” selected as

Notable validated my motivation to become a full-time writer at age sixty-four.