Lemn Sissay, Poet and Playwright HARDtalk


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Lemn Sissay, Poet and Playwright

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.

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Welcome to HARDtalk,

I'm Stephen Sackur.

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A dangerous to generalise about the

human impulse to create art. But it

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does seem it is often linked to the

experience of dark, painful places.

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My guest today is a renowned poet

and playwright whose writing and

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performance is laid bare his own

intimate wounds. Lemn Sissay was

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abandoned as a baby, rejected why

his foster family, abused in public

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institutions of care. He has since

been on a quest to understand his

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past and piece together his

identity. Along the way, he found a

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remarkable poetic voice. How?

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Lemn Sissay, welcome to HARDtalk.

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Hello, Stephen.

You are a writer, a

poet, but you are also a public

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performer. One is very solitary, one

by definition is clearly public.

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Which is the more authentic,

comfortable you?

You know, I think

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they are both authentic, and both

comfortable. You need to... You need

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to... You need to be a loan to write

and to explore, and to find these

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sort of chemical compound of the

Pulham. And you need to read on

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stage so that that chemical compound

blows in the fireworks and sheds

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light -- poem. You know...

And as

for poetry as opposed to other art

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forms, you have done other things,

and in particular you have written

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quite a lot of plays, but I think

you have said poetry is your truest

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self, the voice that lives at the

back of your mind. Is there

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something special for you about

poetry?

As a child, poetry was a

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place where I could find a familial

resonance. In other words, when I

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had no family as a child, the

writing of poetry would act as

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memory, so that I could identify

where I had been, who I had been

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with, what I felt, at any given sort

of time in my childhood. And that is

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really what family does. And in lieu

of that, poetry allowed me to have a

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place to look back out and say, oh,

I was there then.

You mean, and I

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don't want to be too literal, but

POMS are almost like you're

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surrogate family?

Exactly. If family

is a set of disputed memories

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between one group of people over a

lifetime, which I didn't have, I

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didn't have anyone to dispute the

memory, memory is an essential part

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of family. And my poems were memory

of any given event in my life.

Well,

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you have introduced the already two

thoughts about your childhood, and

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the colours so much of your writing.

And I guess your take on the world,

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really, what you went through as a

child, as a young one. So I do want

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to talk about it a little bit. And,

for people who don't know your

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story, I mean, your mum was a young

Ethiopian woman who came to the UK

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to study, I think.

She came in the

expansion of Ethiopia through the

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emperor, who was sending out

students across the world to get

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education and then to and feed back

into the growth of Ethiopia. It was

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a very exciting time in Ethiopia at

that time.

What she pregnant,

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actually, when she arrived?

Good

question. I am not sure she was

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pregnant when she arrived. I think I

was conceived quite literally in the

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journey.

Interesting, but here she

was, a young woman in a new country,

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an alien culture, trying to find her

place. And she then found herself

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pregnant, had the baby, and clearly

decided she could not live her life

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with this baby at this particular

time, and decided to give it up, you

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are, of course.

Women are

incredible, OK? In the act of giving

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a child away to be fostered or

adopted is to me the action of a

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heroine. And what my mother did she

asked me to be fostered for a short

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period of time while she studied so

she could then take me back to

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Ethiopia, say a year, a year and a

half? The social worker gave me to

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foster parent censored treat this as

an adoption, he is yours forever,

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his name is Norman.

That was a

fundamental deception which change

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the course of your life.

It utterly

changed the course of my life, yes.

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So my foster parents took me and

they said we are your parents now,

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and we are your parents forever. And

I thought they were my mum and dad.

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They grew up in the north of

England...

In a very, it has to be

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said, White, fairly insular

community, where you were this brown

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skinned baby and a complete sort of

novelty, an alien to many of the

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people in the community.

The first

time I met a black person I was nine

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years of age. So the foster parents

held me there and said that they

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were mine forever, and at 12 years

of age, they put me on the

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children's homes and said that they

would never contact me again, and

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didn't.

You know, you have had years

and years to reflect on this. Why do

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you think they rejected you? Having

raised you for 12 years, and then

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sent you a way for no more contact,

it seems the most extraordinarily

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cruel and strange thing to do.

Days... I was going through

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adolescence. So I was the eldest

child in the family, and I was

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taking biscuits from the tin without

saying please and thank you. I was

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staying out late with my friends.

And they had not had an adolescent

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before. And this is what I think.

But you were 12, he worked 16. You

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won't sniffing glue or committing

serious crimes.

No, I wasn't doing

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that either. They... They were... Do

you know, they meant to do the best

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for me, I think, but they were

naive. And they were also extremely

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religious, and they perceived that

the devil was working in this

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equation, and... And yes, that is

what they did.

It is... It is the

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most immense, complete form of

rejection.

Yes, and it was complete.

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I lost in the body. I lost my

mother, my father, my sisters, my

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brothers, my aunts, my uncles, my

grandparents, my town, my first

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girlfriend. From that point onwards

I was in no contact with any of the

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family ever. And I was placed in the

children's homes with lots of other

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children who had come from abused

families, and et cetera.

And you

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were abused. I mean, there was

racism and there was physical abuse.

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There was racism, there was physical

abuse. I was in Woodend assessment

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Centre at 17 years of age, so I was

held in a virtual prison for

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children for about eight months.

This notion that you have already

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talked about, of writing poetry in a

sense to store memory, in a way the

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poems being the witnesses to what

you are going through, when did that

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began? Did that began when you are

in the children's home?

Yes, it

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began at 12 years of age. He knew

what I wanted to be. I have always

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been clear I wanted to be a poet, I

was very clear about that and I made

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a BBC radio documentary where one of

the staff in the children's home,

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one of the cleaners... Cleaners are

really interesting people in

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institutions, because they see

everything. They see what's wrong

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and they see what's right. And

because they are not staff, they are

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not social workers, they see

everything. They are quite an

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incredible resource to a child,

actually. They they should be paid

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more. But one cleaner said I

remember you in the children's home,

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and I remember when you were

writing, and I remember you

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scribbling your pieces of paper and

throwing them away and starting

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again, et cetera.

I should say, we

have discussed this, because you

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have agreed to do it, I want you to

read a poem, because I want people

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to get a flavour of the poetry, and

your voice, as well, and it is

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called Children's a bigger home, and

it is a very powerful and a very

0:09:020:09:08

bleak description of what a bit of

it felt like. But I just wonder...

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This sort of poetry, which is

somewhat typical of things you have

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reflect upon in your life, and about

your past, is there something -- is

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this something you wrote long

afterwards? When did you write down

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some of these things, some of these

memories?

I know that I wrote some

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of these at the time, and I wrote

some of them after leaving care. You

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know, you really do live your

childhood out in your adult life. It

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is not in your childhood that the

abuse of being in care actually come

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to life. It is when you leaving you

draw on your childhood as you grow

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into an adult. It is then that you

see the effect that it has had on

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you. And it is then that you look

back and realise whatever abuses

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have happened to you.

Can we hear

this one verse from Children's Home.

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Yes, one verse from children's home.

We had been given booby-trapped

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timebombs, trigger wires hidden,

strapped on the inside. He became a

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place of controlled explosions, self

mutilations, screams, suicide. Of

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young people returned, returned to

sender. Half lit dorms of midnight

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moans. We might well have all been

children, but this was never a

0:10:180:10:22

children's home.

Mutilation, screams

and suicide.

Yes, all of those

0:10:220:10:31

things happened in the care system,

some of them... Yes.

I mean, you

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have been through the most

extraordinary journey in recent

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years, because you, having reflect

that for so long on what happened to

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you, you decided you are going to

seek some sort of legal recourse

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against the council, that lied to

you, like you about your own mother,

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about your own history and identity,

and kept you in those homes for five

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or six years. And, in the course of

taking them to court, you had to go

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through a psychologist's report. An

in-depth sort of forensic look deep

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into your psyche.

Yes.

That, I

imagine, has reintroduced due to so

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much of the pain that has been

inside you for so long.

Yes. I would

0:11:160:11:23

say that, when somebody else takes a

look at your life, and they... They

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break it down into... Into a report,

which outlines the damage that was

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done to you via your childhood,

that's quite... That's quite an

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event, to read that.

Well, I will

tell you what is even more

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extraordinary, is your decision to

only see and hear what was in that

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report live, as it were, on a

theatre stage, when a fellow actor

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played the role of the psychologist,

and read the report to you, and you

0:12:040:12:09

sat in a chair and listened. And it

was the first time you have ever

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heard it, listened to this long

exposition of the damage done to

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you, including the post- traumatic

stress, the abuse of alcohol, other

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forms of mental damage that the

psychologist found in you, and you

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took it all in front of an audience,

on stage. A 1-off, completely

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extraordinary performance. Why did

you do that?

I did it because other

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people have been through this

process, particularly in Wales, and

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they have had a psychologist report

written about them, and the suicide

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rate of people who have been through

this process is high. So I didn't

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want that, I didn't want that to

happen to me. So I felt safer to

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hear the report read to me on stage

by an actor here in England, and I

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feel safer on stage than I do it, is

probably the truth.

What was it like

0:13:070:13:15

listening to it?

It was quite

disturbing, and it... What it was

0:13:150:13:21

quite liberating as well, because

there were 350 people, 400 people,

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at the Royal Court Theatre in west

London. There just to support me.

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Just to be with me, just to hold me

in mind. It was like being hugged by

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a nation. It was a beautiful event,

and I'm proud to have done it. I

0:13:380:13:45

have not looked at the report since

then, no, I haven't. And I won't.

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You have talked about how any

society can be judged by the way

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deals with the children who do not

have their own families, who are

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institutionalised, cared for by the

State. You said in 2012 you can

0:13:590:14:03

define how strong a democracy is by

how its government treats this kind

0:14:030:14:07

of child. I don't mean children, I

mean the child of the state.

Yes. If

0:14:070:14:12

you are in care, the government is

legally your parents. So...

And what

0:14:120:14:16

does it say about the Britain that

you have grown up in, your

0:14:160:14:20

treatment, what happened to you?

What does it say? And, you know,

0:14:200:14:24

children still struggle and suffer

in care today.

0:14:240:14:30

all the care system in England

solely from my family.

The care

0:14:310:14:36

worker Mimi after himself.

You are

briefly called Norman, won't you?

18

0:14:360:14:40

years! It locked me away and

presently a child. Yes, I won't

0:14:400:14:51

redress do that.

And that is

important, clearly, because you have

0:14:510:14:57

pursued that with determination. But

there is something us about you

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which fascinates me, and is that

idea of forgiveness. Because as you

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have conducted your career and

becoming a renowned poet, you have

0:15:070:15:11

been on a long-term quest to find

family, to find your own birth

0:15:110:15:18

mother, make sense of her life and

her decisions, and the sort of half

0:15:180:15:22

siblings that you have around the

world. I am surprised that you have

0:15:220:15:27

friend that in terms of forgiveness

rather than in anger, in a way. Is

0:15:270:15:32

there no angry new?

I have been

angry. I have been incredibly angry.

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I have been hurt and I have come to

realise, well, I am not defined by

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my scars, but by the incredible

ability to heal. And that

0:15:430:15:51

forgiveness is part of healing, and

that it is really important that I

0:15:510:15:58

forgive my foster parents and I

forgive social services here in

0:15:580:16:06

England that store my mother from

me, and I should forgive my mother

0:16:060:16:12

because it is very difficult when an

adult child comes back to find you.

0:16:120:16:17

It was very difficult for her, I

think.

People watching this would

0:16:170:16:22

probably want to believe that when

you find your birth mother, and when

0:16:220:16:26

you went back to your foster

parents, much later in life, when he

0:16:260:16:29

became a successful artist, what we

would perhaps all like to believe is

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that you found relationships that

were meaningful, that you had found

0:16:330:16:37

family, in a way, in these two

different strands of your life. Did

0:16:370:16:46

you?

I think I've found - I think it

is collocated when you find your

0:16:460:16:53

family, my father's family, in his

brothers and sisters, my aunts and

0:16:530:16:58

uncles, my mother and her

children...

We are talking about the

0:16:580:17:03

birth family, now. The Ethiopian

family. Are they in your life today?

0:17:030:17:07

I now know who my family is. The

truth is that it is very difficult

0:17:070:17:15

for them or for me or for any of us

to form familial relationships. They

0:17:150:17:24

are all good people. But it is quite

shocking when somebody comes into

0:17:240:17:31

your family, like me.

In a sense and

innocence demands of them a form of

0:17:310:17:42

truth telling. -- in a sense demands

a form of truth telling.

Families

0:17:420:17:47

are OK. They want the truth

structure just as it is.

0:17:470:17:51

Unfortunately I challenge that.

Does

that mean you can't... And I can

0:17:510:17:56

tell this is extremely difficult

view, but does that mean that you

0:17:560:17:59

cannot really have long-term close

relationships with these people from

0:17:590:18:05

your life?

You would have to ask

them about that. I mean, just

0:18:050:18:12

imagine somebody coming into your

house and standing there and saying

0:18:120:18:15

OK, I am now the oldest brother, and

by the way, your parents were

0:18:150:18:18

sleeping with other people at some

point in their life that you do not

0:18:180:18:22

know about, and staff. And so I

think that possibly - possibly, I do

0:18:220:18:30

know, family is about what is not

said. -- and stuff. It is about not

0:18:300:18:36

seeing things. It is about holding

their collective group in mind. I'm

0:18:360:18:39

somebody who wants answers. My name,

in the language of my origins, it

0:18:390:18:53

means time. Ethiopians now know me

as the person called and stuff. --

0:18:530:19:03

know me as the person called why. In

the land which of my origins, it

0:19:030:19:08

means why. Having a name like that

is a challenge to his family. And I

0:19:080:19:14

don't know how families work, so I

am not very... I am not very

0:19:140:19:20

equipped to understand the

subtleties of family. So no, I'd

0:19:200:19:27

don't, most of my family to speak to

me. My father's children and my

0:19:270:19:32

mother's children, actually, and you

know, yes, it is complicated,

0:19:320:19:39

Stephen.

Throughout all of this, I

have called it a quest. It involved

0:19:390:19:45

your foster parents and talking to

them, too. But through all of us,

0:19:450:19:49

you have kept writing. It seems to

me that there is serving addressing

0:19:490:19:53

about your creativity and your

poetry in particular. You see that

0:19:530:19:56

you have delivered the moment. You

say, you know, I cannot live in the

0:19:560:20:00

past, and they cannot look too far

into the future. I had to be and

0:20:000:20:04

they have to create in the here and

now. And I understand that. And yet

0:20:040:20:08

so much of your writing, in this

sort of anthology and others, is

0:20:080:20:11

actually about this past. So you do

go back all the time in your head.

I

0:20:110:20:17

have delivered the present. Thank

you for the reminder. Now we can

0:20:170:20:22

start the interview. Because that is

a survival technique.

But the

0:20:220:20:28

present is actually a product of you

coming to terms and coping with and

0:20:280:20:34

weaving stories about your past. You

cannot separate them. Jeev make if

0:20:340:20:37

you live in the past, you are not in

the present.

And you are not alive

0:20:370:20:42

and real and authentic and true to

yourself. -- if you live in the

0:20:420:20:46

past. I do believe I live in my

past. In terms of my writing. I

0:20:460:20:51

write about what inspires me at the

time. And if that includes my time

0:20:510:20:57

in the children's homes, then that

is all well and good, but what

0:20:570:21:02

happened then affects away now. I

think living in the present is a way

0:21:020:21:07

of living the best life that you can

live, and forgiveness is one of the

0:21:070:21:13

best ways of being able to live in

the present, because otherwise you

0:21:130:21:17

Rory 's --

0:21:170:21:22

-- otherwise you always live in the

past. You go through the process of

0:21:260:21:31

anger, you'd go through the process

of war, and then you have to look at

0:21:310:21:37

yourself and equip yourself with the

process of peace. That is crucial to

0:21:370:21:42

anyone you communicate with. And if

all you have ever had is the defence

0:21:420:21:46

mechanisms or the fight or flight

mechanism, then you how to learn new

0:21:460:21:52

ways of being true true to make to

yourself and those around you. Being

0:21:520:22:00

in the present is one of the ways to

do that. -- being true to yourself

0:22:000:22:07

and those around you.

Neil Young

life, you are so much an outsider

0:22:070:22:12

and so much alone, and I think you

reflected on the fact that you did

0:22:120:22:16

not have anybody who had known you

for longer than one year. -- in your

0:22:160:22:20

young life. That is an

extraordinarily difficult and

0:22:200:22:26

isolating place to be in many ways.

And now you are an artist who is

0:22:260:22:31

widely respected and renowned. You

have received all sorts of

0:22:310:22:34

accolades. A gong from the Queen.

You have your ponds inscribed in

0:22:340:22:40

Grenot in London and Manchester. You

were the official poet gains. And of

0:22:400:22:45

course you at the Chancellor of

majesty university, which is a

0:22:450:22:48

lovely and highly prestigious thing

to be. Do you no longer feel like an

0:22:480:22:54

outsider? -- the official port of

the Olympic Games.

We all feel like

0:22:540:23:00

an outsider. For ever, whether we

are inside or not. It is OK to be an

0:23:000:23:07

outsider. It gives you a unique

perspective. There are tons of us

0:23:070:23:15

who are outsiders who have lived

through the care system and who have

0:23:150:23:19

become successful, but I'm

successful in spite of what happened

0:23:190:23:22

to me, not because of what happened

to me.

So this notion of art, and

0:23:220:23:27

reflect on this in the beginning

when I reflected on our coming out

0:23:270:23:31

of dark and painful places, you

don't believe that your art was, in

0:23:310:23:35

a sense, it that you're suffering

was a requirement to you to be the

0:23:350:23:40

others that you are?

No, you need to

fill a reason to write. That is all

0:23:400:23:45

you need. It is not had to be about

experience. You do not need to have

0:23:450:23:50

a bad express to be a good artist.

Otherwise I would tell people to

0:23:500:23:53

have a bad experience to become a

good artist. That is not true. We

0:23:530:23:57

all have stories. One of the things

that I treasure is the fact that a

0:23:570:24:01

story like mine allows me to build

ridges to people. And for people to

0:24:010:24:05

build bridges to me. I don't feel

isolated as much as I feel I have a

0:24:050:24:10

reason to Connecticut. -- allows me

to build bridges to people. Allows

0:24:100:24:14

me to communicate. And that is a

gift. -- I have a reason to

0:24:140:24:21

communicate.

Thank you for joining

us on HARDtalk It is an honour, man.

0:24:210:24:25

Thank you very much indeed.

0:24:250:24:40

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.