Lunch with Lemn Sis­say

Af­ter con­fronting the trauma of a child­hood in care, life for the poet is now sweet

The Observer Food Monthly - - CONTENTS - IL­LUS­TRA­TION Lyn­don Hayes

When I ar­rive at Benares, the In­dian restau­rant on Berke­ley Square in Lon­don, Lemn Sis­say has got there first and is on the way back out­side for a smoke. I’ve never met Sis­say, but he has the true poet’s gift for im­me­di­ately mak­ing you feel like an old mate. We stand out­side the Bent­ley show­room next to the restau­rant – this isn’t any old curry house – and he ex­plains with his broad grin why he chose to come here this par­tic­u­lar day: “When you said the date for lunch, I im­me­di­ately thought it had to be an In­dian place!” he says, “Sev­enty years this morn­ing since in­de­pen­dence and par­ti­tion – we couldn’t let that go by, could we?”

Sis­say’s own com­pli­cated her­itage is Ethiopian, by way of fos­ter and care homes out­side Wi­gan, in streets where the only other out­siders were In­dian or Pak­istani. “Those Lan­cashire vil­lages were in­cred­i­bly hos­tile to the In­dian com­mu­nity who had come in orig­i­nally to work the mills at night be­cause no one else would,” he says. “When the mills closed they opened shops that stayed open late and got worse stick for that. But the food they have brought to our coun­try has changed our idea of food for­ever.”

There are few bet­ter places to cel­e­brate that fact than Benares, which be­lies its ap­pear­ance as a mar­bled ho­tel lobby to bring Pun­jabi soul food out of its tan­doori oven. We’re seated in a side room that has a plate glass win­dow on to the kitchen. It has the feel of a pod in the Big Brother house. The con­fes­sional lay­out seems ap­pro­pri­ate in that Sis­say is all open­ness.

He’s come straight here from a meet­ing with some TV peo­ple at Chan­nel 4, a “beau­ti­ful meet­ing” he says, if such a thing ex­ists. He’s in talks to cre­ate a show

‘Fam­i­lies are like clever PR com­pa­nies, pro­tect­ing their mo­nop­oly of the idea of what it feels like to be loved’

or a se­ries about or­phans and fos­ter chil­dren – he reels off a list: “Cin­derella, Bat­man, Heath­cliff, Harry Pot­ter, Jane Eyre, Moses.” The idea will in­volve link­ing those char­ac­ters with kids cur­rently in care. “Fam­i­lies are like clever PR com­pa­nies, pro­tect­ing their mo­nop­oly of the idea of what it feels to be loved,” he says. “But dys­func­tion is also at the heart of all fam­i­lies. And a child in care is walk­ing proof of that. Peo­ple fear it might be con­ta­gious.”

If there is one man who can de­con­struct that be­lief it is Sis­say. His Ethiopian mother was a young woman who had come to study in Bri­tain and “found her­self ” preg­nant. She was placed in a mother and baby unit and en­cour­aged to put her son into care. She re­fused to sign adop­tion pa­pers – but Wi­gan so­cial ser­vices ig­nored this wish (Sis­say even­tu­ally dis­cov­ered the let­ters to prove that). He was re­named Nor­man by his so­cial worker – also called Nor­man – and placed with a lo­cal fam­ily with strong Christian be­liefs. By the time he was 12, his new par­ents had three kids of their own. Sis­say has pre­vi­ously said, “They were good peo­ple who did bad things.” They be­lieved the devil was in him – he used to raid the bis­cuit tin – and re­turned him to so­cial ser­vices. Through­out his teenage years in care homes Sis­say was sub­ject to psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal abuse, even­tu­ally end­ing up in

a re­mand cen­tre, though he had com­mit­ted no crime, where he tried to make sense of things.

His route out was poetry. He pub­lished a book of po­ems at 21, Ten­der Fin­gers in a Clenched

Fist, and sold it where he could, in pubs, at po­lit­i­cal marches, any place he could stand up and per­form. That voice has grown into some­thing sub­tle and pointed – an evo­lu­tion cap­tured in Sis­say’s new se­lected po­ems

Gold From the Stone. He has a mag­i­cal stage pres­ence, and has used his past to ar­tic­u­late both his own his­tory and to give a voice to oth­ers par­ented by the state. Four years ago he started an ini­tia­tive among artists and chefs and so­cial work­ers to give proper Christ­mas din­ners to groups of young peo­ple just out of care. Two years ago he was elected chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Manch­ester, beat­ing a hard-cam­paign­ing Peter Man­del­son, a fact which still makes him laugh out loud. His creative work never stops.

“I wish I could coast,” he says, in smiling des­per­a­tion. “I can’t coast!” Af­ter we have eaten he has to head over to the Royal Court The­atre, where he is cur­rently tak­ing the ir­re­press­ible nar­ra­tor’s role in the re­vival of Jim Cartwright’s de­fin­i­tive 1980s play

Road (“Alan Bennett for punks”). Be­fore that there is food to eat: a char­grilled plat­ter starter, of prawns and sea bass and chicken tikka, at which his eyes ex­claim. He says, not just about the food: “You know, I think I’m en­joy­ing my life. It’s quite ex­cit­ing!”

Is this the first time in his life he could hon­estly say that?

“It is,” he says, “and I’m 50. I don’t live in lux­ury or any­thing. It’s more like maybe for the first time I feel my­self mak­ing things hap­pen. The Christ­mas din­ner is the best thing I have been a part of ... And Manch­ester, the univer­sity. I’m en­joy­ing my life be­cause I feel I have a pur­pose, a rea­son.”

He gives me an ex­am­ple of how things have changed for him. The day be­fore our lunch he lost his com­puter. He hopes he may have left it at the Royal Court, but he thinks not. The lap­top had loads of writ­ing on it, not backed up. And also in the bag were le­gal pa­pers for the court case he is about to bring against Wi­gan so­cial ser­vices for the abuses he suf­fered in care.

The point is, he says, the loss is no longer the end of the world. In the past some­thing like los­ing his com­puter would have quickly led him to think “I’ve got no fam­ily, no one cares, and I’m in a black hole”. But now sim­ple prob­lems don’t col­lapse his whole men­tal house of cards. “That is my cri­te­ria for suc­cess in my­self,” he says.

Part of that change has been an in­sis­tence on telling his story. Ear­lier this year, in an ex­tra­or­di­nary one-off per­for­mance, he opened the psy­chol­o­gist’s file on the ef­fects of his time in care. His first hear­ing of those case notes came in the voice of the ac­tor Julie Hes­mond­halgh (Hay­ley Crop­per from Corona­tion Street ) who read the lot out to him on stage. It was by all ac­counts a pro­foundly af­fect­ing event. “I did it like that be­cause in some ways I feel safest with an au­di­ence,” Sis­say says. “I felt so much love in that room.” The file is a key el­e­ment in his case against Wi­gan so­cial ser­vices. “Hope­fully it will open some doors for oth­ers. Peo­ple in care are sup­posed to get to

their adult lives and pre­tend it didn’t hap­pen. It’s like: ‘You’re fine, don’t spoil the party.’ I’m not pre­pared to do that.”

More food – a main course of tan­doori lamb and salmon cooked in co­conut, with dal and naan, brings talk back to the in­tensely flavoured world beyond Wi­gan.

Sis­say used the lit­tle money he earned from sell­ing poetry to find his bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily – his mother was work­ing for the UN in Gam­bia; his fa­ther had been a pi­lot in Ethiopia, who died in a plane crash in 1972; he had broth­ers and sis­ters in Ad­dis Ababa. The re­union was not a happy one, as he has ex­plored in his play Some­thing Dark .

Where is he up to with his fam­ily now?

“They don’t talk to me. My sis­ter in Ethiopia I speak to maybe once a year. But then, imag­ine some­body com­ing into your house, your front room and say­ing, ‘Right, you don’t know me but I’m your eldest brother and I’m go­ing to sit here.’ I guess that is hard for peo­ple to deal with.”

In Amharic “Lemn”, means the ques­tion “why?”. “In Ethiopia, I have be­come the lost boy called ‘Why?’ who has fi­nally found the an­swer to the ques­tion in his name,” he says. “The coun­try has taken to that. And Ethiopi­ans are all over the world. I’ll be go­ing through se­cu­rity at Bos­ton air­port or what­ever and a se­cu­rity guard will shout: ‘Lemn!’ But my fam­ily doesn’t like that ques­tion. It’s like: ‘Who are you to mess with my mum or the mem­ory of my dad?’

“It has let me know that this is what fam­ily is. I re­ally am part of the fam­ily now, and I know it for a fact be­cause they aren’t talk­ing to me.” He roars with laugh­ter. In his re­cent poem “Fallen”, he finds the lan­guage to for­give his mother their past: I am your son! And you did not fall, And I did not fall from you At all, not at all

“Fam­ily is also about let­ting go of things,” he says, evenly, when I men­tion the poem.

Later, af­ter he has left the restau­rant to pre­pare for that night’s show, he sends me a mes­sage that he has found his bag and com­puter: life is good! Gold From the Stone (Canon­gate, £9.99) is out now in pa­per­back

They ate Tan­doori ratan, £27; changezi chaapein, £36; tan­doori mac­chi aur kekda, £32; dal £9.

The Ta­ble Benares, 12a Berke­ley Square, Lon­don W1J 6BS; 020 7629 8886 They drank Mok­sha and mango wood cock­tails, £9.50 each.

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