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."