Raise me with sunrise
Bathe me in light
Wash all the shadows
That fell from the night.
Imagine having to piece together your life and your identity from a series of index cards and minuted committee meetings! Imagine finding out age 16 that even your name is a lie. This is the experience that poet Lemn Sissay relates.
Even if you don’t know who you are from an emotional point of view, at least you have a name. Perhaps it is the right name. It is the one written on your birth certificate which someone will have stored in a shoebox in the bottom of a wardrobe. Whether you like this name or not it was the name given to you at birth and it cannot be changed without legal process.
But what happens when the name you have lived with, and the family you have lived with turn out to be a lie? A chimera? What happens when someone hides your birth certificate from you and presents you with other official looking documents which contain a different name? Who are you then?
Lemn Sissay grew up as Norman Greenwood. Born in 1967 it was not until 1982 that Sissay was shown papers which proved that his mother had been an Ethiopian student who had been forced to give him up but had tried to get him back. In the intervening years, he was placed with an incapable foster family who rejected him when he was 12, and an increasingly pentitential series of children’s homes, including in 1984, Wood End, which has since been connected with abuse scandals in the press. Wood End was an experience which Sissay writes gave him nightmares ‘until my forties’.
“ This really was George Orwell’s 1984. I was right. I was right about the entire dysfunctional system which pretended it could care for me while knowing in its heart that it couldn’t. This horrific place was where the system stopped pretending.”
How many other children have similar stories? When Sissay blogged about his experiences in Wood End a number of people came forward to say that they had been ‘dumped’ there too.
Sissay fought the Local Authority for 30 years to get access to his records. This book is the result of him finally being sent – in 2015 – four folders of notes of meetings and decisions, in none of which he was involved or consulted, that constituted the first 18 years of his life. Yet although this book is inevitably a quest for identity, it is also a story of a man who recognised his inner poetic light very early on.
Although Sissay now has success and recognition and could rest on his laurels, this is not his style. I get the impression this is not a man that does laurels – except for poetic ones. He is still achieving, still working in the vanguard of the fight for justice for children in care. He is still fighting against the possibility that any other child will have to endure what he did. My Name is Why is a manifesto against systemic ignorance and hypocrisy, and on the side of the human rights of the child.
Lemn Sissay is a BAFTA nominated, award-winning international writer and broadcaster. He has authored collections of poetry and plays. His Landmark poems are visible in London, Manchester, Huddersfield and Addis Ababa. He has been made an Honorary Doctor by the Universities of Manchester, Huddersfield and Brunel. Sissay was awarded an MBE for services to literature and in 2019 received the Pen Pinter Prize. He is Chancellor of the University of Manchester. He is British and Ethopian.