“If somebody has fought for their rights all their life, how are they equipped to deal with peace?," asks English poet Lemn Sissay
Robbed of his childhood, name and history, Sissay – who spoke at the 2021 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature this month – has had to go through more than most people.
He was born in 1967 near Wigan, Lancashire, to an Ethiopian mother who had travelled to the UK to study. His mother, fearing that she did not have the necessary resources to care for him, gave Sissay as a baby to social services with the intent of taking him back once she was able to care for her child. But that's not what transpired.
Instead, Sissay was renamed Norman and was housed with a foster family who were told to treat the process like a permanent adoption. His real name as well as the name of his mother were concealed from him.
When he was 12, Sissay's long-term foster family returned him to the Wigan social services, saying that he was becoming increasingly difficult and that the "devil" was inside him. However, what Sissay was doing was not unlike most children his age: he was eating sweets without permission and staying out late at night. Nevertheless, the future poet soon found himself living in a string of children's homes until he was 17. This continued until he managed to get hold of his birth certificate, finally discovering his real name as well as that of his mother.
It was a moment suffused in cold irony as the writer discovered that the name Lemn, scrawled on a handwritten birth certificate, translated from Amharic to: why? A question that defined his formative years.
“At the same time, I also managed to get hold of my mother’s letters pleading to take me back only months after I was born,” Sissay says. “So when I received that letter and the birth certificate, and learnt my name, the name that my mother had given me, it filled me with purpose. I felt like this was an indication that I had been cheated. So rather than feeling confused, when I received my name, it was proof that something had gone wrong. It was the beginning of a paper trail.”
With the letter and birth certificate in hand, Sissay set out to find his mother. It would take him four years to track her down.
In the meantime, Sissay began writing poetry and was quick to establish himself as an up-and-coming name in the UK literary scene. He published his debut 1988 poetry collection Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist and the work caught the attention of a number of national newspapers and literary journals. It was easy to see this as the beginning of a promising career. But at the time, Sissay had little interest in advancing his profession or building a name as a poet. Greater existential concerns were troubling him.
“I wanted to find my family,” he says. “I wanted to know my name. I wanted to find its Earth. How could I pretend that this poetry, or this becoming well-known meant anything if the person who wrote it didn’t know who they belong to?”
Unsurprisingly, Sissay says he clearly remembers that day in 1988 when he first spoke to his mother. He was 21 and had just managed to learn that his mother, Yemarshet, worked for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Gambia.
"It was a very powerful moment," Sissay says. "To be able to call the UNDP where my mother had worked for some years and to ask her 'are you my mother?', which isn't a natural line for any human being to say."
But Sissay’s fight was long from over. For the next 24 years, he did whatever he could to get his hands on his files from the Wigan social services. Finally, in 2012, he did. The documents, printed with the block letters of a typewriter, described Sissay’s personality, his actions and intentions across various stages of his youth.
“It was quite horrific actually,” Sissay says, describing his reaction to finally being able to read the files. “It was as if I was a rat in a maze and they’re looking at me going ‘oh, he’s turned this way. He’s gone that way. He’s looking at us.’ It was not okay.”
The documents armed Sissay with the necessary proof that “the government had stolen my childhood.” And so, the poet took the Wigan council to court. It was a taxing legal process that ended three years later, in 2015, with an out-of-court settlement.
“I wanted to hold them accountable for what they did,” Sissay says.
Sissay compiled the documents he retrieved from the Wigan social services in a 2019 memoir My Name is Why, which also features his observations on child care as well as his poetry. The release, he says, is an examination of what could happen to a single child brought up in the UK care system. It is not the first of his works to draw back the curtain on his upbringing but he hopes it'll have the most impact.
“I know a lot of social workers are reading it in England today,” he says. “Hopefully, it’ll be a book they reference long into the future.”
Now 53, Sissay has carved a place for himself in the upper echelons of UK's literary scene. He was the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics. Three years later, he became the chancellor of the University of Manchester and soon joined the Foundling Museum's board of trustees. In 2019, he was awarded the prestigious Pen Pinter Prize. Sissay has also set up the foundation Gold from the Stone, which is dedicated with helping children who have left the care system. He says he may be unsure of how to "deal with peace" but he has found a special kind of calm in helping others.
“I think being of service is probably the most important part of my life at the moment,” he says. “So to be able to give back some of what it was given to you is really important to be able to live with oneself and the world.”