Poet Lemn Sissay speaks at Newcastle Writers Festival event about channelling pain into art and activism

Trail blazer: Lemn Sissay, in Newcastle, started writing poetry at 12. He also kept records, which he used as evidence in his legal case. "I was the only proof this was happening so I had to document it." Picture: Simone De Peak
Trail blazer: Lemn Sissay, in Newcastle, started writing poetry at 12. He also kept records, which he used as evidence in his legal case. "I was the only proof this was happening so I had to document it." Picture: Simone De Peak

FOR English poet Lemn Sissay, receiving compensation from Wigan Council over his mistreatment as a child in care has helped him feel he has “less of a shadow”.

“It’s allowed me to get on with my life without feeling that I may be making this up,” said Sissay, who spoke alongside North Korean defector and author Hyeonseo Lee at Newcastle Writers Festival event, Rebels with a Cause, on Monday. 

He is also a playwright, advocate, Chancellor of the University of Manchester and was awarded an MBE for services to literature. 

“The worst thing that happens to people who suffer from trauma is in some way they feel it may have been their fault – it doesn’t matter how much evidence there is that it wasn’t.

“I feel now like I’m becoming the person I always knew I was – I fought for him.”

Sissay was born to an Ethiopian woman who had come to Britain to study.

He was placed into care and his mother’s requests to get her son back when she could manage better were ignored.

Instead he was renamed Norman and fostered by a white family, who returned him to social services when he was 12.

He was moved between care homes, where he said he was physically, emotionally and racially abused. 

The council and its insurer awarded Sissay a six-figure sum and a formal apology in April this year, two years after his claim.  

“They strung it out for as long as they could because most people give up, most people in my situation are not emotionally ready to go through the absolute trauma of reliving their experience in minute detail to get legal redress,” he said.

“I was saying ‘I’ve written plays about this, I’ve made documentaries about this and now I want you to legally apologise to me and I want this to affect you financially’.”

Sissay said he knew not everyone would have the same opportunity, or outcome.

“For any of us seeking redress, know that this journey you’re on is more important that the actual conclusion. Look after yourself,” he said. 

“I wish people who were abused and were then going through the legal system got therapy free, because it only affects you years later.

“People talk about historical abuse as if it’s in the past, but it affects your present adult status.”

Sissay said he did not see art as therapy, but as a therapeutic way for him to make sense of his childhood. 

Lemn means ‘why?’ in Ethiopian.

“I found that writing and reading poetry and articulating my experience through the lens of creativity allowed me to see and analyse what was happening to me.

“Every artist has to be truthful to whatever their subject matter is and that encourages other people to be that way, to find pathways out of themselves or through themselves so they can find their truth too.”