Lemn Sissay is an award-winning British poet and playwright and the first commissioned poet for next year’s London summer Olympics. For him, life is good now, compared to nearly three decades ago growing up in a complex environment he could not understand.
Adopted after his Ethiopian-born mother was unable to care for him, Sissay spent 11 years in foster care with a White British family.
On his first visit to Canada last week, Sissay recalled his mom’s arrival in a new country, some of his early experiences and the search for his birth family through his one-man play, Something Dark.
He was the presenter at this year’s Wendy Michener Memorial lecture at York University.
“It’s 1968, the year of Enoch Powell’s speech (the late British politician “Rivers of Blood” speech lashing out at immigration from Commonwealth countries), the year Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, the year the Beatles released The White Album, and she arrives from the bright lights of a decolonized Africa, an Africa that fought for its freedom and an Africa in its 20th century heyday, and she’s here in the dark industrial north of England, illegitimate and pregnant,” he said.
“She’s cold, incredibly cold and I am an island inside an island and she needs help…This Ethiopian woman wanted her child fostered while she studied…I am fostered and my mother returns to Oxford.”
Rejected by his foster parents at age 11, Sissay lived in various children’s homes in Lancashire for six years.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I believe that I would never see them again,” he said. “On the way to the children’s home, I said to the social worker, ‘I know this is my fault and I will ask God for forgiveness’. For him, it was the final straw. He pulled the car over and said, ‘none of this is your fault’.”
When he was 21, Sissay – after a three-year search – found his biological mother working for the United Nations in Gambia. His father, who was an Ethiopian Airlines pilot, died in a plane crash in 1973.
Sissay also performed extracts of other landmark plays and poems, including Invisible Kisses, Gold from the Stone and The Queen’s Speech and he presented his powerful film, What If?, a searing exploration of where evolution has taken the human race.
The film was commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for its Darwin original series, marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin Species.
“When we try to understand and express the big questions of life – birth and death, love and loss, happiness and heartache, isolation and belonging – we turn to art,” said Sissay, who holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Huddersfield. “It’s the link between the physical and the spiritual. Art and creativity are the life force of a community. Poetry is at the heart of who we are.”
The author of five poetry collections and editor of The Fire People: A Collection of Contemporary Black British Poets, Sissay’s works have been recorded, broadcast and anthologized widely. His credits include several radio documentaries, including Pieces of a Man which is a feature on the late American soul and jazz musician, poet and activist Gil Scott-Heron who died last May; The Man in the Hospital commissioned by the BBC for World AIDS Day and One Love: The Legacy of Bob Marley which aired on the BBC World Service earlier this year.
In 2010, Sissay was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his artistic and civic contributions.
The Wendy Michener lecture, commemorating the arts critic and journalist who died in 1969 at age 34, was established in the university’s Faculty of Arts in 1986 to provide a forum for discussion of critical issues and developments in culture and the arts.