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Traces of Forgiveness: A Review of Lemn Sissay’s My Name is Why
A foster child will expose the cracks in the familial veneer. Insomuch as the foster child is a cipher to the dysfunction of a family and also a seer. But the responsibility is too great for a child and so he finds himself manipulated and blamed for what he exposes by the simple virtue of innocence. The wrath this innocence incurs is deep and dark.
These words, taken from Lemn Sissay’s memoir My Name is Why, encapsulates the journey the writer himself underwent, both in his lived experience and in recounting it throughout the book, as Sissay wrote this memoir in a very particular way.
After fighting for 30 years to gain access to his records, Sissay writes as he reads. Born out of wedlock to an Ethiopian mother in 1967, at six months old, Sissay was placed with a white family who had no children of their own. The narrative structure of the book is Sissay responding to these files which chronicle his childhood. Responding to the inaccuracies, the personal agendas and the endless external factors that compromise the integrity of the picture they paint him as a young boy. In his writing, he measurably rectifies the many accounts that write his own story. A story weaved by every voice present in Sissay’s life at the time – except his own.
Sissay says upon reading them, he knew.
How does a government steal a child and then imprison him? How does it keep it a secret?
This is a self-confessed opportunity to tell his own story. To defend the person they describe – for he is accused of things in these documents. Accused of being better than he ought to be. Better than he should want to be, for someone with skin the colour of his. My Name is Why is the story Sissay has control over – in answer to the story that was told about him. And, most painful of all, to him.
Realising he wanted to be a poet from the age of twelve, now fifty-two, Lemn Sissay is one of the most successful poets in the UK. Appointed Official Poet of the London 2012 Olympics and awarded an MBE in 2010, now he uses his voice to lift up the voices of others. But it is the absence of his voice as a little boy within the documents which is the loudest of all in this book. The realisation of utter powerlessness in being a foster child is an infuriating take-away. And the conditional love he experienced, while being placed in a family is the most heartbreaking. “Look,” you can imagine his foster parents saying to each other, after having him for twelve years; “if it get really bad, we can always give him back.”
The book raises all sorts of questions in terms of biology, love, race and truth and interrogates all of the failures he experienced by the people who were meant to protect him. Having been given a different name, his path back to his mother, heritage and black identity was erased. His foster parents went on to have two children of their own:
I loved life. I was nine. My brother Christopher was eight. I loved school. I loved him. I showed my love for him by punching him. We had the same rivalry most brothers have. We fought with unbridled determination the way brothers do.
But then the shadows started to creep in:
Mum and Dad said I was like Macavity. It felt affectionate then, but later I realised something wasn’t right. Macavity was dark, quick and a thief. Macavity was such a contrast to my blond, blue-eyed brother Christopher. His affectionate nickname was Bunty.
His successes were deemed to be too many in the face of his white, natural born brother.
Something was at play. Something I didn’t understand.
And the dichotomy between Norman and his white peers is described matter of factly. Throughout is an undercurrent of understanding:
The more people around me denied my race by saying they were ‘colour blind’ or that ‘we are all human beings’ or that ‘we are all the same’, the more I realised race confused them.
What is most distinctive about this book is how evolved Sissay is in writing it. Sissay could have easily written words infused with anger and acid. But he didn’t. Maybe that is why it has taken him so many years to write it. Or maybe it’s that he only got his records four years ago. Or maybe he was always able to pick the roses from rubble. Isn’t that what a poet does?
His story is written with the utmost integrity, empathy and generous servings of doubt for his now estranged foster family in whether or not they knew what they were doing. Between the pages of pain, there are traces of forgiveness. Retrospective recollection in the face of these files unfolds like silk towards a tunnel of light and the brightness he has created for himself now shines through. The beauty he has weaved from brutality is astonishing and deeply, deeply humbling.
Edited with couplets of his poetry scattered throughout, one in particular leaves an imprint on the mind, which might explain how he survived the whole thing at all:
Whenever I look back, said night You’re there Looking back is okay, said light But don’t stare