British Poet Lemn Sissay Chronicles his Turbulent Childhood in Virtual Session for Abu Dhabi International Book Fair


The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF) Virtual Session series continued on Thursday evening with a presentation by the award-winning British poet, playwright and author Lemn Sissay.

In an event organised by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, Sissay spoke from his home in London about his suffering as a child in the British foster care system, as recounted in his recent autobiography My Name is Why.

With the 30th edition of ADIBF postponed until 2021, scheduled guests have instead presented their talks remotely, allowing viewers to watch from the safety of their own homes.

Sissay started his discussion by explaining how he is spending his time at home reading books in preparation for his role as a judge for this year’s Booker Prize, the UK’s leading literary award. While he was physically in isolation at the moment, he stated “there is no lockdown in the imagination”.

Turning to his memoirs, he described how the book intersperses his lyrical prose with government documents concerning his fostering and institutional care. Sissay’s mother came to the UK from Ethiopia as a student, where she soon found herself pregnant. Born in 1967, Sissay was first given up by his mother for temporary adoption, but this became permanent when he was placed in the care of a foster family. His adoptive parents were a strictly religious, working class couple living in the industrial town of Wigan in the northwest of England.

Over time he became estranged from his foster parents, and at the age of 12, he was banished by them and sent to a children’s home. There, he suffered physical and racial abuse, but found solace in writing and reading poetry, which acted as his “tent during a storm”.

After leaving the children’s home at the age of 17, he released his first anthology of poetry and went on to become a respected literary figure. His accomplishments include being chosen as the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics and being elected as Chancellor of Manchester University. In 2010, he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to literature.

When he was 21, he managed to track down his birth mother, who was then working for the UN in Africa. He found his real name was Lemn, which means ‘why’ in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, hence the name for his autobiography.

Previous ADIBF Virtual Sessions have featured the likes of Anthony Geffen, the award-winning documentary maker and Virtual Reality expert; Annabel Karmel, the renowned children’s cookbook author; and Korky Paul, the illustrator of the multi-million selling Winnie and Wilbur series.

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