Yvonne Bailey-Smith was born in Jamaica and immigrated to the UK in 1969 when she was a teenager.
She trained and worked first as a social worker before becoming a psychotherapist. Yvonne is also the mother of three children, all of whom are successful writers: novelist Zadie Smith, actor, musician and children’s book author Ben Bailey Smith; and lyricist and writer LucSkyz.
As she follows in the footsteps of her children, we spoke to Yvonne about her debut novel The Day I Fell Off My Island, an auto-fiction novel that tells the story of a young girl raised by her grandparents in Jamaica after her troubled mother moves to the UK.
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Yvonne Bailey-Smith. I describe my heritage as African/Caribbean. I am a practising psychotherapist and a writer. Perhaps the order should change now as I am beginning to embrace myself as a writer.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now.
I feel like I am living in a beautiful space, despite the external chaos around me.
Although it’s not an autobiography, The Day I Fell Off My Island draws upon your own experience and the lived experiences of others. In your own words can you tell us what the book is about?
The book uses my timeline. And yes, I was brought up by my grandparents and those sibling separations happened, although deeply fictionalised.
I intentionally draw on a plethora of stories that whilst totally recognisable are by no means unique to some Caribbean people’s experiences. I am a well-known chatterbox, but I never miss a story and I have always been a keen observer of people. Folks have been known to randomly tell me their life stories at bus stops, whilst I am on holiday, wherever! The stories are often traumatic. I particularly dislike that so many children have to live with and keep negative experiences secret. I liked the idea of giving children voices.
My book is a coming of age story. It’s a story of resilience, growth and hope. It’s an imperfect story that tells some difficult truths, but hopefully in a balanced and empathic way. That’s probably the therapist in me wanting not to judge. Wanting to try and make sense of events and experiences from different perspectives.
And why now, were you compelled to tell this story?
Why now? Why not now? I have time, experience and a little bit of wisdom. And yes, I felt totally compelled to write the book. I have always had stories in my head. I still have stories in my head. I have always liked writing, playing with ideas. It was good fun having these nuggets of ideas and just allowing my imagination to expand them and make them sound real.
There has been a recent need to establish and document British black culture and history which has previously been ignored. The Day I Fell Off My Island definitely joins this fabric of information building – what were some of your experiences that you feel have been forgotten or ignored with you being born in Jamaica then coming to the UK?
I am deeply honoured to learn that my book is being talked about in this way. I am a reader, but even though I have always wanted to write, I had never thought of myself in terms of a writer who might be seen as documenting history as it were. There are so many Caribbean artists who have captured the Caribbean experiences in their writings, art, photography.
In terms of forgotten and ignored experiences – I think for me it is just something about the reductionist ways in which we as Jamaicans, as Caribbeans, as African peoples have been treated by this society for generations. It’s like we are not ever going to be allowed to belong. I have lived in this country since I was 14 years old. I have been a naturalised citizen for 42 years and that’s after having been born in a British colony, but this year alone, I have been asked to prove my status countless times.
Reading one of your interviews it’s said you worked in psychotherapy to understand why so many Black people were cross – were you cross at the time too and did you manage to find some understanding that put your life and the lives of other Black people into perspective?
Yes, I would say I was definitely cross, angry even! But I wasn’t an inherently angry child, so everything was internalised. Like Erna, I just wanted someone to put me back on a plane and send me home. In my naïve young head, I thought that would sort out the internal rage that I was experiencing. My work as a psychotherapist has always been with people from every ethnic group and gender etc. Some years back, I counted that I had worked with over thirty-seven different nationalities. A further ten or twenty could be added to that now. I am fascinated by the stories people tell and the similarities in the stories.
I endeavour to do my best work with every patient. But I am a black immigrant and a diasporan. And whilst I am clear that we black peoples are in no way homogenous, I kind of feel that there is an ‘extra therapy gene’ in me that pops out when required. Many other black therapists will understand what I mean by this.
We can’t ignore that you are the mother of three successful and brilliant children – what’s in the water of the Bailey-Smith household that everyone found their outlet through the arts and creativity?
There is no way I can claim all or even any of the credit. My children have always been like little whirlwinds from the beginning. They all loved performing and would subject every visitor to the house to one of their performances. Zadie in particular always knew she was going to do something that got the public’s interest. Her career plans included being; dancer (preferably with a Busby Berkley dance troop underwater), a singer
exactly like Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald or a writer. She has totally inspired and supported her brothers in all their quests.
Their father was also creative. He was a fashion photographer when I met him. From his first marriage, he produced a musician son and an artist daughter. One of his grandsons from that marriage is a renowned artist. On my mother’s side of the family, there are many creatives, musicians, artists, lawyers, teachers, writers, politicians. My mother is a really intelligent woman. Who knows what she would have become, had life offered her some different opportunities.
You know, I am a divorcee, so life was by no means a perfect path for my children. But they had parents who were loving and encouraging and we were both enamoured by all of them. I believe that helped.
How have your children encouraged and inspired you – and what’s their response to you becoming an author?
Where do I begin? All three of my children are just awesome individuals. They’re intelligent, they’re sparkly, they’re opportunity grabbers and most of all they’re kind, helpful and compassionate. The youngest had an accident whilst I was studying to be a psychotherapist. I wanted to give up, but the older two begged me not to. They gave me the strength to carry on. They’ve always known that I write and they are all really proud that I have written the book I wanted to write. I just did my first ever stage performance and they were all so thrilled and complimentary.
What has been your favourite moment so far about being a published author?
There have been many moments now, but right alongside holding a hardback copy of my book in my hands, had to be the letter from Candida Lacey, the Director of Myriad Editions Publisher which started ‘I’m delighted………’ It was a surreal moment. I’ve framed the letter and it hangs on my office wall. I see it every day as I sit at my desktop. I am aware that it’s being read by a wide section of people and I look forward to seeing it in the hands of a stranger.
Have you got a follow up to your debut planned?
Yes, I do. It’s slow, but I trust my gut and my mentor that it will come.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU…
- A favourite book you have to have in your collection? I am going to have to choose The New Daughters of Africa because there is so much in this amazing anthology that speaks to me as a human being, as a woman, as a black woman, as a mother, as a creative, a friend, a partner, a traveller, as a social commentator, as someone who believes herself, as my grandfather use to say to be on a life-long learning journey. It’s definitely the book I would take along to a desert island.
- A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? You can get it if you really want it, I sang this recently in my reggae choir. Yes, ifone is not afraid to live life. – Life can open up all kinds of possibilities.
- A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? I am not really a film person, but I loved Black Panther. It was just wonderful to see black people playing in these commanding roles – not being cast as criminals, victims, radicals etc. It may be written as a fantasy, but I believe it is a great celebration of some of the journeys we have travelled as a people, of our failures, our successes, our humanity, I love it and have seen it countless times.
- The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)? I have a love of the theatre, but the first stage production that I felt completely excited and moved by was Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame. I saw that an embarrassing number of times.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? Getting up this morning to find that a large vehicle, had crashed into the side of my parked Jeep Compass. That made me temporarily sad and a little mad. But all that was over-ridden by my very first stage performance at The Royal Festival Hall, as part of a Reggae Choir who were the principal choir for the Jazz Warriors as they celebrated 50 years of Trojan Music. I am still feeling wired from the experience.