lemn sissay ethiopian writer author pen pinter prize 2019 african literature
Photo by Hamish Brown

In Conversation: Lemn Sissay On His New Book About Re-claiming the Ethiopian Heritage Stolen From Him by England’s Foster Care System

In 'My Name Is Why,' the 2019 PEN Pinter award winner passionately advocates for children in the institutional care system, and in turn tells a unique story of identity and the power in discovering one's heritage.

It took the author Lemn Sissay almost two decades to learn his real name. As an Ethiopian child growing up in England's care system, his cultural identity was systematically stripped from him at an early age. "For the first 18 years of my life I thought that my name was Norman," Sissay tells OkayAfrica. "I didn't meet a person of color until I was 10 years of age. I didn't know a person of color until I was 16. I didn't know I was Ethiopian until I was 16 years of age. They stole the memory of me from me. That is a land grab, you know? That is post-colonial, hallucinatory madness."

Sissay was not alone in this experience. As he notes in his powerful new memoir My Name Is Why, during the 1960s, tens of thousands of children in the UK were taken from their parents under dubious circumstances and put up for adoption. Sometimes, these placements were a matter of need, but other times, as was the case with Sissay, it was a result of the system preying on vulnerable parents. His case records, which he obtained in 2015 after a hardfought 30 year campaign, show that his mother was a victim of child "harvesting," in which young, single women were often forced into giving their children up for adoption before being sent back to their native countries. She tried to regain custody of young Sissay, but was unsuccessful.

Whether they end up in the foster system out of need or by mistake, Sissay says that most institutionalized children face the same fate of abuse under an inadequate and mismanaged system that fails to recognize their full humanity. For black children who are sent to white homes, it often means detachment from a culturally-sensitive environment. "There are too many brilliant people that I know who have been adopted by white parents for me to say that it just doesn't work," says Sissay. "But the problem is the amount of children that it doesn't work for."

Though it took several years for the writer and documentarian to discover his heritage due to the challenges he faced in the system, Sissay now calls himself a proud son of Ethiopia. "I am so proud to be Ethiopian, he says. "I travel anywhere in the world and there are Ethiopians who know my name. My name is Lemn, the boy whose name is 'why,' who was stolen from Ethiopia, who fought and found his way home and found his family through the revolution."

OkayAfrica caught up with the 2019 PEN Pinter Prize winner, ahead of his award ceremony which he shared with persecuted Ethiopian writer and activist Befeqadu Hailu.

Lemn Sissay 'My Name Is Why' book cover.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In the prologue of your book, you say that it's for your mother, father, aunts and uncles and also for Ethiopians, why did you dedicate this story to Ethiopians in particular?

I'm known in Ethiopia. I'm known to my people and I want them to know what happened to me. There are many ideas of what happened to me. This is the truth of the story. I wouldn't have to know how a child could be stolen from a country, stolen from a people, and I want them to see how it was done and see the evidence. Ethiopia was never colonized. It doesn't make it a better country than a country that was colonized, but I want to show them how deeply one of their own was affected and stolen.

What are your thoughts about the (now banned) common practice of people in the West, adopting Ethiopian children?

It's not a distant cousin from what happened to me. I was subject to the "missionary" gene.

My foster parents thought that they were saving a "poor babies from Africa." And when you do this, you often don't acknowledge that there are adults in Africa that are quite capable of saving their own children, and that I didn't need saving in the first place.

My mother just came to [England] and found herself pregnant and I was stolen from her. In Ethiopia right now they do not allow international adoptions to happen anymore. There is no land grab in Ethiopia for children, it has stopped because it became so vile, so offensive and ugly. Hotels would be filled with desperate [western] couples taking children, with parents in Ethiopia thinking that their children would be returning to them one day. The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed is himself an adopting parent. When the leader of a country both stops international adoption and adopts himself, you know that you're in good hands and you know that the administration is seeing something ugly.

What did it mean for you to be able to reclaim your Amharic name? What is the power in a name, and how did it impact you on a personal level?

Well, when I saw my name written on my birth certificate and my legal name was Lemn Sissay, it became evident that my name was a piece of evidence, which indicated that I had been lied to. That one lie was part became part of a journey to discover the truth. So my name was a symbol of truth—a really tangible symbol of truth. If you lied to me about my name for 18 years, you imprisoned me as a child, you gave me to abusive foster parents. The only evidence I had was that you changed my name. And I had a piece of paper that said it. From that point onwards I would take my Amharic name because it's the only truth I've been told in those 18 years and I would begin my search. I'm a warrior, man.

It's heartbreaking to see how quickly your foster parents gave up on you. Can you talk about that experience and the lack of human empathy often shown to foster children in general?

Children do bad things and good things all of the time—it's part of what it means to be a child, yet when a foster child does something which is "bad," like take biscuits without saying please and thank you or comes in late, they are punished in a way—well I was punished in a way—like I was a threat to the family, a threat to the foundations of the family, to Christianity, and to the belief structure of the entire family, and that is unfair.

It was very naive. And I should say that a foster child will always pressurize the vulnerable cracks inside the relationship of the parents. But that is to say that any child, their own child, will also pressurize the cracks in their relationship. That's the nature of having a child, isn't it? They made me into a fall guy for their own problems and that happens, not through them being necessarily evil, but incredibly naive, confused and angry. It's always easy to blame the child. Society does this—they look at children in chaos, street children is a great example, as a problem waiting to happen rather than a solution that is the next generation. And those children need help and love and care and attention. Not abuse.

Adoption works, fostering works, but the thing about adopting is that children can cause us a problem, that's what being a child is about, but stay with them. The betrayal that happened with me is that my foster parents cut me off. They said they were my mother and father forever and they trained me to say their name. They trained me to love them. And then the betrayal was that they cut me out in a guillotine fashion. It was cold.

Photo by Hamish Brown

How do you think being a Black child, on top of all of that, contributed to it and how are Black children affected by the foster care system?

Let me just say first, that there are too many brilliant people that I know who have been adopted by white parents for me to say that it just doesn't work. But the problem is the amount of children that it doesn't work for. There's a great documentary about Ethiopian children who were adopted in America and then who became homeless at 18 after being thrown out of their homes, and children killing themselves. The documentary is by a man called Dan Rather. There is a lot of bad practice in this area, I'm afraid, and we need to just have a lockdown on it. We need to, as African parents, as Ethiopian parents, as Nigerian parents, as Ghanaian and Moroccan and South African parents, we need to foster too, because we always have. The children's homes in Africa weren't started by us, they were started by the church during times of colonization.

We were fostering and adopting way before those places were established. There are enough people who can do that. We need to encourage that. I'm not taking you away from what those parents want to do in Europe, but there's a reason why they've been taking children from Africa—it's directly connected with the infantilization of adults in Africa. If they truly cared about those children, they would give their money to adults to care for those children. Why take them thousands of thousands of miles away?

What was that experience of finally getting your case papers after fighting for them for so long, and then actually reading them?

Well I knew that they had done wrong things to me, but it was very difficult to prove. After finding the papers, it was time then, very simply, to take the government to court for stealing my name, for imprisoning me as a child, for giving me to incapable foster parents, and for trying to break me. I needed to prove it now legally, and take on the government through the legal system.

I was stolen from my mother, who was very vulnerable and needed help, as a baby. And the files actually show that. They show my mother asking for me back to a social worker who'd already named me [Norman] after himself. When my social worker wrote back to my mother in 1968, he didn't call me Norman. He called me Lemn Sissay—that means he was lying to my mother about the name that he had called me because he had named me after himself.

Why do you think actually having copies of the files in the book is impactful?

It's evidence. My friend, Tishani Doshi, is a novelist from India and she has a poem called Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods. It's metaphorical, as well as being an actual truth. We are in the days of WikiLeaks, there are more words passing between more people now than since the beginning of time. Information is starting to pour out. The past is not what they said it was. We need to find the evidence and out it because the evidence of what happened in the past has been controlled.

Have you heard that saying about the hunter? "Until the lion can speak, the hunter will always narrate the story of the hunt?" Well, the lion is the symbol of Ethiopia. I am the lion and I'm speaking. We are at a time now where we can address some of the crazy hallucinations of history which have been set upon the world through colonialist actions, but I am from an incredible continent which is involved with making great changes to society, which is involved in the digital revolution, and involved in finding a voice. I think now, more than ever, this is our time. For us to move forward, we have to address the past. Get it done, get it out, wash it clean and move on—and that's all I'm doing.

I am a son of Ethiopia. I met the prime minister only a few months ago, in the new parliament there. I am proud to be part of such an incredible country at an incredible time in its history. It's a fairy tale, man. It's our fairy tale.

"We are at a time now where we can address some of the crazy hallucinations of history which have been set upon the world through colonialist actions"

It seems that one of the many plights of being a foster children is having to go on this arduous journey of finding yourself, finding out who you are, because it's been stripped away from you. Is there a way to make it a smoother process for young children coming up in the system now?

I'm not going to suggest that the journey is to find yourself is easy—in many ways to go on that journey is the gift of life. So while it may be frustrating, it's actually a gift. That you, at quite an early age, can start to realize what the real priorities in life are: family, friendship, who you are, kindness to others, kindness to yourself. But I'll say this and it's really important, Harry Potter was a foster child. Superman was adopted. Moses—if you're religious—was adopted. You could say that Jesus had two fathers. The idea of the nuclear perfect family is a fallacy.

One of the greatest things that I learned when I found my family is that "now the journey really begins." It's when you have a family, that it's complicated. Most people inside families spend their lives looking for themselves, so [in that way] the foster child has a heightened awareness of the journey that we all have to take. That's why foster children are often used as the characters in these books. And if you go right back to the Greek myths like Oedipus, so many of those stories in the Greek myths are about parent-less children seeking their parents and their story. These children are heroes. They deserve our respect, our empathy and our love. Whether we give it or not, they will work themselves into knowing themselves. But also, in saying that, I know that many of them will commit suicide, many of them will find themselves on the streets—but we need to respect them and give them the care that they deserve.

How does it feel to be the winner of the PEN Pinter prize and to represent for Africa. You're the second African in a row to earn the prize.

It's a beautiful thing. I'm actually writing the speech for it, as we speak, but it's quite intimidating to follow Chimamanda Adichie but I'm going to do a good job. I'm going to do my absolute best.


Lemn Sissay will be appearing at Southbank Centre for London Literature Festival on Friday, October 18. Tickets are available here.