Of roots and wings

2010-11-06 15:41

The story of Lemn Sissay’s life contains all the elements of a Greek tragedy: a noble hero, a fateful destiny determined by hubris, tragic fate and the will of the gods, a determination to achieve a goal even in the face of unimaginable obstacles, life-altering revelations, and incredible changes of fortune.

Sissay’s life story, told through a one-man performance poetry piece entitled Something Dark, so stretches the boundaries of credulity it prompted Time Out magazine London’s authoritative guide to what’s hot and what’s not, to speculate: “will this man go to no depths to promote himself?”

Born to an unwed Ethiopian student in ­England in 1967, Sissay’s mother decided to have him fostered while she completed her studies.

Sissay endured a harrowing ordeal at the hands of the United Kingdom’s social services that ­began when a social worker called Norman Goldthorpe changed his name to Norman Mark Greenwood.

It lasted for 17 years, during which all his mother’s attempts to regain her son were thwarted by official chicanery.

Religion played a defining hand in Sissay’s destiny. His mother was in England on a Seventh day Adventist bursary programme. The family that fostered him was Baptist.

They believed they were acting on instructions from God.

When Sissay turned 11, the Baptists took him back. And from age 11 to 17 he became the legal property of Wiggin Social Services, and was put into various children’s homes.

Unwanted, alone, and completely ignorant of his real identity, Sissay was left to negotiate a life of unimaginable loneliness and isolation as a motherless black child living in an institution in the north of England.

“My black face represented everything everyone feared,” says Sissay, who never sought refuge in writing.

“In lieu of family poetry gave me structure, the structure I sought in family. Poetry became my family, the place where I found feedback,” says Sissay, now 44 and one of the most illustrious poets in Britain.

In Something Dark, currently on at the Market Theatre, Sissay demonstrates poetry’s exquisite utility in conveying the Dickensian tale of malicious maltreatment at the hands of the system he should never have been in at all.

In a 2009 BBC radio documentary on his life entitled Child of the State Sissay returned to the children’s home where he grew up.

“I went back to find memories of me.

Because I had no family, I had no-one to verify that I was alive.” Workers there remembered the young boy who spent hours scribbling in notebooks.

Sissay established himself as a poet at age 17, while still a ward of the state. “I performed and then I had to go back to the children’s home and get strip-searched.

“I was locked away for a year. I was a virtual prisoner, I wasn’t taken to court.

I wasn’t tried. I was just moved from the children’s home to a virtual prison for young boys most of whom were on their way to court for some heinous crime.

But because I didn’t have family I wasn’t allowed out for weekends and couldn’t wear my own clothes.”

When he became an adult, social services were legally bound to hand over his birth certificate.

“My case worker gave me my birth certificate and a pile of letters from my mother and said to me: ‘Somebody did love you.’”

(Ironically, the social worker who exposed the lie was also called Norman.)

At 17 Norman Mark Greenwood discovered that his name was Lemn Sissay, and that a grave injustice had been perpetrated against him.

From the letters he discovered that he had not been ‘abandoned by a negro’ (as told to his foster family) and that his mother had never stopped trying to get him back.

Sissay, whose first name (pronounced ‘Lemon’) rather aptly means ‘why’ in Amharic, says he bonded with his name instantaneously.

“My name was the only truth that I knew: Lemn Sissay, it was as clear as this table. I was someone!”

The discovery catalysed a tenacious pursuit of his roots, and a desperate search for his family.

Family, belonging, identity, memory form the bedrock of Sissay’s poetic rendition of his life in Something Dark.

The play explores the centrality of family and the role it plays in endowing humans with an identity, a memory and a sense of belonging.

It also explores the yawning chasm that results when one’s identity is maliciously denied.

“You don’t know how important family is.

You only realise that when you have children yourself, you think: ‘I never want this child to know how important it is to have family, because they would have to not have family to know,’” says Sissay, who tracked his mother down in The Gambia at age 21.

He found his roots, but he also found some wings.

His father, he discovered was a pilot on Ethiopian Airlines in the company’s glory days in the late 60s.

Between them his parents had produced seven siblings.

The indictment of the system that violated him is razor sharp, but he peddles no victim’s tale.

The poignancy of Sissay’s poetic narrative is heightened by his incisive wit. Skilled comedic timing ensures that Something Dark doesn’t get swallowed by its tragic potential.

“I retain the right to laughter,” says the 43 year old performance poet, who recently ended a three year stint as artist in residence at London’s South Bank Centre and who is now an associate artist there.

In 2009 Sissay was awarded a Honourary Doctorate from Huddersfield University and in July this year he was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth II for services to literature.

“The doctorate was a big deal for me,” says ­Sissay.

A big deal indeed for the boy who dropped out of school at 15.

“Sometimes when I’m doing the play I’ll hear someone say: Ëish” - I want to cry,” says Sissay, who first performed in South Africa in 1995.

Harnessing poetry’s powerful alchemy Sissay’s transforms a tragic destiny determined by the hubris of lowly civil servant, a life of unimaginable obstacles and life-altering revelations, into one of outrageous fortune.

Anger, says Sissay, was always an option. ­“Anger is cathartic, as long as you don’t hurt yourself or other people.

I had no family to hurt. So I chose art.

Because art includes emotion and fact.”

Something Dark is on at The Market Theatre until 28 November


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