I was first introduced to Lemn Sissay when I was at university doing a poetry course, and I loved his direct, passionate and poignant poems; and I bought copies of several of his collections. What I had no idea about was the story that lay behind him getting to that point, a story that this powerful memoir tells hugely effectively.
Sissay was put into the care system soon after birth, and ended up being fostered by a white working-class family near Wigan – as well as being renamed ‘Norman’ by a social worker. We learn that much later (and only after a 34-year campaign) Sissay gains access to all the paperwork from his period in care, and the book intersperses these actual documents with his own writing and telling (often of the same events). The juxtaposition reveals how badly he was treated, the undercurrent of racism that runs through that treatment, and how his own physical and mental health are affected.
It is a shocking tale of institutions, both physical and organisational, completely failing to support a young boy seemingly abandoned to a series of unsuitable environments. And what makes it worse is that Sissay’s personality, likeability, and extrovert gregariousness is evident from the early reports about him, before his time in his first family turned sour. It’s also evident that this is spotted by some in the system, notably his social worker Norman Mills who clearly tries to do the best for him in the face of often insurmountable odds.
Each chapter is prefaced by a poem, which provides not only a frame for each step in the journey, but also a reminder of the talent that was suppressed for so long; creativity that was not welcomed or developed by anyone. It’s also notable how a few charities and individuals are the ones that provide a glimpse of what is possible, and plant the seed of opportunity and a future for him.
It’s a book that has genuinely stayed with me – and what’s lingered is the respect for Sissay’s talent, the anger at how he was treated, and the damage that can be done to individuals through a system of institutions set up to do the exact opposite. Required reading.
BUY IT NOW: My Name Is Why