In this quietly devastating memoir, he reproduces many of the reports written by officials and social workers. Letters written in bureaucratic typefaces, scribbled marginal notes and official stamps expose the failings and irrefutable power of the state when it acts in loco parentis, especially in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. Alongside these documents, Sissay puts forward his side of his life story. It is sensational stuff told with an elegant restraint that leaves the reader feeling some of the hurt, bewilderment and anger that he has endured...My Name is Why is a memoir of identity, race, neglect, family and the importance of home. It is also a testament to Sissay himself and his ability to survive, and later thrive. Above all, it is his redemptive chance to ensure that at long last the voice of the child he was is heard.
Memories ‘are slippery’ for children growing up in care, but it is the ‘underlying unkindness’ that stays with Sissay and the reader. Yet it is thanks in part to the kindness of a social worker and a psychiatrist, as well as his discovery of a creative outlet in poetry, through which he set out to ‘chart the journey’, that he has become a celebrated poet and public figure. His memoir is not so much a tale of triumph over adversity, however, as a powerful indictment of our care system.
Winner of this year’s PEN Pinter prize, official poet of the London 2012 Olympics and chancellor of Manchester University since 2015, Sissay still has a barely visible tattoo of the letters “NG” on his left hand, which he pierced himself aged 14 with a blunt needle. All his childhood he thought these were his initials. They were not. Just before Christmas in 1983 the 16-year-old “Norman Greenwood” discovered his real name and Ethiopian roots in his birth certificate and some letters from a social worker.
A beautiful, sometimes heart-breaking but also helpful story, in which poet and writer Lemm Sissay reflects on his experiences of growing up in a foster family and care homes.
Early on in this affecting memoir, Sissay recalls the authors and books that fired his imagination when he was young. CS Lewis was a kind of “rock star”. In 2019, Lemn Sissay MBE is something of a literary luminary himself. His poetry and plays are lauded. He is chancellor of Manchester University. He was the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics. He was recently awarded the PEN Pinter prize and has appeared on Desert Island Discs. But glittering as these garlands might be, his early life was anything but golden. It’s a painful narrative that underpins much of his creative output and is emotively reframed in My Name Is Why... The great triumph of this work comes from its author’s determination to rail against what he rightly diagnoses as this institutionally endorsed disremembering of black and marginalised experience. It is a searing and unforgettable re-creation of the most brutal of beginnings.
There are many aspects of Sissay's later life I wanted to know about — wishing he had explained what happened when he took the Authority to court, and what it was like finally to meet his Ethiopian family. I imagine that may be in the next volume.
For now, Sissay has given us a blistering condemnation of the 'care' system — and his powerful voice asking 'why?' (the meaning of 'Lemn' in his mother's language) is raised on behalf of all children who have been its victims.
My Name Is Why consists predominantly of Sissay’s chronological meditations on his experiences of the care system. Chapters are prefaced by gnomic poems, many of which speak of the resilience and hopefulness necessary to emerge from what he endured; they also help propel our thoughts towards his brighter future... Sissay offers a sobering consideration of both autobiography as a form and the particular challenges he faces as a autobiographer... The great triumph of this work comes from its author’s determination to rail against what he rightly diagnoses as this institutionally endorsed disremembering of black and marginalised experience. It is a searing and unforgettable re-creation of the most brutal of beginnings.
The drama is brilliantly emphasised by the book’s layout: extracts of the letters and reports are reproduced on the page like a scrapbook — slivers of mean, smudgy print from manual typewriters, breaking across margins, interrupting the flow of Sissay’s early happy memories with tight officialese... My Name is Why is authentic and beautiful, a potential game-changer in public attitudes to children raised in care. It’s about bureaucratic cruelty and what happens when love is absent. Don’t miss it.
During his childhood, Sissay suffered years of abuse in care, being fostered by a family who came to believe the devil was in him because he took biscuits without asking, only to find out years later that his Ethiopian-born birth mother had been pleading for his return. Fans of his writing will have been waiting for his memoir. He has an extraordinary story to tell.
Aged 17, after a childhood in foster care and a series of care homes, Norman Greenwood was given his birth certificate. It revealed that his real name was Lemn Sissay, and that his mother was Ethiopian. He also discovered that she had been pleading for his safe return since the day he was taken from her. In a memoir that is both heartbreaking and inspiring, illustrated with copies of the documents which tell his "official" story, Sissay-now one of our best-known poets-reveals how he overcame his early experience of trauma and neglect, through determination, and the redemptive power of his creativity.