Writer, poet and broadcaster Lemn Sissay’s memoir is as powerful as it is poignant. Yvette Huddleston talked to him ahead of his visit to Yorkshire.
It is as lyrical and beautifully written as you might expect from a multi-award winning poet, but Lemn Sissay’s memoir My Name is Why is at times a heartbreaking read.
It tells a story of cruelty, neglect and the inadequacies of a care system not fit for purpose; of a child denied his right to be loved and looked after in the way that he – and every other child in similar circumstances – deserves to be.
Sissay relates it all with unflinching candour, piecing together his own narrative from official papers having spent decades fighting to be given access to his social services files. He first requested them at the age of 18, shortly after leaving care. He eventually received them in 2015, 30 years later.
Today Sissay is one of our best-loved poets, as well as an acclaimed playwright, broadcaster and speaker; among his many other achievements he is chancellor of Manchester University, was the official poet for the 2012 London Olympics and recently received the PEN Pinter prize, but his early life was difficult and unsettling.
Born in 1967 in a Home for Unmarried Mothers in Lancashire to a young Ethiopian student, Sissay was placed, against his mother’s wishes, in long-term foster care with a young white working class Baptist couple Catherine and David Greenwood near Wigan. His name was changed to Norman (after his social worker at the time).
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The Greenwoods went on to have three children of their own and Sissay lived with them, the people he considered to be his family and whom he loved, until he was 12. Then after a series of pretty innocuous ‘incidents’ (stealing from the biscuit tin, sulks, quarrels with siblings) none of which could be described as anything other than normal adolescent behaviour, the Greenwoods sent him back in to care – with the stark instruction that they never wanted to see him again.
He spent the next six years in a number of different children’s homes, feeling it was somehow his fault and becoming increasingly troubled and depressed.
There is an awful lot of pain in My Name is Why but there is also a great deal of hope, especially in relation to the redemptive power of creativity.
The book has, rightly, received a lot of positive attention, racing up the book charts after its publication in August to become the Sunday Times number one bestseller and Sissay will be speaking about it at Ilkley Literature Festival next week.
He wrote the book, he says, “so that the key people who I have a familial relationship with – my foster family and my birth family – can all see what I went through.” Reading through his files allowed him to finally place some sort of structure and meaning on to his destabilising formative years.
“It meant I could authenticate where I was in a given space or time. That’s what family provides – the facts about where you were – and I didn’t have that. Without that, it is like trying to prove to someone that you are invisible – that is the perfect way to describe it.”
While looking at his paperwork was enlightening, he says it was also a “confusing and hugely emotional” experience. “You are entering into a time capsule. The words are set in stone and uncontestable and you are confronted with how you handle that emotionally, how you react to it. I’ve met a lot of people who have also received their files who say they’ve just put them in a drawer and can’t look at them. I can understand that.”
Most upsetting of all for Sissay was the discovery of a letter, written by his mother in 1968 asking how she could get her baby back, now that she was in a position to look after him. She was told that since she had ‘abandoned’ her child she should consider his long-term foster care an adoption.
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As a reader, this revelation in particular is especially hard to bear. I wonder how he has managed to contain his anger at the terrible injustice of it all.
“In my teenage years and twenties, anger was a great fuel injection, it can spur you on to really good action, but it can also eat away at you and become corrosive,” he says. “It has been a blessing for me to see that people feel angry on my behalf. That is a beautiful thing for me to experience. I do feel genuinely loved by the fact that people are reacting in this way to the book.”
Throughout even his most challenging times growing up, art was a constant for Sissay. “I was always interested in books and poetry, I loved reading,” he says. “I always had a creative energy and literature was an outlet for me. I am lucky to have found something I love and which allows me to shine, that feels like it was meant to be.
"I felt that at the age of 12, I wanted to be a poet, I was very clear about it. I do feel blessed to have been able to find exactly where and how to explore my creativity very early on.”
He quickly established himself as a poet after leaving care, self-publishing his first poetry pamphlet as a teenager. Settling in Manchester, he found work as a literature development worker with a community publishing cooperative and his first poetry collection was published in 1988, aged 21. He began to perform around the same time.
“My first gig was at Bradford University, someone invited me to read – and that was when I realised I had arrived.”
Sissay has been working with and on behalf of others campaigning to get access to their social services files. It was his own determination to get to the truth of his story that kept him going, he says.
“I knew I had been wronged and I knew that the only people who could show I had been wronged were the very people who had wronged me. The system and the people working in it were dysfunctional when I was there. The care industry is now going through a time of reflection and one part of that is giving out the files.”
He hopes that his memoir will help to bring about a radical overhaul in the care system and the way it is viewed. “Children in care do not ‘go off the rails’ they are thrown off the rails – it’s so important to change those attitudes. If you are in care, you have come in to care for care.
"There is this narrative that ‘if you are naughty you will go to a children’s home’. The care system should not be about discipline. It needs roots and branch attitudinal change.”
Lemn, the name Sissay’s mother gave him as a baby, means ‘why’ in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. It seems so poignantly appropriate for someone who, partly out of necessity, has been asking questions all his life.
“My family and my name and my mother were stolen from me,” he says. “The clearest thing about me is that I have no family – and that means I have no-one to shame. All families have secrets, in some ways that is the beauty of them, and you don’t want to tread on anybody’s heart, so sometimes not asking questions is the gift that you give to your family.
"I don’t have that dialogue which meant I could keep asking those difficult questions, there was no-one to stop me. I basically wanted my life to make sense and I feel lucky that I have been able to do that.”
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Lemn Sissay’s memoir My Name is Why is published by Canongate. He is appearing at Ilkley Literature Festival on October 8.