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My sister loaned me her copy of Rupi Kaur’s The Sun and Her Flowers. I gave her Yrsa Daley-Ward’s The Terrible — because I’m the older, wiser sister, and if Rupi’s writing is a bright glass of rosé, Yrsa’s work is a vintage pinot noir. The British-born poet and storyteller self-published her first collection of writing, bone, in 2014. Like Kaur, she began sharing her work on Instagram as a way of reaching out to a larger, global audience. For Kaur and Daley-Ward both, using the platform has proved to be a stroke of genius — by the time publishers discovered Yrsa, she already had an audience of over 100,000 readers waiting to tap the little heart symbol under her latest post.

From that momentum, The Terrible emerged in June 2018. The book is the poet’s lyrical documentation of her childhood in northern England, years of which were spent under the strict guidance of Seventh Day Adventist grandparents. Moving on to her teens and early 20s, The Terrible follows Daley-Ward as she tries on a drug habit or an older man like ill-fitting clothes, attempting and (initially) failing to find a way of life that suited her. Each experience is described with the clear eye of an analyst and the words of a genuine artist.

What makes The Terrible so powerful is the utter fearlessness with which Daley-Ward confronts some of the most difficult topics imaginable: mental illness, sex work, drug abuse, the death of a parent. The book opens doors for readers to confront these issues themselves — and there is so much beauty in that.

We chatted with Yrsa Daley-Ward about her new memoir and the freedom that comes with telling the truth.

B+C: You left London for LA and now live full-time in New York. Why the move to the US — is there a certain kind of artistic inspiration to be found in LA and New York?

Yrsa Daley-Ward: Oh, definitely. Especially for someone who matches my description. I’ve heard British people say this before, but the States is the place to be in terms of all the various forms of storytelling that I want to do and that’s from the screen to the page, so it’s really exciting in that way. And I’ve always wanted to live in LA and New York. I like to tick things off the list and so that’s what I’m doing. It’s an exciting move to make, despite all the complexities of being in America. It’s still cool and exciting.

In the memoir, geography seems to have some significance for you—for example, when you were situating yourself “south of London” or “north of Manchester” or then to South Africa. Is that moving from place to place particularly meaningful for you?

Well, I’m a traveler. I like to travel. My sense of home and my understanding of that is within myself, so I know that I’m going to find that wherever I am, whatever the coordinates. But that wasn’t something that came overnight — it’s something that I’m starting to feel now. There was a lot of traveling and searching in order to gain a different understanding of the world, a different meaning. I think you do learn that by traveling. It makes you richer. It helps you to understand things and people in a way that you don’t get from staying in one place.

Along those same lines, how much distance, physical, or time-wise, does writing about the difficult things you went through require — is it easier to write it when you’re in it or can you not truly see it until you’re clear of it?

I think it’s really a positive thing if you have processed it. I was only able to write The Terrible because I’ve processed all those things. It wasn’t like, I’m in the middle of it and pulling apart all these things that I’m going through. I don’t think that would be particularly healthy, to dive into it if it wasn’t processed out. It’s a decision you come to subconsciously, like you know that it’s fine to write about it. The processing has to come before — to do it safely and to do it justice and to have an understanding of all those things that took place. The wheres, the hows, and the whys.

Near the end of the book you write, “Will I ever be able to tell anyone what I’ve been?” How did you get from that place to here, writing about where you’ve been and sharing it will all of your readers? And did you need to share it to survive it?

No, I thought that it was going to go unshared, and I was quite all right with that but then it was in the way when I was trying to write something else it kept coming out. The memoir came out and that was it. Being a private person, I didn’t expect that this would be the trajectory. Life surprises you.

How do you share that much of yourself and still protect yourself?

It sounds a bit strange but I don’t feel this overwhelming need for protection. I am naturally protective — we all are, but there’s nothing that telling your story is going to do to harm you. Not really. I mean, there are people’s opinions, but actually, it’s one of the most freeing and powerful things you can do. I didn’t really know that until now. Now that I’m really thinking about it, it does have that effect, because what else can you fear when you’ve told the things that you’ve thought you would never admit to? And it’s definitely a good thing to let go of.

Identity and representation and seeing yourself in someone else’s art are incredibly important, but of nearly equal importance is the idea that a writer who identifies as queer or female or Black or a poet doesn’t have their work slotted away into some niche and only marketed to one or two particular groups. How do you find a balance when you want your work to connect with as many people as possible?

You can’t control that. My job as the writer is just to be authentic and natural and tell the truth. That will transcend all of those pigeonholes or boxes because you’re speaking to the human experience, not just the experience of this kind of person or that kind of person. Especially with universal themes — you and I might cry at the same film because we both understand the human aspect of it whether that’s romance or a broken heart or loneliness, we all understand those things. Of course, attempts are always going to be made to pigeonhole you, especially when somebody sees what you look like but it’s hard to do that when you’re connecting with words on a page. It’s just you and the words.

Can you talk about the power and reach that Instagram has given your work?

It’s online so everybody gets to see it, in all four corners of the world, it’s a global platform in a way that even pen and paper can’t reach a lot of the time, whether it’s money or whatever— there are so many reasons that that way doesn’t travel as well as it might. So Instagram is just a wonderful way to get the work in the hands of lots of different people.

The memoir is called The Terrible but the Terrible thing isn’t really named until ten pages before the very end… why wait so long to bring it into the story? Do you think of it as something within you or an outside force? Have you accepted it?

 It’s a spirit and it’s there, you can feel it looming. It’s called so many things and then it just becomes personified. I didn’t even have that clear idea of it until I was writing it and I was near the end and it just came out. Like, ‘Ohhhhhh! This is what it is.’ It’s part of me. Sometimes it IS you. It’s multidimensional. Now we work together. Which is why we’ve got a book. If I hadn’t done that, I’d still be trying to escape it. Your terrible can be anything, there are so many things that are terrible. When you come face to face with it, that’s when life starts to make sense.

This book has an incredible potential to open doors for people to confront scary things — difficult childhoods, mental health, their own sexuality… is there a book that opened up those topics for you?

So many: Alice Walker’s By The Light of My Father’s Smile and The Color Purple specifically deal with a lot of traumatic experiences of young women. Almost all of Alice Walker’s novels, like The Third Life of Grange Copeland. And there’s Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, about the idea of beauty and what happens in the home — those really awful things that happen. Jeanette Winterson, who I adore. She writes from a gender-neutral space and made me realize that it was okay to write and be whoever you wanted to be — and tell whatever story you wanted to tell.

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What books have been important in shaping the person you are? Let’s talk about it on Twitter.

(Images via Yrsa Daley-Ward)