If you’re afraid to write it, that’s a good sign. I suppose you know you’re writing the truth when you’re terrified.” These words in black type on a white background make up one of poet Yrsa Daley-Ward’s Instagram posts. This monochrome snapshot of her innermost thoughts has more than 5,200 “likes”. That’s more than double the number she gets for any pictures. Daley-Ward spent her late teens and early 20s as a model struggling to pay her rent in London, working for brands such as Apple, Topshop, Estée Lauder and Nike. She still models today. Ironically, however, it was the image-obsessed medium of Instagram that enabled her to pursue the written word.
“I always was a writer,” she explains today in a thick Lancashire accent, sitting in a downtown Los Angeles restaurant close to where she lives. “But I was depressed [in London] and that made me choke. Modelling is an interesting profession because it teaches you so much about here…” She points a finger at her face. “But not here…” she sighs and points at her heart. “You become introverted, you disappear into yourself.”
Daley-Ward’s debut collection of poetry, Bone, is anything but introverted. Aptly titled, it’s a visceral read candidly documenting her religious upbringing, sexuality and mental-health battles. It flew out of her in three months, as she chronicled her bad love affairs, sense of isolation and feelings of inadequacy – an uncomfortable, uninhibited read. Daley-Ward is a self-confessed firestarter and has a colourful past. She doesn’t watch TV and prefers to go to the pub to drink Guinness and “chat to old men about their lives”. When asked to give her age, she refuses. “Men don’t get asked,” she barks.
She finds the notion of being objectified irksome. In a bodycon dress today, she tells me she’s been cat-called “seven times” en route here. “Why the fuck? Look at the patriarchy, look at rape culture. I don’t need to be subjected to what men think.” With her poems she cuts through that, deep into the parts of herself that she feels have been overseen by superficial, homogenous norms.
Bone was initially released in 2014 through Amazon’s self-publishing arm. It’s since been expanded for reissue via Penguin. Daley-Ward’s 116,000 and growing Instagram fanbase was key to that. Having followers like pop star Florence & the Machine and Hollywood actor Ellen Page also helps.
Daley-Ward read everything she could get her hands on as a kid: Roald Dahl, Spike Milligan, Shakespeare. As a young, black, LGBTQ female, she’s often said that she feels “invisible”in the literary world and maintains that poetry has a long way to go to diversify itself.
“Have I seen change? Yes and no,” she says. “There’s a lot more to do. If it wasn’t for the internet how would I have got the book out? How would I have got a publisher? If I went to a publisher armed with Bone and zero internet following…” She tapers off, suggesting they’d have looked right past her. “I didn’t know what to expect. I just persevered.”
Alongside the African-American poet Nayyirah Waheed, Zimbabwean bard Tapiwa Mugabe and Nigerian writer Ijeoma Umebinyuo, Daley-Ward, who is of West Indian and West African descent, is part of a small, elite community of black writers who are breaking down barriers. “It’s lovely to see women of colour poets,” she says. “Old poetry can be so inaccessible. Not just for people of colour but for people who aren’t super erudite, who don’t read, don’t love Shakespeare. Some people just want to connect with feelings.”
The melting pot of Downtown LA is a far cry from home in Chorley. She was born in the northern town after her Jamaican mother (a nurse) had an extra-marital affair with a Nigerian man who came to the UK to study, leaving his wife and children behind. He died before Daley-Ward was old enough to meet him.
From the age of seven to 11 she was sent, with her younger brother, to live with her grandparents. They were Seventh Day Adventists. Daley-Ward describes them as “strict religious fundamentalists”. “From sunset on Friday we couldn’t do anything until sunset on Saturday,” she recalls. “During the week everything was monitored. We didn’t go outside except to see my cousins.”
Growing up fast, she was ingrained with certain gender expectations; rules that existed to be broken. “They’d tell me that a girl should be able to run a house. Every Sunday my grandma and I would be on our knees handwashing all the clothes. I learned how to clean, sew and cook. I never make my bed now.”
At the time, Daley-Ward bottled up her frustrations. When she returned to live with her mother, she was left to raise her brother while her mum worked night shifts. “Things changed completely,” she remembers. “There was all the freedom where we once had no freedom.”
As well as the liberation that came with her own sexual awakening, she gained a more rounded perspective on a woman’s place in the world. Her mum’s boyfriends weren’t always the most desirable choices. “She was the one with the money, working hard. She never received help from men, ever.” That gave birth to a sense of staunch independence in her, combined with a streak of disruption. “I’m a quiet, introverted person, but I was very internally rebellious.”
Conflict continued to bubble up inside her; she was acutely aware of not fitting in in Chorley. “I was a black girl living in a market town, alien to everything. There were so many things I wanted to be other than what I was. I wanted to be white, have different hair, have parents who were home, know my father, not be religious. When I watched TV, everything from Disney to Coronation Street, there was never a representation of me.” She would write to disappear into different realities.
Soon enough, however, she didn’t need prose to whisk her away. There was a man – an older music teacher. He was married. He left his wife for her. “It was a torrid, crazy time,” she recalls, awkwardly avoiding the conversation.
She left Chorley and moved to Manchester en route to London, as the pull of big multicultural cities became exhilarating to her. “I was going out dancing to reggae and African music, buying jollof rice made by someone other than my grandma.” The honeymoon period was short, though. She lost her mother in 2007. (She doesn’t say how she died but implies that her lack of quality of life contributed.) Working as a jobbing actor and model, struggling to makes ends meet, she fell into depression. Writing was unimportant when there were bills to pay. “The grind got to me. I was lonely and had no real support in the world. None. I felt awful every day. I didn’t want to get out of bed.”
The discrimination she experienced in the fashion industry made matters worse. Repeatedly she’d fail to get jobs she was more than qualified for. “This is not a face that sells in England,” she says. “They say that black models sell fewer clothes than white models. That’s stupid. Fashion just doesn’t want to be diverse.” To survive, she had to find other avenues. “I was a very enterprising young woman,” she says coyly. “Learning what to use to get by.”
I ask if she’s alluding to sex work. She laughs. “It’s the most common thing in the modelling industry, especially at high levels. I’m not talking about standing on street corners. You have a boyfriend for two months who’s a millionaire. In that situation you’re safe, eating caviar, drinking champagne. There are other situations that are considerably less safe and less consensual. It’s a reality for so many women in the entertainment industry and we’re told not to talk about it.”
In desperate need of salvation and in search of more secure modelling jobs, she moved to Cape Town where there was, she says, a guaranteed market for black models. She was 24 years old with £200 in her pocket. The experience made her rich in a way she’d never have anticipated. While there, she came across a spoken-word evening. The task was to write a poem about family discord. “I thought: easy!” she smiles. Her performance brought rapturous applause. She went again and again. Every week the audience grew.
“In acting and modelling I was so busy expressing what somebody else wanted that I’d completely shut down my own voice,” she says. “I didn’t have any mirrors. When I was 20, I was in knots. I couldn’t speak my reality to anybody. There’s no cage now. Lots of people are afraid to tell the truth. But I don’t care. It’s fucking boring otherwise.”
Today, Daley-Ward lives between LA and London. Her audience has grown far beyond Cape Town. One poem, Mental Health, has made fans of people who have never given a thought to poetry. During a reading in south London, a man came up to her in tears. “He asked me to send it to him. I thought nobody was listening,” she says. She’s also become a poster child for the undermined, particularly the LGBTQ community. Despite writing about her relationships with women, she refuses to make her sexuality a big deal, insisting that her poems relate to people of all sexual preferences.
“I’m writing about common experience,” she says. “The LGBT community are my friends. The queer space is varied and intricate. Every story I have is a story a friend has. When I talk about a woman that you can’t get out of your head even though you know she’s going to fuck you over… Hello?! That represents 10 people I know.”
In an age of technology, the fact that Daley-Ward has built a platform for literature out of social media is perhaps her biggest act of rebellion. Next, she’ll release a memoir. “There’s nothing left unsaid,” she laughs. Titled The Terrible, it’s “The truest thing I’ll maybe ever write.” Where it will take her remains to be seen. “I move through the world at an alarming rate. Next time we speak I might be in New York,” she says. “I’m in the midst of a change. I keep dreaming about it. Something’s about to happen.”
Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward is published by Penguin on 26 September, at £9.99. To order a copy for £8.49, go to bookshop.theguardian.com
Fashion credits: (from top) Daley-ward wears dress by Alexander McQueen; coat by Givenchy; and jumper by Prada. Fashion editor Jo Jones; hair by Jerome Cultrera at L’Atelier NYC using Oribe Hair Care; make-up by Linda Gradin at L’Atelier NYC using MAC Cosmetics; fashion assistant Bemi Shaw