Maureen Freely, the chair of the judges of the PEN Pinter Prize, said of Lemn Sissay in 2019: “From his sorrows, he forges beautiful words and a thousand reasons to live and love. On the page and on the stage, online or at the Foundling Museum, this is an Orpheus who never stops singing.” Sissay was awarded the prize for his oeuvre, which includes several collections of poems, radio and stage plays – and his memoir, which was under the spotlight at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2020.
In Amharic, the Ethiopian language, the name Lemn means “why”. And although Sissay did not know that this was his name until the age of eighteen, he had embodied it – as he continues to do – in his work. His poetry, his plays, his documentaries, his memoir, all ask questions, and important ones.
Take The Report. It was a stage performance of the psychologist’s report that he had to submit to claim redressal for the wilful injustice and abysmal treatment he had received in child care: He was forcefully taken away from his mother, put into an adopted family that refused to take care of him in his adolescence, and shuffled through children’s homes during the final years of his teenage lives.
To claim redressal, however, Sissay had to submit a psychologist’s report that excavated his traumatic experiences and provided them as evidence. To live through the trauma is one thing. To narrate it to a psychologist for a report is another. And to further read it, as he had to do, is extremely painful. By bringing this very report on stage, he is asking: Why, why does one have to do this?
Sissay documents in his memoir, My Name is Why, all his experiences, but especially those of his name and family: How his mother had written a letter requesting the authorities to give him back; how he had tattooed his false name when he found out his real name; how he searched for his family in Ethiopia; how he has spent twenty-five years to get all his files from the child care centres; and why he thinks families are deeply important even if they are dysfunctional.
Lemn Sissay has retained, through all this, trust and love, a lasting hope in the humanity of people. “Because I write poetry,” he said; that’s where we began our conversation.
Of all the forms in which you write, you say poetry is your calling. What is it about poetry that’s different from other mediums you write in that makes it your favourite? What makes poetry achieve what you wouldn’t have in another medium?
I believe that we actually think in poetry. And when we speak, because we can’t speak in poetry, we speak in inadequate sentences. The images we have in our minds, you know, which are descriptions of what happened, are intrinsically poetic. Out thoughts are not necessarily connected in such a linear way as that which prose often depicts. I also feel a great need to document my time inside more abstract images. I find poetry speaks to the heart and speaks of the heart, and is more immediate to see my world and the world around me. I found poetry to be more representative than any other form.
You’ve also taken to theatre. You write for and perform on radio and the stage. What are the differences between these two forms? It seems like radio is closer to poetry because of its aural form, in the sense that we listen to it rather than watch.
I should speak first of radio. We see more in radio than in television. Our imagination has a greater palate than the visual of the television which tries to control the palate. Listening to the radio, I see more colours than if I am watching television. It’s more of an immersive experience for the listener. And radio can also speak of the mind and heart. The budget is lower but the attention to detail is greater.
That said, BBC radio is part of my professional artistic life since I was eighteen or nineteen years of age. I’ve had more opportunity to work in radio; and therefore I have grown with it. I make documentaries for BBC radio, I explore ideas in radio which has maybe helped change the narrative of people in children’s homes and social services. You know there’s something beautiful I have to share with you. A woman came up to me here and said: “I loved listening to your Desert Island discs yesterday while driving through Delhi.” You couldn’t do that with television. Radio has greater reach. And as we go into podcasts, it’s a really good time for radio.
As an aside, the term “radio” is at its end. You see the BBC too, it’s called BBC World Service; no radio anymore. The language for this experience is changing.
Can we talk about The Report?
Ah, you know about it. Yes.
I only know, because I couldn’t get to watch it. But I know it’s based on a deeply personal experience. Not based on, it is the personal on the stage. Why did you want to put the report on stage? And did it help in any way? Do you think it helps others too? To render our painful stories on the stage?
No, this is very good. In the theatre, Vighnesh, you can see more truth about issues. Theatre is the truth of drama, and the drama of truth. This was another step: The Report was verbatim my report. I thought I should share this with an audience because I felt safe on stage. That way it would be both personal but among people. Safer than to be on my own and read my psychological report. And let me tell you, I am currently making a very big BBC television programme that includes a part of The Report – you can watch it then. I’m pleased that you mentioned it – it was drama, theatre as truth; but also acting.
It was troubling to read about it, as troubling as it was to read your memoir. Because at the same time in my university, I was reading Oliver Twist and David Copperfield and telling myself: All these child care problems are over there in the past, not in the 21st century. But then I read your memoir, and later read so many newspaper reports, people still being mistreated in care homes. You said you may have changed the narrative about this. How? Do you know if there has been an improvement in the child care system after your memoir came out?
I don’t know about improvements. But I’ll tell you what I meant by changing the narrative. You pointed it out. You thought that this was a thing of the past, that children no longer suffered in the ways Oliver Twist or David Copperfield did. You thought that child care systems are better today. The improvement is that people are more aware of the plight of the child care in the state than they had been during my time. As for changes, I hope they will happen. But they will take years.
You’re now the Chancellor of the Manchester University. And right now, you may know we’re all discussing, speculating almost, the space of the university. You speak of childhood and adult development. What may be the role of universities in this? What is their role in general?
That’s a big question. To answer it in a single line, because we’re running out of time, part of the role of the university is that it can expand the knowledge of the students who can think, then go out and change the world.
Last question: how do you exude so much hope?
And with a smile, Lemn Sissay said, “Because it’s true. But also, how can I answer that question?”