The inspiration for the poet Lemn Sissay’s latest work is the opposite of poetry. My Name Is Why has as its muse the clunky, typewritten drone of officialese that “click clack clacks” through files monitoring a child in the care system. “I felt the files closing behind me,” Sissay writes of leaving one home for the next in the web of institutions around the northwest of England that trapped him. “File is an anagram of life.”
It took more than three decades for Wigan Council to release the files, which were given to Sissay in four fat folders in 2015. Grainy scans of them and passages of poetry intersperse his memories in a collage of a lost childhood. Lean stanzas – “I am not defined by darkness/Confided the night/Each dawn I am reminded/I am defined by light” – contrast with the suffocating flab of official documents: “Staff meeting with appropriate social workers regarding control.”
Winner of this year’s PEN Pinter prize, official poet of the London 2012 Olympics and chancellor of Manchester University since 2015, Sissay still has a barely visible tattoo of the letters “NG” on his left hand, which he pierced himself aged 14 with a blunt needle. All his childhood he thought these were his initials. They were not. Just before Christmas in 1983 the 16-year-old “Norman Greenwood” discovered his real name and Ethiopian roots in his birth certificate and some letters from a social worker.
Sissay realised he’d been stolen. His mother, a young Ethiopian studying in England, had refused to give him up for adoption when he was born in 1967. The mother and baby unit in Wigan took him anyway. Forced to leave for Ethiopia to see her dying father, she wrote letters begging for her son back. “They lied to me,” Sissay writes. “Someone did love me. My mother.”
In Amharic, “Lemn” means “Why?” – and Sissay spends his book trying to answer that question. Why were he and his mother kept apart? Why did his foster family abandon him? Why was his heartbreak so misunderstood by supposed care workers? Why was he made to feel like a criminal?
Sissay recalls fond early days with his white Baptist foster parents in the “plain-speaking Lancashire town” of Ashton-in-Makerfield: all rag-and-bone men, whistling milkmen, bay windows and cobbled streets. Yet this repressed “Laburnum tree family” (with “beauteous bloom” but “poisonous seeds”) soon had its own children, and began alienating Sissay for stealing biscuits and overshadowing his younger brother at school.
He was made to feel different, as if the devil were within him. His skin, his parents told him, was “chocolate” – echoing the racist jeers of “chocolate boy” he heard when out playing. They also called him “Macavity” from his beloved Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot. At first, this suggested affection, but Sissay realised Macavity was “dark, quick and a thief” – a contrast with his blond, blue-eyed brother who was nicknamed “Bunty”.
When he was 12, his foster parents rejected him. He hugged them goodbye, but they didn’t hug back. He was sent to a children’s home called Woodfields, and wrote a poem in his first night in the dorm. It was about a tree. “In writing about the tree I wrote about myself… I knew there and then that I wanted to be a poet.” Bar occasional glimpses of kindness (an anthology of Mersey beat poetry from a teacher, an Olivetti typewriter from a mystery donor), it’s testament to Sissay’s commitment to this destiny that he survived to write poetry at all.
Early in his stay at Woodfields, he was repeatedly smashed with the front of a cabinet ripped from its hinges by another boy. Glue-sniffing, smoking and marijuana took hold. He tumbled into a full mental breakdown at the next children’s home. He slit his wrist around the time he tattooed those erroneous initials on his hand.
In 1984 he was sent to Wood End, a Wigan remand centre that was recently investigated for historic abuses. He suffered physical cruelty and strip searches, and he quotes letters from men still scarred by their time there. Sissay himself had nightmares about it until he reached his forties.
The most arbitrary bureaucratic hurdle he encountered was a psychological assessment at Wood End. “Are you a tree in a forest or a tree on a hill?” was one question. “I am a poet tree,” he wrote. He answered it “my way”. That tree in his first ever poem had taken root, and was giving life to the poetry that finds light in this darkest of memoirs.
Lemn Sissay appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 30 November (01223 357 851; cambridgeliteraryfestival.com)
My Name is Why: A Memoir
Canongate, 208pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control