Yrsa Daley-Ward took the world by storm with her spellbinding debut poetry collection, Bone. She also gained a loyal community following as a result of her LGBT advocacy. And now Daley-Ward is back with a memoir, called simply The Terrible. Though the book is captivating from start to finish, its title is a fitting one – Daley-Ward doesn’t gloss over the sadness or trauma she has experienced, or try to repackage them as some kind of worthy, Hollywood-friendly life lesson. Instead, in a refreshingly candid style, she guides us through the good and the bad that have together shaped an extraordinary life.
Daley-Ward begins the story not with her own birth, but with the outlines of her mother’s life and character. Through her daughter’s eyes, we see Marcia Daley-Ward emigrate from Jamaica to the north of England, a young girl pregnant with her first child. We see the woman whose life created Daley-Ward’s own. Yrsa’s account of her life begins with joyful early memories of reading with her mother, pivotal moments that shape the story to come and the woman who will emerge from it. It is fitting that an as bold and versatile as Daley-Ward should find her earliest sense of self through the written word.
Much like her poetry, Daley-Ward’s memoir is unpretentious. With straightforward language, she gets to the heart of complicated reality. That lack of affectation leaves room only for honesty, which is – at points – searing. At first glance, memoir seems like a leap from poetry – but it is impossible to say where in The Terrible verse ends and autobiography begins. This story is lean and powerful, every word deployed with a poet’s precise knack for catching big truths in few words. And although it’s a short book, every page is loaded with insights into life, love, and the politics of desire. That shape-shifting, genre-bending quality is what makes The Terrible so intensely readable, even at its darkest.
Autobiographical writing involves a fundamental challenge: not only must you confront your demons to wrestle them down onto the page, but you make those demons public, there to be seen by anyone in the world who cares to witness them. Yrsa Daley-Ward does this with an electric honesty.
As her body begins to develop during the early stages of puberty, the dynamic in the family home alters too – Marcia is worried about what could happen if her partner, a man named Linford, is left to watch over Yrsa while she is working night shift. Yrsa knows this fear has been triggered by the changes in her body, and wonders whether her own body or Linford’s capacity for violence is the danger. This connection between being desired by a man and being in danger from that man twists through Yrsa’s story, just like it does the lives of countless women and girls.
There’s something almost Gothic about Linford, climbing the side of the house to terrorize the woman and children inside. That blurred dual reality of Linford as a ‘good man’ and Linford as a potential sexual threat to a girl child, “Linford as almost-bad-thing but not quite”, contains so much truth about how men’s violence hides in plain sight. There will be a number of moments when reading this book, you sigh over the way men’s violence damages women’s lives – and this is only the first. Daley-Ward’s frankness shines a light on the sexism and racism that are woven into everyday life.
When she’s writing about the grim realities of the sex industry, the inescapable pressures of living in poverty, the trauma of transactional sex, Daley-Ward creates some distance between herself and her story by moving from “I” to “she.” During a particularly excruciating encounter, the story takes on the traditional structure of a play. It looks as though these narrative shifts, subtle and yet significant, are what made it possible for Daley-Ward to write about The Terrible.
And yet there is so much delight and wonder in this memoir. Daley-Ward’s younger brother, Roo, is a continuous source of love and understanding – as children, their way of seeing the world differently enables a kind of companionship that’s deeply moving to witness as a reader. Threaded through the story, her connections with women are another source of joy. Golden memories of Daley-Ward’s first romance with another girl, she describes fondly:
“After it’s finished
after we have acted just like wildflowers
after we have rubbed together in the wind, somewhat
been as dandelion clocks, drifting
come away; once our inner petals are softened
we go downstairs.”
Whether ephemeral or lasting, relationships with women are places of nourishment and shelter in an often hostile world.
The Terrible is a brave piece of writing. It’s also a perfect example of écriture feminine, what Hélène Cixous described as women affirming their own understanding of the world through writing it into being and exploring how they’re made ‘other’. By telling her own story on her own terms, Daley-Ward shows us the politics behind what it means to be precarious as a Black girl in a white, white town, a first-generation migrant, a working-class woman. From the vantage point of an outsider, Daley-Ward scrutinizes the world and claims her place in it.
The Terrible is out on June 5th. Published by Penguin, RRP £9.99.