Lemn Sissay: the “Rebel without Applause”

3 mins read

“I am not defined by darkness
Confided the night
Each dawn I am reminded
I am defined by light”

-Lemn sissay, my name is why

As the UK Government continues to devalue the importance of the arts, this Black History Month we should endeavour to explore the breadth of Black creatives. Adding to the rich cultural landscape of literature, there is no better place to begin than poet Lemn Sissay MBE.

Sissay had a difficult start in life, growing up as a child of the state with no knowledge as to the identity or whereabouts of his birth mother. His mother arrived in the UK in 1966 from her native country Ethiopia, and after giving birth left her child under the protection of social services.

They placed him with a devoutly Christian foster family who erased a massive part of his identity; his name, in favour of an evangelical alternative, Mark.

Abandoned by his foster family aged 12, Lemn Sissay stayed in four different children’s homes, never being afforded the opportunity to put down roots. Upon leaving the care system, he learned both his birth name and the name of his mother. Around this time, he self-published his first poetry pamphlet using funds from his unemployment benefit.

This sparked the beginning of a new voice in British literature. A voice that brought to light not only the atrocities of racial discrimination and the failings of the care system, but the importance of opening your mind to perspectives that differ from your own.

image credit: University of Manchester

Lemn Sissay has an extraordinary body of work that packs an emotional punch. It forces the reader to realise the privileges they may take for granted, and that determination in the face of adversity is essential.

Sissay’s work has achieved critical acclaim, and his ingenuity and passion has been recognised by many literary awards. He is currently the chancellor for the University of Manchester and continues to write across many different forms.

From adverse beginnings to endless successes, Lemn Sissay is a figurehead for racial equality in the arts. Here is his poem “Colour Blind”

This was the first poem I read by Lemn Sissay. Embarrassingly, I realised that this was the first book of poetry I have read by a poet that is not white. This alone shows that we as readers have to support and invest our time and money into Black writers, not only during Black History Month, but always.

When somebody takes a child from their native culture, that is in itself an act of aggression.


Featured image credit: Holly Fernando/The Observer

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1 Comment

  1. Hmmm…According to his own words his mother committed two acts of aggression: 1) by taking him out of his culture when she left Ethiopia and 2) by abandoning him with Social Services. And yet he did manage to thrive most likely far better than he would have had he spent his childhood in the culrure of his native country. The truth is his mother did her best to give her son the best start in life that was available to her to give.

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