Lemn Sissay’s latest book, My Name is Why, reprinted the mass of materials released to him by Wigan council social services about his upbringing, first with foster parents and then in care. Sissay himself made minimal interventions to the text, largely leaving the social workers’ case notes to tell the story.
At 15 years old and called Norman Greenwood, he saw the birth certificate that told him for the first time that his biological Ethiopian mother’s surname was Sissay, and that his first name meant “why” in her language, Amharic. The knowledge was galvanising. “Now my name is Lemn, and the fire’s been lit,” he declared in an early poem.
In Imagine . . . BBC presenter Alan Yentob accompanies Sissay to Atherton, near Manchester, covering much of the same material but with added photographs, an old home movie and delightful interviews with friends, neighbours and teachers. Social worker Norman Mills — not the one who imperiously named the baby after himself, before sending him to the Greenwood family — is one of the heroes of the book, and speaks fondly of his charge. A school report calling the boy “a ray of sunshine” is probed for racist overtones, and happily exonerated.
Yet in 1980, at the age of 12, young Norman was abruptly expelled from his white family. Heartbreakingly, his crime was purloining biscuits, though the inference hovers that this highly intelligent and sociable child was outshining his foster siblings. A young girlfriend recalls being brusquely told: “He doesn’t live here any more.”
But the bleak childhood isn’t the only story. The documentary also tells how he climbed into the light by means of poetry. An inspired English teacher introduced him to the work of Benjamin Zephaniah and Linton Kwesi Johnson. With the money earned cleaning gutters, Sissay paid a printer in Atherton to print his first poetry pamphlet. He sold it to striking miners for £1.20 a copy and began activism and gigging on the Manchester comedy scene (there’s a brief clip of him alongside Steve Coogan and Henry Normal).
As well as having charisma by the bucketload, Sissay clearly possesses key poetical requisites: a skin too few, plus access to mysterious channels of sensibility. Sights and scenes not obviously beautiful or gorgeous are extolled, with one view across fields towards Manchester described as “Paradise, really”. (Coogan remarks on an “enthusiasm for life that was almost manic”.)
Sissay searched diligently for his roots in Addis Ababa, but here the details become vague and there’s one significant omission. While he was deeply concerned to find out more about his mother — a young foreign student who returned to her homeland after giving birth — there’s no mention at all of a father. Sissay has every right to remain silent on the issue but the lacuna is puzzling.
On BBC1 from July 23 at 10.45pm
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