In 1967, a young Ethiopian woman who was studying in England gave birth to a baby. Not long after, she returned to her native country alone. 

Lemn Sissay – renamed Norman by his assigned social worker – was placed with a white, Baptist couple in Ashton-in-Makerfield. His birth mother would not sign any adoption papers. My Name is Why (2019) charts Sissay’s passage through the care system in Wigan via a combination of his own recollections and reports from the Authority, only recently made available to him after a 34-year campaign. It is a harrowing insight into the early life of a man many will know through his poetry or other writing. 

The Greenwoods welcomed Sissay into their strict Christian household, with its love of C.S. Lewis, hymns, and prayer. Outside the family home stood a laburnum tree, “with its beauteous blooms and poisonous seeds” – a motif that comes to represent Sissay’s experience at Osborne Road. The Greenwood family swells in the years following Sissay’s arrival, with a brother and two sisters born to his foster parents. Despite what must have been a disorienting state of affairs, Sissay appears to be a happy boy and he reflects that he enjoyed Ashton, “the Market, the Flower Park, the Big Park. The church. My friends” and that he had developed a sweet tooth, which was put to good use on “Curly Wurlys, R Whites Lemonade, a quarter of Bon Bons”, and more. There was sibling rivalry with his brother who is close in age to him, and although he experienced casual racism in school and among his peers, his teacher reported that he was “[v]ery popular and extremely sociable … a ray of sunshine”. The Authority did not agree.

Discussed Norman with Miss Jones, who has quite a pathetic attitude towards the child, purely based on his colour – see recent school report where she refers to him as a Ray of Sunshine – she sees his colour as his cross to bear – hopefully the staff attitude in his new school will be more realistic.

As Sissay tumbled towards adolescence things appeared to deteriorate. He had been conditioned to feel that his birth mother had rejected him (something that is provably incorrect) and it seemed his foster parents were building themselves up to do the same, much to his bafflement. For Sissay’s reminiscences are of a normal enough childhood – the small misdemeanours, familial arguments – and yet in the eyes of the Authority and of Mrs Greenwood his actions were viewed in quite a different light:

Home visit. Mrs. Greenwood was just returning from work. She told me that they had been to a parents evening at school last night, and that there had been very unfavourable reports about Norman.

She says Norman is a naughty boy, and that she sometimes thinks he is ‘amoral’. She told me that he smokes, swears, steals, and he seems to harbour a grudge about being black. 

She said she was at the end of her tether with Norman and felt she and her husband had given him so much, which Norman just seemed to resent. She said she had given him all she could and could do no more, and he would have to be taken somewhere where they could get to the bottom of his ‘anti’- feelings.

By contrast, here is Norman’s school report from the same year:

Child’s general progress: Good progress within his form.

Conduct: Well-behaved in lessons.

Character and temperament: Pleasant.

Relationships with staff and other children: Always keen to please and has many friends.

Participation in school activities: Always willing to participate.

Cleanliness and tidiness: Very good.

General progress: Good progress. Norman has settled down well in his first year at this school.

Even at this distance, it is difficult to ascertain exactly what was happening within the Greenwood household. What is clear, is that Sissay was unsettling his parents with his vigorous exploration of life, which pushed the boundaries of their staid religiosity. Inevitably, it would be Sissay that lost out: 

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.

So it was that at the age of 12, Sissay found himself removed from the Greenwood home and shunted around care facilities where staff were disinterested in their charges. During this time his behaviour became erratic as he struggled to consolidate his self-image in the face of indifference from some quarters and outright hostility from others. One gets the heavy sense of a soul adrift without any of the grounding that family and shared history can offer. As Sissay observes:

Memories in care are slippery because there’s no one to recall them with as the years pass… How could it matter if no one recalls it? Given that staff don’t take photographs it was impossible to take something away as a memory. This is how you become invisible. It isn’t the lack of photographs that erodes the memory. It is the underlying unkindnesses, which make you feel as though you don’t matter enough. This is how to quietly deplete the sense of self-worth deep inside a child’s psyche. This is how a child becomes hidden in plain sight.

My Name is Why is, itself, strong evidence of an individual who does not own their personal history. If one discounts the reports included in the book, Sissay’s narrative feels threadbare and perplexing – his internal monologue not tallying with the external world he experiences. That these reports have only recently been released to Sissay should emphasise how impossible a task it was for a young man to reconcile his interior and exterior life when he was given none of the insight the adults around him purported to have (until 16, he didn’t even know that Norman Greenwood was not his real name!).

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The final stop on his tour of care facilities – Wood End assessment centre – was more akin to a detention centre than a home, and the children who were placed there were subjected to appalling abuse at the hands of the staff (Sissay includes correspondence from others who experienced Wood End exactly as he did). It is no surprise that Sissay petitioned the Authority to move into his own flat before the age of 18. When he was finally allowed to leave, he writes, “I felt the files closing behind me,” and then, “File is an anagram of life.”

By this point, Sissay had begun to find a place in the world that fitted him. Through trips to Manchester and connections with others who shared parts of his experience, he was able to nurture his own poetic spirit (and a love of Bob Marley). It is hard to leave such a difficult memoir with any sense of hope, but with the burgeoning signs of the man Sissay would become visible at its close, My Name is Why manages to find the slightest of hope in a patchwork of despair.  

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