10 March 2023
Despite a painful upbringing in foster care, poet Lemn Sissay espouses hope, power and light in his writing.
It is 1967. For the next eighteen years, Lemn Sissay will grow up in five foster homes across the north of England without knowing who his parents are, what his real name is, or how he has come to be in state care. When he is left in foster care by his mother to complete a degree, she is assured that duly, he will be returned to her. But unbeknownst to the young Lemn, his mother is faced with years of bureaucratic subterfuge and half truths, and he is wilfully kept away from her for most of his life. In this time, Lemn is fostered till the age of twelve by a white family who he comes to believe is his own, only to be cruelly abandoned by them with instructions that they wish never to meet him again. Lemn loses the only parents and siblings he has ever known, and spends the years up to adulthood and beyond, in search of the truth.
In this conversation, we discuss Sissay’s life story, his writing, identity and his ability to always look to the light when the world seems so dark.
In My Name is Why (2019) Sissay, tells the story of his life with a tone that lacks bitterness or hate, demonstrating a resolute and stoic calm in the face of a series of progressively unsettling facts. The work is bookended with the assessments, letters and reports of his birth, adoption, counselling and care, giving the work a steely and mechanical backdrop. This is a story filled with confusion, sadness, racism and evasion at the hands of his caretakers in several children’s homes, and of a child’s unbreakable will in instinctively trusting his spirit. Just as Sissay begins to settle in one place and make friends, or get a job in another, his life is uprooted and he is moved by the system, to another home. Sissay forewords these painful chapters of his life with seemingly naive quatrains of hope. They remain with you long after the book is closed.
I am not defined by darkness
Confided the night
Each dawn I am reminded
I am defined by light.
Govind Dhar: Your book takes an unemotional, almost report-like tone in its narration. Why did you choose to write your difficult story in this way?
Lemn Sissay: I have been so angry, so confused, so lost at various points of my journey in childhood, that to emote would actually take away from the darkness and cruelty of what happened. At the heart of my sadness there is a child laughing. In the middle of the pain there is a soothing spirit. Whatever you do to me, that same spirit is at the middle of who I am. As angry as I feel, I am not born angry. That is what I retain. That’s my flag in the mountainside.
For most of his life, Lemn is named Norman Mark Greenwood. He receives his birth certificate at the age of 17 and discovers his real name and the names of his Ethiopian birth parents. He meets his mother when he is 21-years-old. Sissay then spends over thirty years lobbying Wigan Council for his personal files, receiving them when he is 48. In the book, when Sissay discovers his name, in a powerful affirmation of his hidden identity, he repeats the line ‘My name is Lemn Sissay,’ for an entire page. The effect is heart rending.
LS: When I got the files, the story became more real. This is my name. And as alien as it was to me, I needed to say it again and again. I was trying to wear something that had been stolen from me; wear my own skin. I had to say my name isn’t Norman Mark Greenwood. Trying to describe the intricacies of the theft of an identity was impossible. The moment I knew my name, I could see that that was the future. It had to happen. It made sense.
When I was 18 and left the children’s homes [in 1985], I wanted to find my family and I wanted to write poetry. I wrote my book after I got my files in 2015. I took the government to court and settled in 2018. The book came out in 2019.
GD: How did you arrive at poetry as a way of expression? Did you spend a lot of time reading in foster homes?
LS: There were no books in the children’s homes! I was moved from house to house so there was no line that I could hold onto. I was actively dissuaded from pursuing any educational career. If I’d not been searching for my family for so long, I would have concentrated on learning more.
I started writing at the age of 12 when I was in the children’s homes. When I wrote poetry as a child, I felt like I’d gone into a safe space where the madness that I was describing was not affecting me. I made a BBC documentary on this in 1995 called Internal Flight. The book and documentaries are a way of gathering evidence. I feel that family is a way of people gathering evidence on each other over a lifetime; it can be contested between that family, but I didn’t have that. The documentaries and the book are ways of displaying evidence.
GD: How do you reconcile your Ethiopian roots with your British identity?
LS: I love belonging to both places. It’s easy for me to feel that I’m an outsider everywhere, but my optimal way of being is to be at home wherever I am. The minority will often describe themselves by colour; the majority do not. In England, I’m a black man. In Ethiopia, I’m not. I am loved in Ethiopia and I am loved in England, but that is not what I depend on. I can be both. I go back to Ethiopia regularly and I am known to my people. That is the greatest gift.
Sissay’s story could easily have been one that fell into eternal despair. He talks in the book about his substance abuse and a recurring feeling of being lost and angry. But he holds onto hope, perpetually looking to the horizon. And when he is finally free of the children’s homes, he begins to write.
For his contributions to the arts and literature, Sissay today is the Chancellor of the University of Manchester, an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire), a regular broadcaster and documentarian, and a freeman of London. He has won several awards for his writing including the PEN Pinter Prize for poetry, runs a charitable organisation called Gold from the Stone Foundation, which hosts Christmas dinners for foster children, juries for literary prizes, and continues to perform his poetry live. He has authored over twenty plays and books and shows no signs of stopping.
GD: Does it become difficult to relive your past as you repeat your stories in live performances or talks?
LS: You come to tell your story in such a way that it solidifies and becomes separate to you, that you bring out. As somebody who has told his story for most of his life, our stories are not static. The past is a lifelong project. Understanding the past is a way of living in the present so I don’t suffer from truth fatigue. I have to ask myself ‘What’s my story today?’ What happened affects me at certain times in my life and at others it doesn’t, and I’m okay with that.
GD: When it comes to social justice, how would you comment on the current era?
LS: Compared to the time of my childhood, where I was the only black person in my village of Lancashire? Where you never saw a person of colour in an advert? The only time you saw a person of colour on the television was if they were on the news in terms of coverage, or they were the news presenter. Whereas today, the internet has had a very empowering effect on the world. Our boundaries have become less blurred. We can’t ignore each other or the influence of each other. The internet as the democratisation of information means I can say something now, and a farmer in a field in Eritrea can read my tweet. We are living in a very exciting time in terms of race and colour and context. It’s a very challenging time, but a very good time.
GD: What are you writing at present?
LS: I am trying to adapt Metamorphoses for Frantic Assembly, a movement theatre company in London. I’m working on a BBC Radio 4 show called Lemn Sissay is the Only One. I have to write a speech for when I receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Leicester. The same week I am going to be made a freeman of the city of London. It’s like a bit of a dream and it feels like something out of a film. ‘The boy out of the children’s homes becomes a freeman of the city of London!’ Incredible. I feel like I’m getting back what was taken from me.
GD: What parting words do you have about the power of writing?
LS: It’s very strange: the space in which you write is very present. I got a feeling of safety. I could be describing a storm, but in the act of describing it, I was put into the eye of it. If I stopped writing, I would be swept up in it. I could describe it without being lacerated by it. It was my shield and my sword. Many of us in society, whatever race or gender, have found a moment where we have had to stand up for who we are, and sometimes our friends and family don’t understand. But we must. We have to go through that ring of fire.
Look what was sown by the stars
At night across the fields
I am not defined by scars
But by the incredible ability to heal.
Illustration Credit: Shaili Malla