For Books’ Sake talks to: Yrsa Daley-Ward
7th Feb 2014
On Snakes and Other Stories is the first collection of fictional tales penned by multi-talented poet, actor and model, Yrsa Daley-Ward.
Of Nigerian and Jamaican heritage, Daley-Ward grew up in the small village of Chorley in Lancashire with her devout Seventh Day Adventist grandparents. This uncommon mixture of life circumstances serves as fertile ground for the stories in this début collection.
Suffused with themes of mental health, heritage and gender, with a raw and creative use of structure complimented by colloquial language, the stories of On Snakes have a poetic rhythm that makes each one a pleasure to read.
I ask Daley-Ward the difference between her intentions when writing in prose versus poetry. “I actually use the same voice for both and don’t set about doing anything differently,” she says, explaining that she finds herself writing first, then choosing whether the piece is better suited to the spoken or written word later.
Daley-Ward is a rarity. Writing seems to be a natural part of her daily life, providing clarity and catharsis. “The relief I draw from the process -” she explains, “- I always feel lighter afterwards.”
Perhaps this is why On Snakes is littered with glimpses of the author’s own darker experiences. Simultaneously a hand held out to others, the collection offers stories to be recognised and acknowledged as internal to the writer but bigger and wider than the individual.
“Many of us come into contact with mental health issues on a daily basis,” Daley-Ward says. “[And yet] mental health is a subject less travelled, partly because of fear and stigma.”
The reader meets most of Daley-Ward’s characters when they think themselves alone; the author opens a window on their hidden idiosyncrasies for all to read. Having experienced and observed neurosis in the entertainment and fashion industry, the Daley-Ward brings these issues to life in particular when depicting the protagonist, a model, in the story Home.
“It’s very damaging for young black children not to see their image represented across mainstream media.” The Way That Things Feel depicts a British woman of Jamaican descent as she gets to know a visiting cousin from Jamaica. The story showcases how little the British character identifies with the black beauty aesthetic that is very much internal to her foreign cousin.
This incongruence between self-perception and reality is again shown in Sexy when a mother tells her daughter “Look child, look! You are black! You are a black child not a blond princess you draw yourself black like you and black like me. Make sure that you know yourself. Know yourself!”
Growing up in a small village in the north of England, Daley-Ward describes a childhood devoid of exposure to other children of Afro-Caribbean descent. Getting hair products or seeing a magazine with a black woman on the cover meant getting a bus to Preston or a train to Manchester.
“I used to think that using Pantene hair products would give me hair like the white girls and grew despondent when nothing changed,” she remembers. “It’s very damaging for young black children not to see their image represented across mainstream media.”
Being a part of both Nigerian and Jamaican communities, Daley-Ward informs me that her experience of both cultures has been very much family orientated with a strong focus on Christian values.
Moreover, “anything that is seen to be out of line with a traditional ‘Christian family unit’ tends to be frowned upon.” This community pressure hangs heavy in the collection where conservative families are often a backdrop to further isolation.
With most protagonists depicted as women, Daley-Ward’s characters have little in the way of men as allies. In many cases the stories show desertion by men as partners or fathers. Having grown up without any contact from her father followed by his premature death, Daley-Ward attributes this to her life experience.
“Growing up I had stepfathers, but nobody constant,” she explains. “That’s not to say I that haven’t met some wonderful men. My grandfather, for example.”
The author explains that she particularly enjoys exploring topics which are not usually discussed. This taste for the transgressive is evident, be it the sexual relationship that emerges between girl cousins in The Way That Things Feel or the topic of sex work featured in Love and Money.
Each story often finds itself at the intersection of a number of oppressions, no doubt the result of Daley-Ward’s own experience but also showing her literary influences.
As inspirational literary figures, the author cites: Alice Walker, bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Jeanette Winterson. She appreciates these writers “for their philosophies and life experience as well as their writing.” Each, Daley-Ward states, “helped me to craft and discover different sides of myself.”
“When we discuss things, we realise that we share experiences and that we aren’t so alone,” she concludes. It is this idea that seems to pervade On Snakes: each story unearths the secreted-away serpents of painful experience and exposes them to the light of day, a beacon to others that have suffered.