Lemn Sissay on his new memoir ‘My Name Is Why’
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?
I’ve dedicated the memoir to my various families — my birth mother and her daughters and sons, my birth father who has passed away and his daughters and sons, and my foster parents. I want to show them what happened to me when I was a child.
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?
I’m not sure about closure but I do know about forgiveness. My life has been on public record since before I was born; it has all been documented. I don’t feel like I’m exposing my inner secrets here, because it has always been public record. I don’t think my families know and I don’t think many people know how bad it was, and that’s why I’ve tried to find my files.
What are you trying to tell your audience which you couldn’t in your poetry or your documentaries?
I am allowing the public to see how the state treats a child, treated a child, over eighteen years of its entire childhood. And I think I have been wanting to find the evidence. But I also wanted to present it in a way which I know is creative, because I have always been a creative. I’ve always loved poetry and loved speaking. I wanted to get those two things, the creative process and the documentary process, to talk to one another. I wanted to make the files part of the outlook.
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?
Fortunately, most people don’t have to consider or experience the loss of their entire family. It’s probably a human being’s worst fear that they witness everything that they were relative to vanish. So I think the book is trying to say this is what it is like without a family. This is what it’s like when you don’t have people to show you that you are part of their memories.
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?
Yes, my poems are flags in the mountainside. The idea was that I would give a little bit of myself to the memory of nations, those being Ethiopia and the United Kingdom. My social media and my blog are all memory banks. If you go to my blog, it will say it’s in lieu of family. It’s so I can have relativity, so I can say ‘I was there.’
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’?
In a way. There was a survey conducted in Scotland on young people in care which found 4 in 10 young people in care thought they were there because it was their own fault. We think of them as ‘bad’ kids, and they aren’t.
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.
It is emotional fascism, whether a child should be treated as right or wrong, to be judged in this way.
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?
The aim is that they see themselves in a different light. I wanted them to see themselves as creators and that’s what I wanted them to experience. And then what follows from that is a kind of baptism of truth, as Jessica Hinds puts it.
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?
You can always tell we are in a recession because more kids will go into care. That’s what happens. There’s pressure on families, families can’t cope, children get put into care. So you can measure recessions by the number of kids put into care. We should be prioritising them to be serviced. If we can find ways [to pay for] for bombs in times of recession, why can’t we find ways for the children?
Where do we start in helping kids in care?
Imagine people who have come out of a war and they go into a hospital. You tend to the wounds, you respect that they’ve been in a war and you make them well. And when they come into your hospital, they feel safe and they feel they are going to get well.
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?
Yes. This is the horrifying, duplicitous view that all children are good or bad — constantly. They will be stealing cake, drinking underage, staying out late, taking drugs — not just kids in care, but all kids. There might be glue sniffing — I don’t know. But a child in care does it and it’s seen as a fucking crime, and people will judge the child in care as the naughty one, as if being naughty is not part of childhood. These are traumatised children, they need care.
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?
No. There was a case because of the blog brought against Wigan Council against the Assessment Centre. But they couldn’t get enough evidence to convince the authorities. I had told people in that instance that I wanted them to be answerable. You may not be able to prove abuse, but there was abuse. Institutional abuse which goes undocumented and which shows some bad practice going on somewhere and actually it’s often a lot worse than that.
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?
I am not against the church, the book isn’t against the church. It’s just about interpretation which resulted in what was a dark behaviour by my foster parents towards the child that they had fostered. I know that they didn’t mean to do that but that’s what they did. I became a poet when I left them and I knew I was a poet when I went into the children’s homes.
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?
Yes, ‘this is me’. In all your poetry there’s a definite quest for the truth of the matter. Whether it’s a Simon Armitage poem or a Linton Kwesi Johnson poem. The truth of the matter as the poet sees it is imperative. It has to be that they feel this is the truth of the matter, which is really beautiful.
Which kind of goes back to your very name — Why?
Yes, if I go back to Ethiopia now people shout my name in the street: ‘The boy who was stolen, his name is Why’.
This interview was originally published in The Meteor.