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Lemn Sissay Q&A: The dark narrative of neglect that inspired him

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Lemn Sissay


Lemn Sissay is a renowned performance poet, known for a variety of pieces that explore the concept of family and identity. He has frequently appeared on the BBC in several documentaries, including Internal Flight (1995), African Perspectives (2004), Child of the State (2009). Sissay gained over a million views for the first TED Talk in the Houses of Parliament in 2012, entitled Child of the State. His art has been influential. It has acted as a powerful plea for the reassessment of the foster care system, even earning the poet an MBE in 2010.

I recently attended a dramatic reading of Sissay’s 2005 play Something Dark at Battersea Arts Centre (read my review here). Following the performance, a Q&A session ensued. After a few jokes with the front row, Sissay quickly launched into an explanation for his work:

The family is a set of disputed memories between one group of people over a lifetime…I didn’t have anybody to dispute the memory of me […]. So I had to find documentary evidence of what happened to me.

One gets the sense that for Sissay, his poetry is as much a testimony as it is an artistic form of expression. His voice nearly shook as he recited his experience with Wigan Council. He only received his files a few years ago, and when he did, everything had been redacted. One of the last letters in his file was written by his social worker. It was critiquing social services for stating that they would not give Sissay any financial support when he turned eighteen. Sissay indeed entered adulthood penniless, living in a bare flat.

Sissay revealed that about a year and a half ago, he received an apology from Wigan social services. But he has reservations, to say the very least, about their idea of an ‘apology’:

They said ‘We expect you to claim compensation’ […]. The question is: what is the compensation? They have got a very defined idea about the limit of their compensation. […]. They stole my entire family from me, they fostered me with people who shouldn’t have been fosters, they threw me into care, they imprisoned me, and they left me, to somehow justify some dysfunction that had nothing to do with me…and that is worth more than their ‘limit’. That is why I have to pursue proceedings […] Once that’s done, I’m done.

After this passionate description of his legal encounter with Wigan Concil, he began taking questions from the crowd. The most touching moment came when representatives from an organisation praised Sissay for encouraging children in the system to write evaluation forms and express themselves. They then gifted Sissay a collection of poetry written by young people in care, entitled ‘Write, Speak, Feel’. Sissay comically said “I’ve not said I want it yet!” as they began to descend the stairs to give him the book, but he then humbly accepted, and thanked the organisation.

Here are some other highlights from the session…

On the source of his strength:

I got my strength through stopping drinking, I got my strength through therapy, I was lucky enough to be working as a creative […] I don’t know whether I am strong sometimes – there’s always stuff to work on.

On art:

Be as honest as you can in art because that’s how we connect.

On how he reaches ‘the beauty’ amongst ‘the anger and the rage’ in his work:

My anger is always an expression in the search for love.

On deconstructing ‘family’:

The children in care are living, walking proof of the central dysfunction at the heart of all functioning families – and that’s why we are hated […] We are living proof of the truth that’s inside all families. […] Fostering is not a long way off. Moses was adopted, Jesus has got two dads. […] The whole idea of there being some miraculous family out there is just not true, and that’s okay. Half of being okay with family is accepting the dysfunction that starts at the heart of it all…

On the strength of children in care:

Children in care are incredible because we feel everything. Do you know how strong a person must be to open their eyes and walk downstairs and sit at the breakfast table with a group of strangers who are being paid to look after you? Do you know how much strength it takes to then ask for the peanut butter?

On the stigma surrounding children in care:

There are phrases like ‘If you’re naughty, I’ll put you in care’. What is that if not prejudice against children in care? […] We are told that we are bad.

On his beliefs about the about the foster care system:

When a child enters care, people should say is ‘It stops here. You get the best. You get the best education, you get the best psychotherapy, you get the best housing.’ And why is it that people think that a child who has just come away from a dysfunctional family needs to go straight into another family? A child that has already been through a terrible family situation?

On reimagining how we perceive children in care:

Children’s writers have seen it for years. Harry Potter, Superman, X-men, Elf, Oliver Twist, Cinderella […] Why is it that people haven’t seen that these incredible characters are these incredible children? Why haven’t people gone ‘Oh yes, you’re like Harry potter – he ran away, he got into fights, he had inappropriate relationships with adults’? [laughter from the crowd]. It’s all there in your children’s books, folks.

Sissay then mocked himself for ranting, ‘Alright Lemn, it’s Friday night, we enjoyed your show and all, but…’ He chuckled and apologised, saying that it is just simply his ‘mission to make these things known’.

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