Deborah Grace speaks to Lemn Sissay MBE, the award-winning poet, playwright, actor, broadcaster and University of Manchester Chancellor.
Born to an Ethiopian mother in Lancashire in 1967, Lemn was handed over to foster parents, who put him into care, aged 12. Having overcome his traumatic childhood, the poet supports other young care leavers and campaigns for changes in the care system.
Lying on my back, holding my arms out and crying; wanting to be picked up. This could have been me in the hospital, when I was waiting to be fostered. Wanting to be picked up – not hugged – just picked up.
Where are your roots?
They’re everywhere. I’m a big old tree with long roots which sought water when they initially found dry land, so I think I’m really blessed. My roots are in Manchester, Lancashire, London, Ethiopia, a little bit of New York, a little bit of South Africa. All places where I have really close friendships and family.
Explain the title of your new memoir, My Name Is Why
For the first 17 or 18 years of my life I thought my name was Norman. When my mother had me fostered, the social worker named me (illegally) after himself. My foster parents had wanted to call me Mark, from the Bible, and their name was Greenwood. So I thought my name was Norman Mark Greenwood. I even have NG tattoed on my hand.
When I left the children’s home I was handed my birth certificate and there was my real name, Lemn Sissay. I found my mother when I was 21. When I was 29 (I’d only been to Ethiopia once) somebody said, “You know your name – Lemn – means Why?” (in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia). So that’s how I’m known to my people; I’m the poet whose name is Why, who searched for his family and found them.
Over the years, I’ve formed a very strong and powerful relationship with Ethiopians across the world. I’m loved now by an entire country. Finding your name is almost like fulfilling who you are. I’ve had to travel all over the world to be accepted in my own country for my own name.
Do you have a relationship with your family in Ethiopia?
I do have a relationship with them; a very rocky and tricky relationship, but then for many of us – even if we’ve known our family all our lives – it can be rocky and tricky. I was searching for them, but most of them weren’t looking for me because they didn’t know about me. There are lots of stories like that, stories like Philomena. Women looking for children and children looking for their mothers and most of the time it doesn’t work out.
What is your greatest achievement?
I realised that my role as an artist meant I could make a difference, so that’s what I do. The thing I’m most proud of is starting and inspiring the Christmas Dinners, taking place across the country for young people between 18 and 25, who have left care. Think about Christmas Day when you
go to your mum’s or your dad’s. The memories of all the Christmases before are consolidated in that one day. It’s the same for the care leaver, except that often you become more invisible on that day, because that’s what you remember from previous Christmases. One girl at a Christmas Dinner in Oxford said afterwards, “It was so lovely, what’s the catch? I think you’re going to take my presents back.”
When the young people come to Christmas dinner, they’re not told, ‘Ok, you can have this, but you have to do this job or hit that target, so that we, as an organisation, can be satisfied.’ It’s just, ‘You’re going to have a great time; you’re going to get great presents. So just enjoy yourself.’
I’m now more than three years into my being Chancellor at the University and it’s been an incredible time. There are all kinds of access programmes, opportunities and scholarships for Ethiopians, for young Mancunians, for kids who’d not normally think of themselves as being good enough to go to university.
I’ll soon be doing the Making a Difference Awards: for university people who’ve made a difference in wider society, locally, nationally and internationally. It’s the people of Manchester and the North West that voted for me – the alumni of the university – it’s probably one of the greatest things that’s happened to me in my life.
I was adopted by a city, and that city then believed in me enough to ask me to be the Chancellor of its most esteemed institution.
When are you happy?
I just got back from Ethiopia a couple of days ago and I’m happy there. But I’m happy just because I’m loved by close friends, personally and professionally. I’m happiest when I’ve written something that I’m proud of. Yesterday, I wrote a poem that I was proud of and it was unveiled by the Duchess of Cambridge at The Foundling Museum in London. She said, “Thanks for the inspiring poem, Lemn.”
She’s going to be patron of The Foundling Museum, of which I’m trustee. So she’s patron of my organisation now!
Lemn Sissay is in conversation with writer and DJ Dave Haslam at Didsbury Arts Festival on 27 June 2019, 8.15 pm, Emmanuel Church (£10).
My Name is Why is released on 29 August 2019.