Lemn Sissay

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Lemn Sissay
Lemn Sissay hopemas xmas partyeventful-org-uk low 18 (5273390039).jpg
Lemn Sissay speaking at the Hopemas xmas party in 2010
Born 1967 (age 48–49)
Higher End, Wigan
Nationality British
Ethnicity Ethiopian[1]
Notable awards MBE (2010)

Lemn Sissay MBE[2] (born 21 May 1967)[3] is a British author and broadcaster.

Life and work[edit]

Early years[edit]

Extract from "The Gilt of Cain" a poem by Sissay, near Tower Hill, London.

Sissay's mother arrived in England from Ethiopia in 1966[4] Pregnant at the time, she was sent from Bracknell to Lancashire to give birth.[5] Sissay was born in Billinge Hospital, near Wigan, Lancashire in 1967. Norman Goldthorpe, a social worker assigned to his mother by Wigan Social Services, found foster parents for Sissay while his mother returned to Bracknell to finish her studies. Goldthorpe named Sissay 'Norman' and gave Sissay to foster parents, telling them to treat it as an adoption.[4] The events are depicted in the play Something Dark and in BBC documentary Internal flight.[4][6][7][8] His strongly religious foster parents wanted to name him Mark after the Christian evangelist Mark and give him their surname, Greenwood.

When Sissay was 12 years old, after his foster parents had had three children of their own, they placed him into a children's home and said neither they nor any of their family would contact him again.[5]

Poem by Lemn Sissay on Wilmslow Road, Manchester

From the ages of 12 to 17, Sissay was held in a total of four children's homes. With no surrogate family or birth family upon leaving the care system, he was given his birth certificate, showing the name of his mother, Yemarshet Sissay, and his own legal name, Lemn Sissay. He was also given a letter from his files dated 1968, written by his mother to Norman Goldthorpe, pleading for his return. She wrote "How can I get Lemn back? I want him to be with his own people, his own colour. I don't want him to face discrimination".[4][9][10] From the point of leaving care, he began the search for his mother and took back his real name.[4][6]

When Sissay was 18 years old he moved from Atherton to the city of Manchester. At 19 he was a literature development worker at Commonword, a community publishing cooperative in Manchester.

He met his birth mother when he was 21, after a long search. She was working for the UN in the Gambia.[6]


Before we get to know each other
And sing for tomorrow
And unearth yesterday
So that we can prepare our joint grave
You should know that I have no family,
Neither disowned nor distanced – none.

No birthdays nor Christmas,
No telephone calls. It's been that way
Since birth for what it's worth
No next of skin.

From "Before we get into this" (2008)[11]

Sissay released his first book of poetry in 1988 at the age of 21, and since the age of 24 he has been a full-time writer, performing internationally. In 1995, he made the BBC documentary Internal Flight about his life. His 2005 drama Something Dark deals with his search for his family, and was adapted for BBC Radio 3 in 2006, winning the RIMA award (Race in the Media award given from the UK Commission for Racial Equality).[4][6]

In 2007, Sissay was appointed artist in residence at London's Southbank Centre. He was the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics, has worked with the British Council and is a patron of the Letterbox Club, supporting children in care. His work has featured at the Royal Academy and the British Film Institute.[12][13][14] Sissay was made an Honorary Doctor of Letters by University of Huddersfield in 2009 and was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2010 New Year Honours.[11][15]

Sissay's television appearances include The South Bank Show and the BBC's series Grumpy Old Men. As a radio broadcaster Sissay makes documentaries for the BBC. He is a regular contributor on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live, which in 2008 was nominated for two Sony Awards. He also contributes to the BBC's Book Panel.

In June 2015, Sissay was elected as Chancellor of the University of Manchester for a seven-year term[16] by University staff, registered alumni and members of the General Assembly. He took up his new role on 1 August, with an installation ceremony held on Foundation day at the University on 14 October 2015.[17]

Sissay said: “Reach for the top of the tree and you may get to the first branch but reach for the stars and you'll get to the top of the tree. My primary aim is to inspire and be inspired. I am proud to be Chancellor of this fantastic University and extremely grateful to everyone who voted for me.”



  • Skeletons in the Cupboard (1993), Bury Metro Arts
  • Don't Look Down (1993)
  • Chaos by Design (1994), Community Arts Workshop
  • Storm (2002), Contact Theatre
  • Something Dark (2006), Battersea Arts Centre/Contact Theatre
  • Why I Don't Hate White People (2011), Hammersmith Lyric Theatre
  • Refugee Boy (2013), West Yorkshire Playhouse

BBC Radio Plays[edit]

  • Chaos by Design (BBC Radio 1994)
  • Something Dark ( BBC Radio 2006)
  • Something Dark – Live(ABC 2012)
  • Why I Don't Hate White People (BBC Radio 2011)


  1. ^ "Lemn Sissay's Homecoming". BBC Radio 4. 2015-05-20. 
  2. ^ London Gazette
  3. ^ "Lemn Sissay". Canongate TV. September 2004. Retrieved 3 April 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f "Internal Flight". BBC 2. 1995. Retrieved 3 April 2013. 
  5. ^ a b "Lemn Sissay: A child of the state". TED. 2012. Retrieved 3 April 2013. 
  6. ^ a b c d Sissay, Lemn (2008). Something Dark. Oberon Books. ISBN 9781840028430. 
  7. ^ "Something Dark by Lemn Sissay". ABC Radio. 19 August 2012. Retrieved 3 April 2013. 
  8. ^ "Something Dark by Lemn Sissay". British Council. Retrieved 3 April 2013. 
  9. ^ "When I left care they said I was a great survivor". The Guardian Radio. 30 October 2012. Retrieved 3 April 2013. 
  10. ^ Lemn, Sissay. "One Extraordinary Woman in My World Now". The life and times of Lemn Sissay. web. Retrieved 3 July 2013. 
  11. ^ a b "The Power to Inspire". University of Huddersfield. Retrieved 3 April 2013. 
  12. ^ "British poet Lemn Sissay leaves audience spellbound". International Herald Tribune. 10 December 2012. Retrieved 3 April 2013. 
  13. ^ "Speakers Lemn Sissay: Poet and playwright". TED. Retrieved 3 April 2013. 
  14. ^ "Lemn Sissay". British Council. Retrieved 3 April 2013. 
  15. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 59282. p. 22. 31 December 2009.
  16. ^ http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/article/?id=14746
  17. ^ http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/article/?id=15292

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]