Lemn Sissay MBE is a British author and broadcaster who in 2012 was the official poet of the London Olympics. Sissay has written a number of books and plays, aged 17 he used his umeployment benefit to published his first poetry pamphlet which was sold to striking miers in Lancashire and his first full book of poetry was published when he was 21-years-olds.
Aged 19, Lemn was a ‘literary development worker’ at Commonword, a community publishing cooperative in Manchester. Over the years, Lemn Sissay’s work has won his countless awards including; the 2019 PEN Pinter Prize and the UK Commission for Racial Equality’s Race in the Media award (RIMA) in 2006 for his drama Something Dark which tells the story of Lemn’s search for his family.
Lemn Sissay’s childhood and search for family is a long and twisting story which began when his mother arrived, pregnant, in Bracknell, England from Ethiopia in 1966. She was sent to a home for unwed mothers in Lancashire where she gave birth. While Lemn Sissay’s mother returned to Bracknell to finish her studies, Lemn was named Norman and found foster parents who were told to treat this as an adoption. Yet, when Sissay turned 12, his foster parents, who now had three children of their own, placed him in a children’s home and said they would not be in contact again.
From the ages of 12 to 17, Sissay lived in four different children’s homes until finally leaving the care system. It was at this point in his life that he was finally given his birth certificate which showed the name his mother, Yermarshet Sissay, had legally given him, Lemn Sissay. Among his files, he was also given a letter from his mother dated 1968 in which Yermarshet wrote, “How can I get Lemn back? I want him to be with his own people, his own colour. I don’t want him to face discrimination.”
Upon leaving care, Lemn took back his legal name and began his search for his mother. All this, and more of the heartbreaking details of Lemn’s story are written about in his memoir My Name is Why which was published in August this year.
In the book, Lemn Sissay looks back on his childhood, his identity and his Britishness and explores race, family, the meaning of home and belonging, and the institutional care system in which he grew up.
This moving memoir is available in hardcover, e-book and audiobook editions. What’s more you can now listen Lemn Sissay himself read the book for BBC Radio 4. This version of the book is abridged by Julian Wilkinson and produced by Elizabeth Allard. Reading alongside Lemm are Sean Baker and Susan Jameson. Lemn Sissay’s narration of his memoir is broken into episodes for the BBC, the first of which aired on 26th August. So far, episodes one to five are available on BBC Radio 4’s website.
In the details for the programme, BBC 4 state, “Lemn Sissay reads from his frank and powerful memoir about growing up in Britain’s care system in the 70s and 80s, and the redemptive power of poetry… My Name is Why is his courageous account of a childhood spent in a foster family and followed by six years in Britain’s institutional care system. Interwoven with documents from his social work file, Lemn uncovers answers to questions that he has been asking since he left care aged 17. Truths are uncovered that reveal Lemn’s story to be one of triumph over adversity.”