Lemn Sissay: ‘My younger self did not deserve what institutions did to him’

In a Letter to My Younger Self, the writer-broadcaster speaks candidly with The Big Issue about a childhood in care

The memory of my younger self is something I struggle with. I have no one to dispute or agree on the memory of me, good or bad. I was a people-pleasing 12-year-old. My mission was to make you smile. It is clear now that I was like that because I didn’t know why my foster parents got rid of me aged 12. I assumed that everybody leaves. The central idea of relationships in my childhood was: people disappear. They blame you and you don’t know what you have done. My smile was to keep people there for as long as I could. 

By the time I was 16, I was angry. I was imprisoned in Wood End assessment centre, my fourth and last children’s home. [Sissay’s Ethiopian mother had him fostered as an infant in what she thought would be a temporary arrangement while she finished her studies in the UK.] I didn’t know anybody who had known me for longer than a year. It was a different children’s home, with different staff members in it, with different children. In 1983, Margaret Thatcher was starting to take the north to pieces. I was brought up in Wigan, which has big resonances with George Orwell.

The assessment centre I was imprisoned in was very Orwellian – marched up and down long corridors, watched in the showers, strip searched if you had visitors. I had to suffer the abuses and not say anything. My capacity to function started to shut down. I couldn’t go outside, I couldn’t walk to the shops, the air outside felt like it had an ingredient of acid. It was illegal to imprison a child, but because I had no family they could put me in there knowing nobody would call. I would tell my younger self that he was right. He did not deserve what institutions were doing to him.

Aspirations are free  – and they would not even give us them. I had no imagined future beyond leaving care. We were seen as problems to be solved, rather than opportunities for greatness. But any child is an opportunity for greatness. There is a lack of aspiration, so nobody tells kids in care to buy property. I bought my first property a month ago.

At 16 I got tuned into Bob Marley. I went deep. I had been into David Bowie at 15 – he was something else from somewhere else and so was I. But I was finding out about myself through reggae. I learnt about race through Bob Marley, but also through how I was treated. I became political from the moment I understood that race was central to what happened to me in the care system. I did poetry readings for the anti-apartheid movement. If you have suffered racism, a large part of your job is to stop other people from suffering it. 

I found my mum at 21, my father’s family at 29 and my final sisters and brothers at 32, in all different parts of the world. My mum married the vice-minister for finance under the Emperor Haile Selassie, my father was a pilot for Ethiopian Airlines. He died in a plane crash in 1973. Just today I have been stopped on the streets by two Ethiopians in West London. I am known to my own people anywhere in the world. I have Ethiopia as a family and it is profoundly moving for me. Because that is who I was stolen from. 

I would tell my younger self that although his life so far was teaching him not to trust people, the greatest thing you will ever learn is to trust. There will be a lot of people who are on your side and you cannot see them because you think everybody is going to disappear and betray you. I have had it said all my life that I am a great survivor. But, as I wrote in a play well before it was in 12 Years a Slave: “I don’t want to survive, I want to live”. That’s an important mantra for me. 

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

I immediately took what was rightfully mine: my name. My birth certificate was a witness in court. It stood in the dock saying ‘This is who you are. They did wrong by taking this from you’. In a Lancashire mining town, I was saying to people, my name is not Norman. My name is Lemn Sissay. It was a defiance. The stealing of a name, the imprisoning of a child, the taking away of identity, trying to shape an individual outside of where they are from, the denigration of their home, their mother, their family – my story resonated with colonial times and what Bob Marley was talking about.

I am British. But I am also a first-generation Ethiopian. Ethiopia is not what we think of in this country. It is a profound place. I had to unlearn everything I had learnt about Africa and everything I had ever learnt about black people. 

When I wrote poetry, it felt familial. That is the best way I can describe it. I felt like I was at home. I realised I could create something that had never been created since the beginning of time. Anybody can. Whether it is a drawing, a poem, a song, once you have created it, the world is never the same. My relationship with my poetry is bigger than any audience could give me. My poems are proof I existed at a moment in time. They are flags in the mountainside. And in lieu of family, that is relativity.

Success is knowing I am OK and knowing I am OK to the people around me

The first time I stepped on stage was with Lenny Henry. Once a year all the children’s homes in the north-west of England would be taken in a convoy of black taxis to a theatre in Blackpool. One year was Cannon and Ball, and the special guest was Lenny. Because of him, I had been called names like ‘Katanga’, but he was the number one black face on TV and was funny about race. He wanted someone to join him on stage. All the kids from the children’s homes were putting their hands up going me, me, me. All the kids from my children’s home were pointing at me, going him, him, him. I was ushered on to the stage and remember feeling very at ease. I am meant to be here. 

I would like to go back to the 1980s and find Tony Wilson to say thank you. I thought Manchester then was for white, second generation, Irish, guitar-playing, pseudo-melancholic men, which made me feel like an outsider. But Tony was always ahead of the curve. When I was 20, he had me on Face To Face – a half-hour programme, just me and him, when he was at the top of his notoriety. He had me on Other Side Of Midnight three times and made a documentary about Hulme with my poetry. After he died, someone said, he loved you Lemn. I wish I’d realised. 

DID YOU KNOW…

There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

I would give it all up to have the memory of having a family. Success has never been walking on stage, meeting the Queen, next year I will be a doctor five times – Essex University have just asked me, which makes me really proud. But I know what is important. And it is not being well known. Success is knowing I am OK and knowing I am OK to the people around me.

If you can have that and be doing what you love, then you are getting to a great place. But my younger self would be impressed by doing the album Leftism with Leftfield [guesting on 21st Century Poem]. Last year, on tour to celebrate 20 years of the album, the whole of the Apollo in Manchester sang Happy Birthday to me. Given how difficult birthdays have been over the years, that was a gift.

My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay is out now (Canongate, £16.99)

Photo: Hamish Brown