Lemn Sissay was interviewed by Stephen Sackur on BBC’s Hard Talk a few weeks ago. At the time, I was impressed by this man who lifted himself from ignorant child immigrant to intellectual star in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.
Sissay’s mother, an immigrant from Ethiopia and pregnant with him, arrived in England in 1966. He was born in Wigan, Lancashire in 1967. The social worker responsible for his mother renamed him ‘Norman’ and gave him to foster parents with the suggestion that they should consider it an adoption, while his mother went to Bracknell to finish her studies. She refused to sign the adoption papers, saying that she wanted her son back when she was more settled. Social services ignored this.
Sissay’s adoptive parents, being strongly religious, wanted to rename him Mark after the Christian evangelist and give him their surname: Greenwood. They were very strict parents, but kind in their way. When Sissay reached the age of 12, he became somewhat difficult to manage. The Greenwoods, who by then had three children of their own, decided he was possessed by the devil, turned him over to social services, and announced that they wanted nothing more to do with him.
From the age of 12 to 18, Sissay was held in four childrens’ homes where he was physically, emotionally and racially abused. When he left the care system, he was given a flat with no bed; the head of social services said he should be taught a lesson, but what was the lesson? Sissay asked to see his files from social services; he had no family, no papers and no photos. His life history was contained in those files. He was given only two documents. One showed that his real name was Lemn Sissay. The second was a letter his mother had written to the social worker when Sissay was one, pleading for his return.
He continued to request his files. In 2015, after being told that the files were in remote storage and had been lost, he was given his files and an apology by Wigan Council.
In 1988, after a long search, he met his birth mother in Gambia where she was working for the UN.
At the age of 17, Sissay used his unemployment money to self publish a pamphlet of poetry . He released his first book of poetry in 1988 at the age of 21 and he has been a full-time writer since the age of 24, performing internationally. He has written eight books, and eleven plays, four for BBC radio, many featuring his maltreatment as a child.
In 2009, he was made an honorary doctor of letters by the University of Huddersfield and the following year he was appointed an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire).
In June 2015 he was elected Chancellor of the University of Manchester for a term of seven years. In January 2016, Sissay wrote an article for The Guardian in which he said, “How a society treats those children who have no one to look after them is a measure of how civilised it is. It is scandalous that a prime minister should have to admit, as David Cameron did last autumn, that the care system ‘shames our country’ and that Ofsted should report that there are more councils judged as ‘inadequate’ than ‘good’ for their children’s services.”
Simon Hattenstone, a journalist with The Guardian, said, “Sissay is an old friend of mine. He is one of the funniest and warmest people I know, extraordinarily animated with a life-affirming laugh. He is also one of the most damaged people I know, suffering paralysing depression that forces him to withdraw into himself and disappear for months at a time, sometimes longer.”
During the Hard Talk interview, Sissay made the following observations which I think are memorable:
- Our families are the repositories of our histories and therefor of our memory. Without family we are amnesiac.
- Forgiveness of the injuries we have suffered leads to healing of those injuries.
- “Define me by my healing not by my suffering.”
- “Forgiveness lets you live in the present.”