Lemn Sissay on his new memoir ‘My Name Is Why’

Credit: BBC.

Lemn Sissay, award-winning and internationally acclaimed poet, was stolen from his birth mother and given to a foster family. He was thrown out by his foster parents at the age of 12 and sent to several children’s homes. He has written a memoir to tell his story of loss and healing, and he spoke to The Meteor about his reasons for publishing the book.

Poet, performer and current chancellor at the University of Manchester, Lemn Sissay was born on 21 May 1967 in Billings Hospital near St Margaret’s House for unmarried mothers in Wigan. His mother, an Ethiopian student, refused to sign the papers for adoption. She wished for her child to be fostered while she studied. Ignoring her wishes, the social worker handed baby Lemn to foster parents and gave him the name “Norman”. He was told his birth mother had abandoned him.

His foster parents, Catherine and David Greenwood, went on to have three children of their own. For some time, things went well. “There are no problems with Norman,” read the reports written by his social worker. “Mrs Greenwood does not think of the boy as a foster child.” But then the Greenwoods grew mistrustful and threw him out when he was 12.

For the next five years Lemn lived in four different children’s homes, each more austere and brutal than the last. At 17 he left the care system, alone. He requested his files from the Wigan Local Authority, a request they refused. After a 31-year campaign he received them in 2015.

Lemn’s powerful memoir, ‘My Name Is Why’, casts light on the abuse suffered by him at the hands of those working in the care system. He tells the story of his life, punctuating it with reports from his official files and his poetry.

Lemn writes of the emotional violence he experienced while living in institutions. The care systems failure to provide a developmentally appropriate, supportive environment. He had no one who loved him unconditionally and who could care for him during this traumatic period.

Instead, he describes a system where the lives of children in care became dominated by a set of systems and rotas and duties, their existences defined by how well they performed them. Where the children were deemed good or bad by those responsible for caring for them. Kids who behaved badly had cases built against them and were placed in remand homes without any charge or sentence. This was tantamount to what Lemn calls ’emotional fascism’. By telling his story, we can begin to understand the institutional abuse suffered by thousands of children in care.

For all of this, ‘My Name Is Why’ is not bitter in its tone. It is a book about abuse, but more importantly it is about family, forgiveness and healing. Lemn agreed to talk to The Meteor about his story:

Lemn Sissay, who did you write ‘My Name Is Why’ for?

It’s interesting that the memoir is devoted to your foster family, given your account of what happened. I gather from this that forgiveness and closure are major themes?

What are you trying to tell your audience which you couldn’t in your poetry or your documentaries?

We’re living in a time now where, as Tishani Doshi says the ‘Girls are coming out of the Woods.’ Metaphorically, it’s about the truth coming out.

For the sake of our readers who haven’t the read the book yet, what impact does the lack of a family have on the identity of a kid in care?

You were rejected by your foster parents because you exposed the cracks in the Greenwoods’ familial veneer and so you were blamed for the family’s dysfunction. You then describe a feeling of “slowly becoming invisible”, as your foster parents refused to share any photographs of you once they had thrown you out and the children’s homes starved you emotionally. Within this context, do you see creativity as a way of becoming visible again?

If you don’t have family, those memories are lost and are confined to one person’s head. And if they’re only in one person’s head then society says that person is mad, they’re supposedly delusional, they’re lying.

Does that relate to your point that kids in care are seen wrongly as lying or ‘bad’?

I wanted to show the public what was going on right in front of their face, highlighting [the common narrative] that you shouldn’t care about them because they are supposed to be the problem. I think you should all know, I think you should see the detail. They are stopping us from seeing the detail.

I am a physical, personal version of WikiLeaks. I have found the files and I have made them public. I have let people know what was happening. I have done nothing more. I have tried to tell people that it’s emotional and you make your mind up.

Emotional violence to me seems key to understanding this story, which is something that’s never recorded in your official reports.

In your Channel 4 documentary last year, Super Kids, you try to get kids in care to write poetry. What’s the aim in getting them to write poetry?

It’s not necessarily about writing poetry. It’s about them experiencing different kinds of education and gaining new kinds of skill sets so that they can then do what they want to do. I am just a poet so all I can share with them is poetry. What if they want to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a painter, or a plumber? They deserve a full service. They came into care without a family. We call it care in sentiment, but it’s really not in this regard.

What impact has austerity had on kids in care, in light of your advocacy that they receive a really good education to be confident in pursuing their paths?

Where do we start in helping kids in care?

You don’t say “ah sorry folks the budget’s really tight”. When they [politicians/civil servants] are not doing a good job they always reach for the budget line. These are children, they’re not adults. That’s one of the biggest scandals that happens to children in care, they get treated like adults.

They are assessed as good or bad, and get treated based on this?

Towards the end of the memoir you detail some of the horrific abuse suffered by the children in these institutions. Others who went through the same experience posted comments about it on your blog and you embed these testimonies in your account. Where does that go legally? Is there a case being brought against the Wigan Local Authority?

Do you think institutions throughout your life such as the church or children’s homes had a positive or negative effect on the formation of who you are?

You have to remember that when I became a poet, I didn’t know that my name Lemn — means ‘Why’ [in Amharic, official language of Ethiopia]. In other words, I think I am who I am before any of these fuckers got their hands on me. We’re looking for a linear pathway through the story which is natural for us to do when meeting somebody. But maybe there’s something else that says ‘Lemn was meant to be doing this. This was meant to be. This was how he was born.’ There’s a kind of destiny to it.

And this is the feeling you felt when you wrote your first poem?

Which kind of goes back to your very name — Why?

This interview was originally published in The Meteor.