103. Lemn Sissay MBE; Lancashire Care Homes, Life’s Language of Travel and How Poetry Gave Him Wings

Lemn Sissay, BAFTA nominated writer and one of the world’s most brilliant poets, was taken from his Ethiopian mother at birth against her will and after a stinging rejection from foster parents spent his childhood in care. He published his first book of poetry age 17, selling it to striking miners in Lancashire. Although a large part of him will ‘always feel like that rootless kid’, poetry, he says, gave him wings and he began his travels not just around the world but also the both physical and emotional journey to find his birth family (as beautifully written in his book My Name is Why). 

 

 

On this episode we cover:

 

Being conceived in Athens

His Ethiopian mother’s arrival in London in 1966

His father being a pilot for Ethiopian Airlines

The magic and history of Ethiopia

People knowing Ethiopia due to the famine

The first migration a person makes being from the womb into the open air

A social worker taking the baby against his mother’s will

Being fostered by the Greenwood family in Lancashire

Family trips to Scotland to visit his grandparents

Being put into a children’s home at 12

Losing all his family

Spending a lot of his formative years feeling it was his fault

The care system being very punishment orientated

The trauma of being thought of as intrinsically bad

Still finding life beautiful

The unspoken heroes brought up in care now making the world a better place

Poetry being in him from the moment he was born

Knowing he would become a poet age 12

Selling poetry to striking miners in Lancashire age 17

Poetry putting him on planes, enabling him to travel

The transformative experience of his first trip abroad (to Germany to perform)

German cakes and breakfasts

Lisa fighting the corner for British cakes

Cakeology (!) and the resurgence of interest in British cakes

The cakes of Germany being like miniature palaces

(There is a lot of conversation about cake)

Regretting not learning a language

Coronavirus meaning he’s missed Dubai, Ethiopia, India, the USA and Australia

Being very defined in what he wanted in life – to find his mother and to be a poet

Poetry paying for his physical journey to find his family

Finding his mother when he was 21, after a long search

His mother working for the UN in the Gambia

Her fleeing of Ethiopia in 1974

Flying to Africa for the first time to meet his mother

Sending cash for his flight in an envelope from Lancashire to Brixton!

The Senegalese man obsessed with Chris Rhea’s Lady in Red

How travel puts you out of your comfort zone

Communication without language means you have to lose your fear 

The fun and trick to bartering

The vulnerability of not knowing the rules

People on the plane from Senegal to Gambia who worked with his mum

Golden wings of dust driving through the Gambian sunset

The moment he met his mother

How travel makes its way into our language; making life journeys, navigating our problems, finding pathways, taking flight

How the relationship with his birth family has developed

Ethiopian Airlines being part of his DNA

The aviation industry in the 1960s being like a village

Lisa going to Addis Ababa to interview Ethiopian model Liya Kebede

And New York to interview chef Marcus Samuelsson and author Maaza Mengiste

Lisa meeting her Fiji-Indian family for the first time

Looking at his mother’s, brothers’ and sisters’ faces for the first time

How we can define ourselves as people of the world

People will only call themselves by a colour when they’re in the minority

The incredible photo of his pilot father with the Emperor’s lion

His father’s death in a plane crash in storm on New Year’s Day

Taking a BBC film crew to the Simian mountains where the crash happened

Finding pieces of plane and fuselage

Finding the place where his father died being like the beginning of the rest of his life

Loving the Hilton in Addis Ababa where his father partied and his mother got married

Staying next to Nick Cave in the Amadari Hotel in Bali

Bathing underneath the Balinese stars

What Nick Cave is like on holiday

The Emirates Literary Festival

Feeling at peace in the Scottish Highlands

Loving New York and Penang in Malaysia –

How the food is always a reflection of the people

How you can have the greatest journeys in your own village

Wanting to give the gift of travel to kids in care

Travel broadens the mind, but the new experience broadens the mind

Migration, travelling, immigrants…all what it takes to be human