A PASSIONATE POET: Lemn Sissay
LEMN SISSAY is a wellknown outspoken advocate against racism. Having dedicated a career spanning over two decades to writing poems, plays and workbooks on how to tackle racial discrimination in the UK, the poet now says England is ‘enlightened’ in their approach to racism, when compared with the rest of Europe.
Over the years, Britain has been many things to the poet; born in the predominantly white area of Billinge, to Eritrean and Ethiopian parents, Sissay was fostered by his mother at the age of 11 to a white family. Sissay once described his childhood in Lancashire as growing up in an alien environment.
Almost 30 years later, today’s UK is a distinctly different place according to the Rebel Without Applause author.
“Modern Britain to me is a place of different languages, different cultures, colours and acceptance from each citizen to the other. It is something I’ve definitely been waiting for and something I know that the African-Caribbean community has been fighting for. It has been many years but we are starting to see the fruits of their labour.
“People like Benjamin Zephaniah and Grace Nicols fought for their rights, they are not the past, they are the living present and I think in that respect Britain is one of the most enlightened countries in Europe when it comes to race.”
While saying that Britain is the best place in Europe to be black, Sissay also admitted that there are some aspects of British society that are biased against the African-Caribbean community.
“The truth is I don’t evaluate the success of Britain on how functioning it is - I evaluate it on the worst case. In other words, if a child is shot by the police as a result of the colour of his skin, then society unfortunately has not progressed,” said the 46-year-old.
“It is only if we look at the worst parts of our society that we can make them better. That’s not to be negative, it certainly is a better place, but at the same time I can say it is not good enough. There are too many people begging on the street, no matter the race and there is a rise in the English Defence League.”
Currently adapting Benjamin Zephaniah’s critically acclaimed novel Refugee Boy for the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Sissay is acutely aware of the irony of recreating such a thought-provoking play that questions the place of refugees in British society as neighbouring towns are becoming increasingly intolerant to migrants.
“Refugee boy is showing in Leeds and I know the surrounding towns have a really high right wing movement going on. It’s exactly the same thing that the Caribbean and Asian older generation fought against in the Seventies and Eighties, only it was the National Front then. We will only get better if we look at what is not good enough and mend it.”
No one could ever accuse Zephaniah of not exploring the pertinent issues of race, in Refugee boy, the main character, Alem, has left a war-torn country only to be abandoned in Berkshire by his father, a story that is almost identical to Sissay’s.
“The first time I was approached to do this project was eight years ago by the literary manager of the West Yorkshire Play house, and she said that Benjamin would like me to direct his play. I knew I was made for it, it is a great job, it’s the kind of thing I love doing. My parents are both from Eritrea and Ethiopia, I was brought to Britain and left here and I am a writer - there are so many resonances with the main character that reflects strongly with my own story.”
He added: “Plus it’s a very successful book, it has integrity and wit and so it was quite a big deal for me to translate that into magic on stage and it’s a total honour. I think of Benjamin as one of the most famous living poets in Britain, if not the most, and as a black man that is a really big deal. What Lenny Henry did in comedy, Benjamin did in poetry and is still doing. He still sells out theatres and I think he is quite an incredible person.”
FROM PRESTON WITH LOVE: The Jamaica National Association of Preston
A successful poet in his own right, Sissay released his first book of poetry in 1988 at the age of 21. In 1995, he made the BBC documentary Internal Flight about his life in the care system and his 2005 drama Something Dark exploring the poet’s search for his biological family, was adapted for BBC Radio 3, winning the Race in the Media award. In 2007 he was appointed as artist-in-residence at the Southbank Centre in London, where he remains.
Still, Lancashire is where the poet’s heart is. In fact, Sissay has recently taken part in the Preston People Panorama project, which uses large-scale images shot with a panoramic lens to capture contemporary pictures of the town.
“I got involved with the Preston project because I am part of the Preston guild, an organisation that celebrates the town and its working people. It goes back hundreds of years to a time when tradesmen celebrated their trade. It’s the only guild in the country and is headed by the Queen.”
He continued: “It’s a way of being able to document the progress and industry of the town. I was commissioned to write the anthem for the guild because I am a Lancashire-bred person, brought up in a children’s home around Preston. What this project shows, is that home is who you are and you can take that anywhere. These people are photographed for who they are, they happen to be in Preston, but they are from all over the world.”
PANORAMIC PHOTOGRAPHY: Friends of the museum of Lancashire
For The Preston People Panorama is showing at the Museum of Lancashire until May 19 For more information visit,www.lancashire.gov.uk/acs/sites/museums/index.asp