Out To Lunch Digest: Part 3 – Lemn Sissay

Out To Lunch Digest: Part 3

Lemn Sissay

Cara Gibney

It’s a story that adds up to WTF? Actually, it’s a story that doesn’t add up at all. Poet and artist Lemn Sissay MBE was at the Black Box for Out to Lunch festival last weekend. He was official poet of the 2012 Olympics, is a Chancellor of the University of Manchester, a patron of the Letterbox Club, supporting children in care. There is more, so much more to his award winning career. His writing; his BBC, British Council, career. But his story leading up to the day Lemn Sissay left care, the day he started to discover who he was, is in all honesty beyond my comprehension.

Lemn Sissay’s Ethiopian single mother thought her baby son had been fostered out to a family for the period it took to finish her studies. She later discovered however, that the Social Services had told the foster parents to look at the arrangement as an adoption. The social worker had even changed the child’s name to Norman. By the time he was 12 years old though Norman’s foster parents had their own children, and decided to return him to care; making it clear that there would be no contact again from the family. For the next six years he was shunted between different children’s homes until he left the care system, rudderless with no family – adoptive, foster, or birth – to connect with.

He was however given his birth certificate when he left care. It bore the name of his birth mother – Yemarshet Sissay. It also bore his own real name -Lemn Sissay. Moreover he received a letter dated 1968 that his mother had written to the social worker who dealt with Lemn’s adoption. “How can I get Lemn back?” it said, pleading for the return of her son. From that point Lemn’s search for his family, his identity, began. Running parallel with the flowering of his writing career the two paths were innately connected.

He wrote “Fallen” to his birth mother. Standing on stage with his book in hand looking ever so slightly like a vicar in his smart black jumper and white collar, he talked to us about the impact we have when we tut and disapprove of other people’s lives. Women’s lives. How women should live. How the derision helps us to turn away when other agencies decide how women live their lives. He stood on stage a flesh and blood consequence. A fierce, sassy, funny, talented, busted to the bone, consequence. And we can’t relax in the comfort of all this happening to someone else in the misty past. Think of Trump’s first days in office, think of how the law impacts on women in Northern Ireland. Right now. Today.

“I talk too much. If I didn’t I could put it all into a package and claim some funding” he told us in a funny, mocking voice. This was a bit of a theme throughout the set, and anyone who works in that world would have recognised the jargon, and the attitude, and the petty detail. The cycle of tranches, the meetings with sandwiches, and the bollocks of it all. He gets voices in his head, he told us. They say you’re shit – you’re doing alright – we should get some funding – we need a committee – we need a building – we need someone to work in the building – but Trudy wanted that job …

To be fair though, he did talk a lot. Between the words that were planned and printed, there were streams of running words and thoughts. They shifted, and illustrated and laughed. Explained, told truths, mocked and made sex faces. We laughed a lot that afternoon with Lemn Sissay.

His story though. His searing cold truth was behind every bright entertaining smile from that stage. His poems allowed him to stop smiling.

“You said I was lying
I said no I am not
You said there you go again”

Recollections of repeat conversations with his adoptive mother in “Suitcases And Muddy Parks,” before they let him go, before they treated a boy like he’s a dog that is just for Christmas.

“I with my suit-cased social worker
You with your husband”

He spoke between silences and with howls and with whispers, in the Black Box last weekend. As the lights went up it was a stunned room that greeted him. We’d clapped and applauded and hoped for more before his encore, and he graciously returned on stage. But that truth? Entertaining and handsome and edgy and talented Lemn Sissay came to Belfast last weekend and ripped our hearts out. I wonder where you get funding for that?

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