Thursday, 7 May 2020

My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

Reviewer: Catriona Troth 

What We Thought of It

“My mother is from the Amhara people in Ethiopia. It is a tradition of the Amhara to leave messages in the first name of a child. In Amharic, the name Lemn means Why?”

Lemn Sissay’s My Name is Why is a forensic analysis of his own case files – the case files of a Black child taken into care, his name changed to make it all-but impossible for his birth mother to trace him.

Every one of those files is measured against his own memories. Together they paint a picture of a family who take in a child they believe to have been abandoned, who make him part of the family and who appear to love him – but who reject him brutally at the first sign of adolescent rebellion. Thereafter, Sissay (by now called ‘Norman’) is shunted between children’s homes with little care for his actual needs, reaching at last a place that is little better than a prison in disguise..

As Sissay himself says, “the most institutionalised people in the care system are the workers.”On the whole, those social workers who come into direct contact with the young ‘Norman’ come across as caring and concerned, if somewhat blinkered. (And the consistency of care he receives, being in the charge of just two principal social workers through his childhood seems downright remarkable by recent standards.) But those higher up, those with the power to make decisions about his life, show little or no understanding of his needs, nor of the day-to-day impact racism is having on the developing adolescent.

I first saw Lemn Sissay on stage in Trafalgar Square, at the party to celebrate the first ever World Book Night in 2011 , where he gave a tour de force performance of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’. I knew nothing about his background at the time, but just a year earlier he had made a radio documentary, Child of the State, where he returned to Wigan to try and access his own files, only to be told they were lost. It was only in 2015 that the files were finally recovered and he was able to read them and unpick the lies he had been told.

Out of that experience grew the stage show, The Report, in which Sissay responded to a reading, by Julie Hesmondhalgh of the psychologist’s report into the impact on him of his abuse.

The book can never be as raw as that theatre experience must have been. Yet Sissay’s pain and anger and still clear on every page. Even choosing to read the files, having fought to see them, was a not an easy decision.

“A friend burned her files when she received them from the Authority. Another cannot read them to this say. I’ll start by simply recording my reactions to the first early documents and we’ll see how it unfolds.”

A book so personal it feels almost intrusive to be reading it. Yet essential to understand how a child can be taken from his mother by the agents of the State – something which we now know has been replicated over and over with different groups of mothers and children around the world, with devastating consequences.

“I am not defined by scars,” writes Sissay, “But by the incredible ability to heal.”

You Will Enjoy This If You Loved: Lowborn by Kerry Hudson, Natives by Akala, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal, Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Perfect Accompaniment: Bacon butty and hot tea

Avoid If You Dislike: Unvarnished descriptions of a child’s life in the care system

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Buy This Book Here

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