António Rolo Duarte
The one thing that Lemn Sissay cannot hide, is that he is a busy guy. One need only follow him on Twitter to see that the new chancellor of The University of Manchester is constantly jumping from cocktail to guest lecture, award ceremony to television programme. His workload has even made him stop “morning tweets” an initiative which he had had for almost four years, where he wrote a tweet every day exploring the feelings that the morning had called upon him.
And yet when we meet him on a cold day a few weeks back and ask how long he has for our interview, he says that we can have as long as we want. He has cleared his schedule for the rest of the day and is keen to share with us the memories, opinions and experiences of what has been quite an unconventional life, and an even odder climb to the chancellorship – Sissay himself never attended university in the first place.
He might never have been a university student but Lemn Sissay has always learned from those around him. He is as humble as he is great. This is a chancellor who might have photos with the Queen, but who does not refuse a selfie with a student. A chancellor who is much more than just a figure with a fancy title. Lemn Sissay is one of us. And now we are part of him.
At the start of the interview, his unmistakable smile leads the way to an easy-flowing conversation. We are not even seated, let alone asking questions, and Lemn Sissay is already talking as if we have known each other for years. “You better start recording,” he says, as we settle at the bar of a hotel just off Piccadilly Gardens.
We do as he orders. With our voice recorders out, the chancellor is already midway through a fascinating argument about migration. We have no idea where it came from, but we definitly do not want to interrupt.
You see, we are a migrating species by nature, we are all migrants. My homes are in different places. My spirit is in Manchester, in London, in New York, in Addis Ababa. And education helps a person to migrate. I think that’s actually at the heart of who we are. Parents never say to their children, oh don’t go anywhere. They say, go out into the world, migrate!
Expand your horizons, right?
Expand your horizons! If that’s not a celebration of migration, then what is? It was Professor Brian Cox who said that inspiration is economically quantifiable. It is a beautiful thing. What he was saying is that if people were not inspired by space, then governments would not give money to it. It is because humanity is inspired by the idea of space that they can spend so much money on the exploration of space. And what is the exploration of space other than the idea of mass migration? The space man is a migrant! He is populating the moon.
And they are planning on going to Mars soon.
Absolutely. As far as we go, we will consistently want to go further, because it is in our nature. And that is why I think that anti-migration is kind of anti-nature. In every country where a person is anti-immigrant it throws up all kinds of anti-humane behaviour. When the opposite happens, it throws up humane behaviour, incredible people helping other people. It shows the worst and the best in people.
Brian Cox’s idea of inspiration being quantifiable links very much to that slogan of yours, “inspire and be inspired”. You have certainly inspired many people with your writing. Was that always an aspiration of yours?
I always wanted to be a poet. I always knew that from the age of 12 or 13, when I went into the children’s homes. For some reason it was what I wanted to do. I believed in what I did, and I did what I believed. There was no other option.
Was it a way to survival, perhaps?
The most important thing to me was to live, not to survive. I didn’t want to be somebody who always needed to have a fire to put out. I just have a lot to say. A lot of interesting stuff happened to me and I really needed to speak it. Because I felt like I had been experimented on for 18 years. So I left the experiment, I left the laboratory, and I was like: listen folks, something has happened here, there is a bigger story.
The most important thing to me was to live, not to survive. I didn't want to be somebody who always needed to have a fire to put out.
So could you tell us a bit about those 18 years that you felt you were experimented on? I know you were split from your Ethiopian mother when she came to study in England…
Yes, when I was a child, my mother approached a social worker and asked to have me fostered for a short period of time. But the social worker had no intention of giving me back to her and he didn’t tell her. He gave me to foster parents and he said: treat this as an adoption.
Why would he do that?
To know why that happened, you have to look at the late 1960s and the situation in Britain for single pregnant women. There was a practice of children being adopted if they were with a woman who didn’t have a husband. And essentially this story is about women, it is about women’s rights and it is about the disempowerment of women in the late sixties. So the social worker had no intention of giving me back to my mother because society then saw my mother as a bad person, just because she was pregnant and without a husband. That’s why this entire story occurred.
So what happened after you were given to foster parents?
I was then held with my foster parents who told me that they were my mom and dad forever. I was held with them for twelve years, and I thought I was going to be with them forever. But then they put me into children’s homes. They held me in different children’s homes until I was 17 and then they released me in the care system, with no family. It was then that I realized how important family is as you grow in independence. As any of us grow in independence, we grow seemingly away from our family and we become what we think of as independent. But we are only independent with a point of reference to look back at. So we can say “I am not part of you as a family, I am now an independent human being”, whereas actually, we are totally relative to them. And I didn’t have that.
Did you ever get to know your real family?
When I was 18, the social worker gave me letters and told me that somebody did love me. He gave me letters from my file, letters of my mother pleading for me back to the social worker. He said “somebody did love you, she wanted you back”. So at 18, when my friends were going to university, I began searching for my family. Using the address on that letter the social worker gave me, after about three years, I found my mother. She worked for the United Nations in the Gambia.
How was it for you meeting the mother who you had never met?
It is one of the most unnatural sentences, “are you my mother?” Those words don’t really go together, they shouldn’t really go together. It was difficult for her. Somehow, I don’t know how, but somehow, I realised that it was about her story. She came to England to study, that’s all. She was pregnant. Women get pregnant, that’s what happens. But they don’t expect to be punished for getting pregnant.
In your Ted talk, you said that Margaret Thatcher was your mother when you were in foster care. How did you feel about that when you were in foster care and how to you feel about that now?
Things were done to me that were very wrong. I am seeking redress presently for things that happened to me when I was under the care of the government.
Do you resent your time in foster care?
No, no! I don’t. I think people try as hard as they can. I think one of the greatest things a human being can do is to foster, or to adopt. And I think that when people do mistakes in fostering, they are trying. Bitterness rots the vessel that carries it. I don’t resent what happened to me, but I do want it to be recognized.
So do you think that there are no “good” and “bad” people?
Well, Hitler did his best. If you suffered at the hands of Hitler, do you forgive? This is not a question for me, this is a question mainly for the Jewish community, to whom unspeakable things happened. Does a person forgive? That’s your internal spirit, it is your choice as to whether you do that or not.
But is forgiveness is important?
For me, ultimately forgiveness was important for the people who did me wrong as a child; who took away my mother from me and my father, who took me away from my family, put me into children’s homes, took away the entire narrative of my family life, took away my education, took away the possibility of going to university. So for me yes, forgiveness is important. But I don’t say that everybody has to do that.
In an interview some time ago, you said that your favourite character was Lisbeth Salander, from The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo, because of her pursuit of justice. What is the kind of justice that you pursue?
I would like equality to be a practice in life. But I think the most obvious place where I pursue justice is where a child who was looked after by the state receives honest care from the state. When I say honest care I mean the state is the parent of the child who is in its care, either in foster care or children’s homes or whatever. And I would hope that that child would receive the best education, the best psychotherapeutic, psychological and home care from the state.
We know that there were many obstacles to that kind of justice in your case. Some of them are... how shall I put it? A bit odd. For example, I saw somewhere that your name changed a couple of times during the period you were in foster care. Were you actually called Norman at one point?
Norman Mark Greenwood, yes! [laughs] Norman was the name of the social worker, he named me after himself. Mark was the name of the foster parents, that’s in the Bible. And their last name was Greenwood. And that was never my legal name. When I was 18, I was given my birth certificate and that’s where it said my name, Lemn Sissay.
And you took it.
Yes, I took my name. People thought I was kind of crazy.
Why? And why did your name matter to you?
All our names matter, man. You grow to love your name because you become who you are, you grow to own your name. Lemn, in Ethiopia, means the question “why?” It is a very unusual name to have in Ethiopia. Who is called why? But to think that my name is Lemn and that I was always a poet is just perfect. I fit my name. Our names are celebrations of who we are as human beings.
Do you remember your time as a student? I am curious about what it would be to have Lemn Sissay as a classmate in school…
I went to school in Lancashire, close to the mines. Teachers loved me but they realized that what was going on in my life would get in the way. A lot of teachers in school will say: these children spend longer with me than they do with their parents. To someone who is in children’s homes, that means that the teacher and the school environment is more like family than their home environment. So I really loved school. But I loved it from the perspective of society, of meeting people. I could smell family on other people.
Is there any particular person from school that you can remember?
Oh yeah! A bald, rugby-playing, socialist, beer-drinking English teacher called Mr Unsworth. He was really inspiring to me. He spent time with me, he gave me books and he read my poetry as well. And so I invited him to the launch of the chancellorship and he came, he was in the audience.
So you kept in contact in some way?
I came back to him. He contacted me after seeing me in a newspaper. And so we’ve regained a relationship. Part of the reason to be in the newspaper for me in my early career was very much to say I am alive. Because I didn’t have family, this was a place where somebody could say, “oh he is alive, he has lived, and he was there at that time”. Because all a family is, is a group of people proving that each other exist.
So even after you found your mother, for you there still wasn’t a family?
I have tried to keep in contact with her but I don’t know her, you see, I don’t know her. I don’t have a family. I don’t have, I just don’t have it. I just acknowledge that there isn’t. Nobody was there from my family when I became chancellor.
You could look at my life and ask: how far has that man gone? How far has he come from where he was? And if you want to go as far as he has, that is the place to do it, The University of Manchester.
Truth is, you did become chancellor. You are the chancellor of The University of Manchester. One of the most interesting aspects of that is perhaps the fact that you never even attended university. So is this also a message that university isn’t everything, that great careers and great lives can be achieved without going to university like you did?
Well, I didn’t have a choice. From what I know, given the choice, I would have done it. You know, I don’t think it would have taken anything away from me. I think it would have just added. So I’m not saying that you don’t need a university education, look at me. I’m saying that you deserve a choice.
How does a poet who never had that kind of opportunities beat Peter Mandelson, one of the most senior British politicians of the twenty-first century in this country, in an election for a university chancellorship?
What is really interesting about the election is that leading up to it, I was on national radio and said that Manchester is the greatest place on earth. A few weeks before that, I gave a keynote address in the Manchester Town Hall in front of 500 lecturers. Also, I was offered a doctorate from the university, from Nancy Rothwell, a year earlier. None of this was connected to the election, all of this had been booked 4 months, 8 months before. But all of these things proved that I was engaged with Manchester, and particularly with the university and with education in general. So I said to myself: why not, why shouldn’t I do it? And you could look at my life and ask: how far has that man gone? How far has he come from where he was? And if you want to go as far as he has, that is the place to do it, The University of Manchester, and Manchester as a city.
You got the chancellorship of The University of Manchester, and Peter Mandelson went up Oxford Road to our neighbours at the Manchester Metropolitan University, settling as chancellor there.
That says to me one really interesting thing: is that Manchester is the place to be. When a politician such as Peter Mandelson is so determined to contribute to the betterment of Manchester by going for two chancellorships, then that tells me that something really good is happening in Manchester. The city has grown a lot for the past 25 or 30 years, definitely for the better. It is more mixed now and there are more people from different parts of the world, on the streets and in the cafes and restaurants. Diversity is really good for Manchester. The future of Manchester is quite wonderful.
One of the mottos of the city is “we do things differently around here”…
Yes, and we have to do that. We have to do that not in relation to London, but in relation to who we are. If I’m always looking at you and saying, “oh, one day I will be better than you”, I’m empowering you. And I think Manchester doesn’t need to do that. It is an incredible city.
Is Manchester an English city or an international city?
I think it is a big international city, without a doubt. I travel around the world as a writer and everybody knows Manchester. Manchester United, the football team, is a great promoter of the city. And I see the university right at the forefront of the story of Manchester. It would be nice for more people to be aware of the role of the university in the making of Manchester. The cultural nature of the city is not Oasis, it is not Stone Roses, it is not Tony Wilson even. It is what the university is doing. It is science and it is also the artists. The science and the artists are incredible promoters of the university and the city. Again, it is the diversity that is really inspiring.
Is that Manchester’s biggest strength?
What is its biggest weakness?
Nostalgia. We are an innovative, forward-thinking city and we need to be that. Nostalgia can sometimes be this sort of anchor that wants us not to change.
We could almost say that a question about weaknesses would not apply to you. You are one of the most acclaimed British writers alive. You were the official poet of the London Olympics, you have performed at hundreds of important places worldwide and you even have your poems printed in public walls across Manchester. Despite never having gone to university, you are now chancellor of one of the greatest universities in the country. Your successes are countless. But what would you say has been your biggest failure in life?
The thing that comes to mind is not having children. Because I’ve spent a lot of my time searching for my family and I said to myself that I wouldn’t have children until I found them all. I don’t think it is a failure but I could have popped a couple out on the way.
Would you consider adopting?
Yes. [silence] Yes, I would.