My Name is Why

by Lemn Sissay (2/52)

Proper wanted to like this book too. It is a brave book but I could not warm to it on first reading. The poems on first reading left me cold too. But I guess you have to realise that I have “skin in the game” and that might have coloured my first response – bear with me…

This review is of “My Name is Why” by Lemn Sissay.

Lemn was not an adoptee, he was fostered long term from birth. Fostered not adopted.

Lemn Sissay, a chid of the state

Was that due to race? The prospect of his mum returning or the lack of consent to adoption? Whatever the reason, Lemn was taken into a white (very white) Christian family where he thrived until the age of 12 when he was returned into care. How much damage did that do? Well, I would say a lot. Rejected twice over – man that’s gotta hurt.

“This is how you become invisible. It isn’t the lack of photographs that erodes 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. Family is just a set of memories disputed, resolved or recalled between one group of people over a life time, isn’t it? And if there is no-one to care enough to dispute, resolve or recall the memory, then did it happen?”

All of this feels very raw to me. Sad. To have had a family and then not and that link with family really was broken from the age of 12, it seems to have been a total and all out rejection with no way back. Even to the point where he had to make his own way back to the Children’s home after an unsuccessful visit.

Where the rawness is for me lies in growing up suspecting every day I would be returned to a children’s home if I did not behave if I did not make folk laugh, stay happy. In Lemn’s case it happened. In mine it did not. It’s been a long, lonely road of recognition and change but I figure we have these experiences in life for a reason. But I see and feel that pain. May be that is why I found the book a tough read? A deep knowing that felt uncomfortable. For others may be the beauty and tenderness wins.


“I took what ever affection and acceptance I could from anyone who knew me”

Life is hard in care. Its a cold place. No affection. Cold. Clinical. Harsh. Not sure how anyone succeeds here. The disconnect is quite profound:

“The adults around me had no idea what to do with me. And that scared me. I was losing respect for them. And that scared me.”

He slips into drugs, easy, pain free. He is never self-pitying though. I respect that.

Of those also in care he writes:

“The next day, Danny told me I reminded him of his brother and his brother wound him up. We shook hands and it was forgotten between us. He was hurt by the reminder of who he loved, and the love he missed. Hurt people hurt people.”

Yes, hurt people hurt people.

But Lemn has a secret. He writes poems. Encouraged (slightly) at school, in time, he finds a deep and rich stream of words in which to drown his deepest sorrow and this act of creativity sets his soul free. Away from all the sadness away from all the pain. Again the power of creativity. A recurring theme in my life. Creating is action. Doing. No time to dwell on the pain.

“Where I create, there I am true” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke. I see this in Lemn’s poetry and prose. His writing transcends the personal. Lifts it higher and makes it universal. Man I so love the power of writing, drawing, creating to find that chink, a chink that lets the light in, lets us breathe again. Lemn and his poems remind me of this. And I am grateful all over again.

Here is Lemn speaking at a Ted Talk: A Child of the State


I also liked this sentence:

“The more people around me denied my race by saying they were colour blind or that we are all human beings or that we are all the same, the more I realised that race confused them.”

I thought about that sentence a lot.

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