Lemn Sissay: What Does It Mean To Be A 'Child Of The State'? Poet and playwright Lemn Sissay was raised by the state. He talks about the empty space where his family should have been.
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What Does It Mean To Be A 'Child Of The State'?

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What Does It Mean To Be A 'Child Of The State'?

What Does It Mean To Be A 'Child Of The State'?

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So what if you didn't grow up with a parent? What if your parent was the state?

Hello, is that Lemn?

LEMN SISSAY: It is, Guy. Hi.

RAZ: How are you?

SISSAY: I'm good today. I can't guarantee tomorrow.

RAZ: That was the case with poet Lemn Sissay. Lemn is a nationally renowned poet in the U.K. He's now in his mid-40s, but his first 18 years were spent in and out of foster care and state-run children's homes. And for most of his adult life, he's tried to make sense of his childhood through a series of films and poetry. And the story began in 1967, when his mother left Ethiopia to study in England.

SISSAY: She was one of the first women of Ethiopia to go to an international University.

RAZ: And at the time she was pregnant.

SISSAY: She's at that very potent age of 21. And the world is just about to open up for her.

RAZ: And without knowing it...

SISSAY: She's coming to a storm. The college sent her 200 miles away to this building full of vulnerable pregnant women.

RAZ: Lemn tells the story of what happened to those women, including his mom, from the TED stage.


SISSAY: In the 1960s, if you were pregnant and you were single, you were seen as a threat to the community. You were separated from your family by the state and placed into mother and baby homes. You were appointed a social worker. It was the primary purpose of the social worker, the aim, to get the woman at her most vulnerable time in her entire life to sign the adoption papers. So anyway, she comes here, 1967, it's her plan to have me fostered for a short period of time while she studies. But the social worker, he had a different agenda. He found the foster parents. And he said to them, treat this as an adoption; he's yours forever. His name is Norman.

RAZ: That social worker, who named Lemn after himself, had no intention of letting Lemn's mom ever have him back. And so Lemn grew up with a white family in the North of England. And he was the only black kid in the entire town. But to him, those were his parents and everything seemed pretty normal until he was about 11 years old.


SISSAY: And I was on the cusp of sort of adolescence. So I started to take biscuits from the tin, you know, without asking. I was starting to stay out a little bit later, etc., etc. Now, in their religiosity, in their naivety, my mom and dad - which I believe them to be forever as they said they were - my mom and dad conceived that I had the devil inside of me. I should say this here because this is how they engineered my leaving - they sat me at a table, my foster mom, and she said to me - you don't love us, do you? - at 11 years old. They've had three other children. And I said, yeah, of course I do because you do.

My foster mother asked me to go away to think about love and what it is and to read the scriptures and to come back tomorrow and give my most honest and truthful answer. So this was an opportunity. If they were asking me whether I love them or not, then I mustn't love them, which led me to the miracle of thought that I thought they wanted me to get to. I will ask God for forgiveness, and his light will shine through me to them - how fantastic. This was an opportunity. The theology was perfect, the timing unquestionable and the answer was honest as a sinner could get.

I mustn't love you, I said to them. But I will ask God for forgiveness. Because you don't love us, Norman, clearly you've chosen your path. Twenty-four hours later, my social worker's waiting for me in the car as I say goodbye to my parents. On the way to the children's home, I started to ask myself, what's happened to me? It's not that I'd had the rug pulled from under me, as much as the entire floor had been taken away.

RAZ: OK, so they ask you this strange question, basically implying that you don't love them. You're expected to answer that and you just misunderstood what they wanted you to say, even though it probably wasn't accurate, right, because you probably did love them?

SISSAY: Oh, my God, I loved them like any boy loves his parents.

RAZ: Yeah.

SISSAY: There was nothing more beautiful than putting my arms around my - I call her my foster mother now, but, you know, she was my mom - around her waist and - you know, I was betrayed. Guy, I'll tell you, I didn't know at the time. At the time I was just concerned with living. Children are so incredibly strong and can live through the most terrible, terrible things, can smile after such incredible pain because their physical body, their physical memory says you cannot deal with this now. But slowly as I got to 16 and 17, I realized I have nobody. This is everything I make turns to dust. And that was my entrance into adult life. And that's when the real effect of my childhood hit me.

RAZ: When he turned 18, Lemn aged out of the care system. And he joined a group of writers in Manchester. By the time he turned 21, he tracked down his birth mother, and he finally had a chance to meet her. He didn't know it at the time, but to her, he looked just like his birth father.

SISSAY: So when I met my birth mother for the first time, she wasn't looking at me; she was looking at him. And the moment I met her, I realized that - that this wasn't my story, this was her story. And everything changed, (laughing) everything changed. What could I ask somebody whose story I didn't know?

RAZ: And how about now? I mean, do you have any kind of relationship with her?

SISSAY: She lives in New York, and she lives on Roosevelt Island and works at the U.N., yeah, has all her adult life. And we have a cordial, Manhattan, coffee-drinking, it's-nice-weather-today, your-brothers-and-sisters are fine conversation.

RAZ: If you just sort of put this aside and you never talked about this, like, let's say you just decided that you were never going to mention this and your past was just going to be a black hole that you never confronted or dealt with.

SISSAY: Yes. We are our story. Family is a group of people building story for each other and then building another family and taking that story on. So whether I articulate it outside of myself here to you or whether I decide no, I'm never, ever going to talk about it - that still is the making of us, the making of who we are, we are simply the story, the truth of it. You know, I forgave my foster parents only two weeks ago.

RAZ: Wow.

SISSAY: I got my foster mother, and I called her. And I said, I'd like to meet up with you; I need to tell you that you're OK. I need to forgive you. And that's the first time I'd met her in years.

RAZ: Wow.

SISSAY: And I forgave her from the bottom of my heart.

RAZ: I mean, this is a journey that you've been on for more than 20 years, right? And...


RAZ: ...It's just recently you've made this decision to do that. What changed?

SISSAY: You know, we carry our stories and they become so airtight that we can suffocate ourselves with them. And I slowly realized that I was starting to suffocate myself with this wondrous story of this suffering boy who'd solved all of the problems, found his family, who traveled the world, who'd blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I realized that I was carrying a story which was so watertight that I was suffocating myself. And I realized that I was doing that because I was blaming people. If I can't forgive the person who has done what seemed to be the worst thing that anyone could do to anybody, if I can't forgive them, then what does that say about me, about my growth and my development?

RAZ: So for people who don't know you, I mean, you have accomplished so much - I mean, documentaries for the BBC. You were, like, the official poet of the 2012 Olympics in London. I mean, you have made it. You've had a life which a very small percentage of humanity ever experiences. And I wonder if a big part of your process as an adult is kind of - has been because you knew that in order to function, you had to kind of work through the damage that happened in the first 18 years of your life.

SISSAY: In many ways, I think I'm possibly lucky to have been allowed to experience and learn from my experiences. But I do to this day think that success is being able to look in the mirror and know that I am all right on that day. I don't believe I've made it. I believe that I'm making it. I believe that I found my past so I can live in the present. It's the most important thing to me. In the books and the plays and the touring and the gigs and the speeches and the - and the cash - it all pales into insignificance when compared with knowing that I didn't do anything wrong. And I'm OK now.

RAZ: Lemn Sissay is a poet in Britain. You can check out his full talk at ted.npr.org. More ideas about growing up in just a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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