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Photo courtesy of Yrsa Daley-Ward

100 Women: Straight to the Bone | The Work of Yrsa Daley-Ward

We talk to the inimitable Yrsa Daley-Ward about the power of her poetry.

Yrsa Daley-Ward's poems are works of emotional honesty, often searing when not comforting. For her growing legion of fans, Daley-Ward's words serve as testaments to a rich and complex life that speak to triumph over personal trial. On an even broader scale, they challenge a cultural climate (still) resistant to the fullness of black creativity.

For more than seven years, Daley-Ward has successfully worked as a model and actor. But above our 100Women honoree's modeling campaigns with Nike, Apple and Topshop, acting credits and over 120,000 Instagram followers, is her written word. Her debut, a story collection called "On Snake & Other Stories" was published in 2013. But it was "Bone" her poetry collection published by Penguin Random House that landed her in the literary limelight last year.

"Bone" is a selection of largely autobiographical prose poems that are delicate and hardened, frequently concise, yet occasionally sprawled in structure and emotional range. The events and characters depicted in her poems that are drawn from her life effectively draw us into her life and give us a glimpse of her perspective on love, family and the world.

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Kpade: "The Biggest Tortoise In The World" is about a disintegrating relationship in which one lover listens to the other make casual conversation about her day, perhaps from a news headline, about a discovery in South America:

They had to get a lorry or something to remove it, imagine that.

The other person in the poem, already in mourning, offers an unspoken consolation of continuing affection and hope for a new partner:

maybe he or she will have tightness in the neck, a passion for useless facts and the power to stick around.

Daley-Ward: It's quite a lonely realization [when one partner mentally checks out of a relationship]. But because of your love for a person, you compromise your own ideals, which is something I'm only just learning.

Kpade: Is the character in the poem being patronizing when she hopes for her other half, a new partner who has a "passion for useless facts"?

Daley-Ward: Well, sometimes we patronize without knowing it, and absolutely there must be part of that in there. I'm very far from perfect. Maybe in the poem I'm saying you'll find somebody that's more suited to you than I am.

Kpade: In the poem you have the emotional upper-hand, having untangled yourself from a love your partner is knotted to. As the poet and subsequently author of your subject's fate, you are in even more in control. It seems this poem "the biggest tortoise in the world" reflects uncharitably on the lover who is slow to realize the lurch in which he or she is being left. Is this all an over-read?

Daley-Ward: No, I like that, though. I like when people over-read, because poetry's going to be about what you take from it, so it's good.

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But there are definitely layers to what she has put into it. The familial accounts dispersed throughout her work, for example, that beg further insight into Daley-Ward's upbringing she points out are simultaneously her truth and open for interpretation.

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Kpade: In "Mum" you call out to your mother with as much desire as despair:

I hope you have daughter with a

plan and a dream

And sons who aren't on first-name

basis with the police

I hope you have your pick of a few good men

And none of them know how to cheat

Is it meant to be harsh in depicting the son in the poem as a repeat offender and the mother as having poor choice in men?

Daley-Ward: Well, I think that's strong. There's nuance and it's got to be applied to these things because it depends on your cultural background. It depends on your class. It depends on so many things when reading. I grew up in the north [of England], and there's so many altercations and situations that one may have with the police.

Kpade: Your approach is to always write near to the bone.

Daley-Ward: It's not the easiest, but it's the truth. Truth is not always palatable, so what do we do?

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We speak it. And she does, taking the reader through low dips and resurfacing. The suicidal thoughts and surrendering to fate of one poem ["In The End Of The World But Almost"] is resolved by another ["Things It Can Take Twenty Years And A Bad Liver To Work Out"]:

You better learn to forgive yourself

Forgive yourself instantly

It's a skill you're going to need until you die.

The cumulative experience of reading the entire collection can easily leave one feeling rung through a difficult phase of life but oddly grateful to have arrived at the lessons learned. Now her canvas has expanded. The multi-hyphenate added yet another title to her repertoire with "The Terrible," her memoir scheduled for release in June. To her own admission, the shift to a more generous book length has given her ample space to reinvestigate her upbringing in the north of England. "It's very extreme because I have had an extreme life," she describes of the upcoming release. "There's no point saying anything else, because that's what it is. That's what I've come to accept, so that's what I wrote about."

While her honesty is in line with that of the unbridled discourse on the social media platforms on which she shares her work, the success of "Bone" and the promise of "The Terrible" are built on a spiritual foundation she continues to practice. "I pray. I meditate. I'm careful about what I take in. I spend a lot of time on my own. I do all these things, and it's everyday as things get busy, and because my base always moves. I'm always flying around. You have to have a solid place inside yourself. That's what I do. I'm much more peaceful than I was three years ago. I have to be or I would never be able to sit down to make the work because I would be all over the place. There's no place for that now."

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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Tanzanian Filmmaker Amil Shivji is Making History with a Story of Love and Resistance

As the first Tanzanian film to be chosen for TIFF, Shiviji's film is sure to get the African country a seat at the table.