Stephen Sackur speaks to renowned poet and playwright Lemn Sissay, whose writing and performances lay bare his experiences of dark and painful places.
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Now on BBC News, HARDtalk.
Welcome to HARDtalk,
I'm Stephen Sackur.
A dangerous to generalise about the
human impulse to create art. But it
does seem it is often linked to the
experience of dark, painful places.
My guest today is a renowned poet
and playwright whose writing and
performance is laid bare his own
intimate wounds. Lemn Sissay was
abandoned as a baby, rejected why
his foster family, abused in public
institutions of care. He has since
been on a quest to understand his
past and piece together his
identity. Along the way, he found a
remarkable poetic voice. How?
Lemn Sissay, welcome to HARDtalk.
You are a writer, a
poet, but you are also a public
performer. One is very solitary, one
by definition is clearly public.
Which is the more authentic,
You know, I think
they are both authentic, and both
comfortable. You need to... You need
to... You need to be a loan to write
and to explore, and to find these
sort of chemical compound of the
Pulham. And you need to read on
stage so that that chemical compound
blows in the fireworks and sheds
light -- poem. You know...
for poetry as opposed to other art
forms, you have done other things,
and in particular you have written
quite a lot of plays, but I think
you have said poetry is your truest
self, the voice that lives at the
back of your mind. Is there
something special for you about
As a child, poetry was a
place where I could find a familial
resonance. In other words, when I
had no family as a child, the
writing of poetry would act as
memory, so that I could identify
where I had been, who I had been
with, what I felt, at any given sort
of time in my childhood. And that is
really what family does. And in lieu
of that, poetry allowed me to have a
place to look back out and say, oh,
I was there then.
You mean, and I
don't want to be too literal, but
POMS are almost like you're
Exactly. If family
is a set of disputed memories
between one group of people over a
lifetime, which I didn't have, I
didn't have anyone to dispute the
memory, memory is an essential part
of family. And my poems were memory
of any given event in my life.
you have introduced the already two
thoughts about your childhood, and
the colours so much of your writing.
And I guess your take on the world,
really, what you went through as a
child, as a young one. So I do want
to talk about it a little bit. And,
for people who don't know your
story, I mean, your mum was a young
Ethiopian woman who came to the UK
to study, I think.
She came in the
expansion of Ethiopia through the
emperor, who was sending out
students across the world to get
education and then to and feed back
into the growth of Ethiopia. It was
a very exciting time in Ethiopia at
What she pregnant,
actually, when she arrived?
question. I am not sure she was
pregnant when she arrived. I think I
was conceived quite literally in the
Interesting, but here she
was, a young woman in a new country,
an alien culture, trying to find her
place. And she then found herself
pregnant, had the baby, and clearly
decided she could not live her life
with this baby at this particular
time, and decided to give it up, you
are, of course.
incredible, OK? In the act of giving
a child away to be fostered or
adopted is to me the action of a
heroine. And what my mother did she
asked me to be fostered for a short
period of time while she studied so
she could then take me back to
Ethiopia, say a year, a year and a
half? The social worker gave me to
foster parent censored treat this as
an adoption, he is yours forever,
his name is Norman.
That was a
fundamental deception which change
the course of your life.
changed the course of my life, yes.
So my foster parents took me and
they said we are your parents now,
and we are your parents forever. And
I thought they were my mum and dad.
They grew up in the north of
In a very, it has to be
said, White, fairly insular
community, where you were this brown
skinned baby and a complete sort of
novelty, an alien to many of the
people in the community.
time I met a black person I was nine
years of age. So the foster parents
held me there and said that they
were mine forever, and at 12 years
of age, they put me on the
children's homes and said that they
would never contact me again, and
You know, you have had years
and years to reflect on this. Why do
you think they rejected you? Having
raised you for 12 years, and then
sent you a way for no more contact,
it seems the most extraordinarily
cruel and strange thing to do.
Days... I was going through
adolescence. So I was the eldest
child in the family, and I was
taking biscuits from the tin without
saying please and thank you. I was
staying out late with my friends.
And they had not had an adolescent
before. And this is what I think.
But you were 12, he worked 16. You
won't sniffing glue or committing
No, I wasn't doing
that either. They... They were... Do
you know, they meant to do the best
for me, I think, but they were
naive. And they were also extremely
religious, and they perceived that
the devil was working in this
equation, and... And yes, that is
what they did.
It is... It is the
most immense, complete form of
Yes, and it was complete.
I lost in the body. I lost my
mother, my father, my sisters, my
brothers, my aunts, my uncles, my
grandparents, my town, my first
girlfriend. From that point onwards
I was in no contact with any of the
family ever. And I was placed in the
children's homes with lots of other
children who had come from abused
families, and et cetera.
were abused. I mean, there was
racism and there was physical abuse.
There was racism, there was physical
abuse. I was in Woodend assessment
Centre at 17 years of age, so I was
held in a virtual prison for
children for about eight months.
This notion that you have already
talked about, of writing poetry in a
sense to store memory, in a way the
poems being the witnesses to what
you are going through, when did that
began? Did that began when you are
in the children's home?
began at 12 years of age. He knew
what I wanted to be. I have always
been clear I wanted to be a poet, I
was very clear about that and I made
a BBC radio documentary where one of
the staff in the children's home,
one of the cleaners... Cleaners are
really interesting people in
institutions, because they see
everything. They see what's wrong
and they see what's right. And
because they are not staff, they are
not social workers, they see
everything. They are quite an
incredible resource to a child,
actually. They they should be paid
more. But one cleaner said I
remember you in the children's home,
and I remember when you were
writing, and I remember you
scribbling your pieces of paper and
throwing them away and starting
again, et cetera.
I should say, we
have discussed this, because you
have agreed to do it, I want you to
read a poem, because I want people
to get a flavour of the poetry, and
your voice, as well, and it is
called Children's a bigger home, and
it is a very powerful and a very
bleak description of what a bit of
it felt like. But I just wonder...
This sort of poetry, which is
somewhat typical of things you have
reflect upon in your life, and about
your past, is there something -- is
this something you wrote long
afterwards? When did you write down
some of these things, some of these
I know that I wrote some
of these at the time, and I wrote
some of them after leaving care. You
know, you really do live your
childhood out in your adult life. It
is not in your childhood that the
abuse of being in care actually come
to life. It is when you leaving you
draw on your childhood as you grow
into an adult. It is then that you
see the effect that it has had on
you. And it is then that you look
back and realise whatever abuses
have happened to you.
Can we hear
this one verse from Children's Home.
Yes, one verse from children's home.
We had been given booby-trapped
timebombs, trigger wires hidden,
strapped on the inside. He became a
place of controlled explosions, self
mutilations, screams, suicide. Of
young people returned, returned to
sender. Half lit dorms of midnight
moans. We might well have all been
children, but this was never a
Yes, all of those
things happened in the care system,
some of them... Yes.
I mean, you
have been through the most
extraordinary journey in recent
years, because you, having reflect
that for so long on what happened to
you, you decided you are going to
seek some sort of legal recourse
against the council, that lied to
you, like you about your own mother,
about your own history and identity,
and kept you in those homes for five
or six years. And, in the course of
taking them to court, you had to go
through a psychologist's report. An
in-depth sort of forensic look deep
into your psyche.
imagine, has reintroduced due to so
much of the pain that has been
inside you for so long.
Yes. I would
say that, when somebody else takes a
look at your life, and they... They
break it down into... Into a report,
which outlines the damage that was
done to you via your childhood,
that's quite... That's quite an
event, to read that.
Well, I will
tell you what is even more
extraordinary, is your decision to
only see and hear what was in that
report live, as it were, on a
theatre stage, when a fellow actor
played the role of the psychologist,
and read the report to you, and you
sat in a chair and listened. And it
was the first time you have ever
heard it, listened to this long
exposition of the damage done to
you, including the post- traumatic
stress, the abuse of alcohol, other
forms of mental damage that the
psychologist found in you, and you
took it all in front of an audience,
on stage. A 1-off, completely
extraordinary performance. Why did
you do that?
I did it because other
people have been through this
process, particularly in Wales, and
they have had a psychologist report
written about them, and the suicide
rate of people who have been through
this process is high. So I didn't
want that, I didn't want that to
happen to me. So I felt safer to
hear the report read to me on stage
by an actor here in England, and I
feel safer on stage than I do it, is
probably the truth.
What was it like
listening to it?
It was quite
disturbing, and it... What it was
quite liberating as well, because
there were 350 people, 400 people,
at the Royal Court Theatre in west
London. There just to support me.
Just to be with me, just to hold me
in mind. It was like being hugged by
a nation. It was a beautiful event,
and I'm proud to have done it. I
have not looked at the report since
then, no, I haven't. And I won't.
You have talked about how any
society can be judged by the way
deals with the children who do not
have their own families, who are
institutionalised, cared for by the
State. You said in 2012 you can
define how strong a democracy is by
how its government treats this kind
of child. I don't mean children, I
mean the child of the state.
you are in care, the government is
legally your parents. So...
does it say about the Britain that
you have grown up in, your
treatment, what happened to you?
What does it say? And, you know,
children still struggle and suffer
in care today.
all the care system in England
solely from my family.
worker Mimi after himself.
briefly called Norman, won't you?
years! It locked me away and
presently a child. Yes, I won't
redress do that.
And that is
important, clearly, because you have
pursued that with determination. But
there is something us about you
which fascinates me, and is that
idea of forgiveness. Because as you
have conducted your career and
becoming a renowned poet, you have
been on a long-term quest to find
family, to find your own birth
mother, make sense of her life and
her decisions, and the sort of half
siblings that you have around the
world. I am surprised that you have
friend that in terms of forgiveness
rather than in anger, in a way. Is
there no angry new?
I have been
angry. I have been incredibly angry.
I have been hurt and I have come to
realise, well, I am not defined by
my scars, but by the incredible
ability to heal. And that
forgiveness is part of healing, and
that it is really important that I
forgive my foster parents and I
forgive social services here in
England that store my mother from
me, and I should forgive my mother
because it is very difficult when an
adult child comes back to find you.
It was very difficult for her, I
People watching this would
probably want to believe that when
you find your birth mother, and when
you went back to your foster
parents, much later in life, when he
became a successful artist, what we
would perhaps all like to believe is
that you found relationships that
were meaningful, that you had found
family, in a way, in these two
different strands of your life. Did
I think I've found - I think it
is collocated when you find your
family, my father's family, in his
brothers and sisters, my aunts and
uncles, my mother and her
We are talking about the
birth family, now. The Ethiopian
family. Are they in your life today?
I now know who my family is. The
truth is that it is very difficult
for them or for me or for any of us
to form familial relationships. They
are all good people. But it is quite
shocking when somebody comes into
your family, like me.
In a sense and
innocence demands of them a form of
truth telling. -- in a sense demands
a form of truth telling.
are OK. They want the truth
structure just as it is.
Unfortunately I challenge that.
that mean you can't... And I can
tell this is extremely difficult
view, but does that mean that you
cannot really have long-term close
relationships with these people from
You would have to ask
them about that. I mean, just
imagine somebody coming into your
house and standing there and saying
OK, I am now the oldest brother, and
by the way, your parents were
sleeping with other people at some
point in their life that you do not
know about, and staff. And so I
think that possibly - possibly, I do
know, family is about what is not
said. -- and stuff. It is about not
seeing things. It is about holding
their collective group in mind. I'm
somebody who wants answers. My name,
in the language of my origins, it
means time. Ethiopians now know me
as the person called and stuff. --
know me as the person called why. In
the land which of my origins, it
means why. Having a name like that
is a challenge to his family. And I
don't know how families work, so I
am not very... I am not very
equipped to understand the
subtleties of family. So no, I'd
don't, most of my family to speak to
me. My father's children and my
mother's children, actually, and you
know, yes, it is complicated,
Throughout all of this, I
have called it a quest. It involved
your foster parents and talking to
them, too. But through all of us,
you have kept writing. It seems to
me that there is serving addressing
about your creativity and your
poetry in particular. You see that
you have delivered the moment. You
say, you know, I cannot live in the
past, and they cannot look too far
into the future. I had to be and
they have to create in the here and
now. And I understand that. And yet
so much of your writing, in this
sort of anthology and others, is
actually about this past. So you do
go back all the time in your head.
have delivered the present. Thank
you for the reminder. Now we can
start the interview. Because that is
a survival technique.
present is actually a product of you
coming to terms and coping with and
weaving stories about your past. You
cannot separate them. Jeev make if
you live in the past, you are not in
And you are not alive
and real and authentic and true to
yourself. -- if you live in the
past. I do believe I live in my
past. In terms of my writing. I
write about what inspires me at the
time. And if that includes my time
in the children's homes, then that
is all well and good, but what
happened then affects away now. I
think living in the present is a way
of living the best life that you can
live, and forgiveness is one of the
best ways of being able to live in
the present, because otherwise you
Rory 's --
-- otherwise you always live in the
past. You go through the process of
anger, you'd go through the process
of war, and then you have to look at
yourself and equip yourself with the
process of peace. That is crucial to
anyone you communicate with. And if
all you have ever had is the defence
mechanisms or the fight or flight
mechanism, then you how to learn new
ways of being true true to make to
yourself and those around you. Being
in the present is one of the ways to
do that. -- being true to yourself
and those around you.
life, you are so much an outsider
and so much alone, and I think you
reflected on the fact that you did
not have anybody who had known you
for longer than one year. -- in your
young life. That is an
extraordinarily difficult and
isolating place to be in many ways.
And now you are an artist who is
widely respected and renowned. You
have received all sorts of
accolades. A gong from the Queen.
You have your ponds inscribed in
Grenot in London and Manchester. You
were the official poet gains. And of
course you at the Chancellor of
majesty university, which is a
lovely and highly prestigious thing
to be. Do you no longer feel like an
outsider? -- the official port of
the Olympic Games.
We all feel like
an outsider. For ever, whether we
are inside or not. It is OK to be an
outsider. It gives you a unique
perspective. There are tons of us
who are outsiders who have lived
through the care system and who have
become successful, but I'm
successful in spite of what happened
to me, not because of what happened
So this notion of art, and
reflect on this in the beginning
when I reflected on our coming out
of dark and painful places, you
don't believe that your art was, in
a sense, it that you're suffering
was a requirement to you to be the
others that you are?
No, you need to
fill a reason to write. That is all
you need. It is not had to be about
experience. You do not need to have
a bad express to be a good artist.
Otherwise I would tell people to
have a bad experience to become a
good artist. That is not true. We
all have stories. One of the things
that I treasure is the fact that a
story like mine allows me to build
ridges to people. And for people to
build bridges to me. I don't feel
isolated as much as I feel I have a
reason to Connecticut. -- allows me
to build bridges to people. Allows
me to communicate. And that is a
gift. -- I have a reason to
Thank you for joining
us on HARDtalk It is an honour, man.
Thank you very much indeed.
Stephen Sackur speaks to renowned poet and playwright Lemn Sissay, whose writing and performances lay bare his experiences of dark and painful places. He was abandoned as a baby, rejected by his foster family and abused in public institutions of care. He has since been on a quest to understand his past and piece together his identity. Along the way, he found a remarkable poetic voice.